King Malcolm III, called Canmore, needed a new foot messenger. In those days, having a good foot messenger was essential for a king, as letters were the only way of getting things done. A good foot messenger needed to be quick, but also agile. He needed to be able to sprint, but also run a marathon. Able to run like crazy, but also get up and do it again the next day.
How else would you find such a person but organize a foot race up a mountain? Good King Malcolm did just that. And in that moment, the idea of the Highland Games was born.
To this day, people of Scottish descent from all over the world come together in the summer months to participate in the great and dignified competitions of strength and endurance that comprise the Highland Games.
Just kidding. They play bagpipes and throw absurd things.
Last weekend, I attended my first ever Highland Games event at North Berwick, just outside of Edinburgh. We were lucky enough to have Scotland’s one day of summer on Saturday – it was nice of them to schedule it that way, I thought.
As soon as I walked through the gate, I realized that I was at a carnival, not a sports event. A large playing field had been blocked off, and all the way around it was a line of ice cream trucks, Pimm’s-mobiles, sandwich wagons, and fudge peddlers. Away in one corner was even a ride for the kids – strategically located next to the beer tent, where the parents could go hide for the 45 seconds the kids were on the ride.
All the action took place in the playing field, which was further divided into four quarters. In two quarters, bagpipe bands showed their stuff, marching and playing in time and generally giving the impression of a dueling bagpipes contest. In one corner, the single most intense game of tug-o-war I’ve even seen took place – so intense that it was five solid minutes of zero movement. In the last corner, there were people throwing things.
I’m not gonna lie, this was my main reason for going. You always hear that crazy Scots toss logs about for fun, and I wanted to witness it. As it turns out, the caber toss (that’s its real name) is an actual sport. In fact, it’s one of several tossing events. The day started with the men throwing a hammer, trying to get it as far as they could. Then, there was the shot put. Following that, the men tried to throw a rather large rock as far as they could. Then they tried to throw the rock as high as they could. After making us wait all afternoon, they finally got around to tossing logs.
The point of the caber toss is to throw the log as high as you can and make it flip end over end before it lands. There was an added element of excitement on Saturday, courtesy of Mother Nature. Right as the caber toss was starting up, the wind picked up. As the announcer informed us spectators, that made the whole endeavor much more difficult. He used as his example the poor American contestant who couldn’t even pick the caber up in the wind.
The Highland Games take place every year, usually in late summer, and there are events all over Scotland. Every one differs in size and scale, but they’re all festive and enthusiastic (even the ones in the Lowlands). Just be ready for anything. With that many things flying about, anything can happen.
Read more about the Highland Games here.