On the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a key event that began the French Revolution that has graced our history textbooks since, in 1889, Paris played host to the Exposition Universelle. Many things were to come of it, as did from its cousin in America, the Columbia World Exposition. One of these things was the modern Olympic Games, revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
The display of strength and skill that has been apocryphally ascribed to have influenced de Coubertin to this end were the Highland Games at the event. This collection of games and other paraphernalia honoring the Scots and the Celts dates back much further, to the eighteenth or the eleventh century, depending on the fastidiousness of the observer.
However, the modern shape of the Highland Games was laid down, like so many other things, in the Victorian Era, developed after the Highland Clearances.
Quite a range of events and practices are associated with the Highland games, which have gone on to become emblematic of Scotland as a whole, such as the kilt, the bagpipes, and the inimitable caber toss.
Although a host of events make up the games, it is widely accepted that the athletics make it what it is. And they include a range that have become standard over time and are wholly unique.
The caber toss, perhaps the most widely known of the Games’ events, involves lifting a heavy log upright, and then essentially, tossing it end over end. The judgement of skill however, is not on how far the log goes, but rather on the direction in which it lands. An imaginary clock is drawn along the original orientation of the log, and the 12 ‘0’ clock position is judged to be the best toss.
Then of course, we have the rustic counterparts of modern events such as the stone put for the shot put, and the Scottish hammer throw to the more generic hammer throw. There are also a couple of points of contention as to what constitutes an actual Highland Game, such as in the case of the Sheaf toss, wherein a bundle of straw is chucked clear over a bar in increasing heights until a winner can be determined. Some authorities consider it to be a country fair game rather than an event, although it is universally agreed that it is spectacularly brilliant to watch nevertheless.
Ancient feats of strength have also made it forward, such as the Maide Leisg, where two men sit on the ground with their soles touching, and then pull on a communally held stick until one of them is raised bodily from the ground.
It is not just the athletics that provide entertainment at the games. Indeed, the most memorable of events there is often the massing of the pipe bands, normally held in conjunction with the opening and closing of the games. At the massing, twenty or more bands play together thunderously capturing the spirit of the event in grand fashion.
A wide assortment of secondary attractions also make themselves known at the fairs, such as the clan meets, the armories, bunches of Scottish memorabilia, various traditional and modern Celtic arts and even dog trials and exhibitions.
The Games are not just limited to Scotland. While the oldest and royally attended ones may still be the Scottish versions, the most widely attended ones are now increasingly the ones seen in the States with San Franciscan Caledonian Clubs’ Sesquicentennial Games gathering a crowd of nearly fifty thousand spectators. Thus, the legacy of times long past, moves into the future.