What Are Highland Games?
Your Guide to Traditional Scottish Festivals
For many highland dancers, Highland Games season is the highlight of the year. And we’re not the only ones!
Highland Games have something for everyone – from food, to music, to throwing around big rocks!
Steeped in Tradition
Highland Games are traditional Scottish events that combine athletic competitions, cultural activities, and community gatherings. These games originated in Scotland and have since spread to other parts of the world with Scottish heritage.
The games typically take place on a single day or span over a weekend, attracting both participants and spectators from various backgrounds.
What Events Happen at Highland Games?
While each Games is different, there are a few key components that can be found at most events.
Traditional Scottish Sports
One of the most entertaining events for spectators to enjoy is the various sports. Watching the tug-of-war competition at the Antigonish Highland Games never fails to entertain!
In addition to tug-of-war, the heavy weight events are sure to amaze. Caber toss (the one where they essentially try and flip a telephone pole), stone put (similar to shot put), hammer toss, weight over the bar (throwing a big weight over a raised bar), and others showcase athletic feats you can’t find anywhere else.
Pipeband competitions held at Highland Games are a highly anticipated aspect of the festivities. Pipebands consist of pipers and drummers playing snare drums, bass drums, and tenor drums. These competitions showcase the skill, precision, and musicality of these talented musicians and provide a captivating experience for spectators.
Pipeband competitions are often organized into different grades or divisions, ranging from Grade 1 (the highest level of competition) to Grade 5 (beginner or developing bands). Bands are judged based on their performance, musicality, technique, and overall presentation within their respective grade.
Highland Games typically include massed pipeband performances, where multiple bands come together to perform as a collective unit. These awe-inspiring displays create a powerful and resonating sound, immersing the audience in the grandeur of Scottish music and culture.
In addition to pipebands, Highland Games usually include other musical performances, typically at the beer tent. These can range from traditional folk music, to Celtic bands with a modern twist!
Traditional Scottish cuisine is often included in Highland Games. Attendees can sample a variety of Scottish dishes, such as haggis (a savoury pudding made from sheep’s offal), Scotch eggs, meat pies, and shortbread cookies. Beverages like Scottish ale and whisky are also commonly available.
In addition to the traditional food options, Highland Games typically host local food vendors and food trucks with everything from frozen treats to keep cool in the summer, to burgers and fries.
Traditional Cultural Activities
Highland Games often feature exhibitions and displays that celebrate Scottish heritage and culture. This may include clan tents, where attendees can learn about their Scottish ancestry, as well as demonstrations of traditional crafts, such as weaving or blacksmithing.
Most Highland Games include some activities specifically geared towards children, such as face painting, games, free demonstrations, crafts, and more!
And Our Favourite... Dance
As highland dancers, we typically find ourselves at Games to participate or view the dance events. Most highland games include a highland dance competition, and some include extra performance events and opportunities.
Highland dance competitions at Games typically offer dancers an opportunity to dance in either pouring rain or 30 degree heat. Competing in extreme weather puts dancers and their stamina to the test!
To find Games hosting dance competitions, be sure to check out ScotDance Canada’s events list.
In addition to competition, many Highland Games offer opportunities to perform at ceilidhs, in beer tents, and other local venues celebrating the Games.
Our Favourite Highland Games
As highland dancers, we’ve seen our fair share of Games. The joy of Highland Games presents the opportunity for performers, competitors, and spectators to travel and explore the diverse celebrations of Scottish culture throughout the world.
Here’s just a few of our favourite Games to attend – both as dancers and Games lovers!
Glengarry Highland Games – Maxville, Ontario
The Glengarry Highland Games typically offer a Championship and Premiership as well as Pre-Premier highland dance competitions, allowing it to attract competitive dancers of all levels. A highlight of these games is definitely their impressive massed bands performance(s), which take advantage of the many impressive competitive bands attending, and their Games grounds with grandstand seating!
New Hampshire Highland Games – Loon Mountain, USA
There’s nothing quite like enjoying a Highland Games in the crisp autumn mountain air! The scenery offered at the Loon Mountain Resort, where the New Hampshire Highland Games are hosted, is simply unforgettable.
Cowal Highland Gathering – Dunoon, Scotland
For highland dancers, the Cowal Highland Gathering is a highly anticipated event each year. Cowal hosts the World Highland Dancing Championships, attracting the most impressive competitors from around the globe. The skill presented at the qualifying and final events is sure to amaze – even for spectators without dance knowledge.
Antigonish Highland Games – Nova Scotia
In the maritimes, the Antigonish Highland Games stand out as a favourite. These Games are over 150 years old, celebrating a stronghold of Scottish culture in Nova Scotia.
New Brunswick Highland Games
Coming up at the end of July is a Highland Games very close to our hearts – the New Brunswick Highland Games.
Held each year on the grounds of the historic Old Government House in Fredericton, NB Highland Games holds many positive memories for Saorsa Studio dancers and instructors.
This year, the New Brunswick Highland Games will be celebrating their 40th year! Be sure to check it out July 28th-30th, 2023.
Fun fact: The first thing you see when you visit their website is Saorsa Studio’s owner, Nicole, and manager, Kate, dancing barefoot at the end of the 2022 NBHG ceilidh!
Get out and Enjoy the Games!
Whether you’re a highland dancer, you’re connected to your Scottish ancestry, or you’re hearing of Highland Games for the first time, you’re sure to find joy in attending a Highland Games. There’s something for everyone!