Highland Games - Inside What Inspired the Modern Olympics


Recently London hosted something of an extended Sports Day, which you might have seen mentioned on TV. Anyway, in 1889 Baron Pierre de Coubertin was visiting the World’s Fair in Paris (which the Eiffel Tower was built as an entrance way to) and his attention was drawn to one of the areas which featured Highland Games from Scotland. The Baron was so impressed by the nature of the events on display that he went away and came up with the idea for the modern Olympic Games.

Highland Games are held at various locations in Scotland each summer and are a mixture of extended country show, musical competition and display (with some fabulous pipe bands performing) and athletic competition. Traditional dance features heavily and some of the larger gatherings will have clan tents. The Cowal Highland Gathering in Argyll is the largest in the world where you can take part in a ceilidh and see dancers compete for the title of World Champion.

This weekend sees the latest gathering for the Braemar games which will be attended by the Queen as she enjoys her usual summer break in Scotland. While there are a variety of events over the course of the games, it is the traditional athletic competitions which still draw the crowds in. Some of them will be familiar from modern athletic competitions (the Stone Put, Weight Throw and Hammer Throw) while others are very Scottish in nature. The Caber Toss (picture above) is chief amongst these. Quite simply, a 175 pound tree trunk (usually pine – use what you can easily get your hands on I suppose) is trimmed to a height just under 20 feet. Contestants must then carry the caber upright and flip it over 180 degrees. Distance is only one factor, the real skill is in attempting to get it to land as close to straight as possible. If you imagine the hands of a clock then the athlete is trying to get the caber to land as close to 12 o’clock as possible.

Sheaf Toss Highland Games

Seth Lemmons/Via Flickr

Personally speaking, I have always been a fan of the weight over the bar competition. The athletes attempt to toss a 56 pound weight with an attached handle over a horizontal bar using only one hand. Each athlete is allowed three attempts at each height. Successful clearance of the height allows the athlete to advance into the next round at a greater height. The competition is determined by the highest successful toss with fewest misses being used to break tie scores. Another crowd pleaser is the Sheaf toss. Quite naturally, a bundle of straw (the sheaf) weighing 20 pounds for men and 10 pounds for women, and wrapped in a burlap bag, is tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar much like that used in pole vaulting. Purists might debate whether the sheaf toss is in fact an authentic Highland event and some argue it is actually a country fair event, but it is great to watch.

One event which featured in Coubertin’s vision but was dropped from the Olympic Games after 1920 is the tug of war. Two teams of eight line up against each other and pull on a rope, attempting to drag the other team over a mark on the ground. Simple and brutal, the good Baron knew proper sporting entertainment when he saw it and this event needs to be reinstated for Rio 2016.

Which Highland Game would you like to participate in? 

(Editor’s note: Add Paul on Google+ If you have a question about for EF Tour Director Paul Mattesini, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Paul here, and he will answer readers’ questions in future blog posts.)

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