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Our Highland Games

Kaitlin Dryburgh

As we break into the nicer weather and us Scots start to venture out in the longer days we look to the summer and start to fill our weekends up. A mass of festivals and events have started their promo, and tickets are up for sale. Vying for attention and most importantly sales are the many highland games scattered all around Scotland. They’ve been a fixture of Scottish summertime for hundreds of years and are still able to pack in a crowd, but how will they face up against dwindling funding?

I was a highland dancer who competed at several games, so I look back fondly on the atmosphere and fun that I’ve had. Even on the one occasion when the rain poured onto the poorly sheltered stage which just so happened to be at an almost 30-degree angle, becoming somewhat of a death trap. No one really caring how they placed that day more that they didn’t hobble away destined for a plaster-cast. At the Lonach Highland Games my dad managed to get my picture taken with Billy Connolly, which as a kid I really didn’t comprehend how cool that was.

Like many people I watched the strongmen as they caber tossed, tucked into a venison burger while cheering on the tug-o-war, and appreciated the skills and lunges of the pipe bands. I was dragged by my mum to look at the stalls, sometimes in the rain, in the hope that at the end of it I might get some fudge.

They’re a personification of traditional culture, and a vehicle for a different type of sport that has been exported all over the world (the current highland games world champion is a Canadian). Pipe bands, food, music and dancing all add to the fun of the weekend. For larger games like the Braemar Gathering they are able to attract visitors from all over the world. However, smaller games organised by locals are a highlight in the community calendar.

Highland Games are mentioned as far back as the 11th century during the reign of Malcolm III, with the first free games were established roughly in 1314. They ceased to exist through the Act of Proscription which deemed tartan wearing and pipe playing punishable by death. But it was after the Act was abolished around 1781 that the games that we see today were finally formed in Falkirk.

With the worldly movements of Scots came the expansion of the Highland Games. The 19th century saw games spring up all overt the world, USA, South America, and Asia, after all the world championships have often been won by a non-Scot.

Yet there are hard times ahead. It’s a re-occurring story but funding cuts for events and festivals are also impacting upon Highland Games. Loch Lomond’s games have been cancelled this year due to funding gaps at the local council. The event that attracts around 9,000 visitors every year will not go ahead in 2024.

Even more significantly though the Cupar Highland Games dating back to 1886 has been completely disbanded. Despite an appeal for fresh volunteers and organisers last year there hasn’t been enough experienced individuals to carry the games forward. So as of now the games will cease to exist. It was an event that drew large crowds and pre-covid had individuals travelling from all over the world to attend and compete. Funding cuts are of course a real pitfall for events like this but unfortunately funding or not there needs to be a substantial amount of volunteers to run these events. Even then the cost of equipment and the hiring of professionals who are required has increased in recent years, it means organisers are having to intently fundraise in a cost-of-living crisis.

Although the collapse of the Cupar games and its committee was a blow to many there is some hope that other games will stay strong and be able to attract new crowds with new and incising programmes. The Inverkeithing Highland Games have announced that despite the struggle of many other events they have managed to navigate the tricky council funding cuts with a committee working hard to fundraise all year long. They’re expecting their thousands of visitors to enjoy the usual heavyweight expose, but now with an equivalent women’s competition. Sports-wise they also boast athletics racing and track cycling around their red ash track. Lastly one of their most popular draws remain the single piper competition which has come to be a crowd favourite in recent years.

Some games are even being resurrected. News hit headlines that after a national appeal a trophy belonging to the once disbanded Cabrach games and picnic in Moray had been found in Devon having been missing for 90 years. Having run annually from 1887 to 1935 the games were started back up in 2022, but the organisers had been trying to find the location of the Rose Bowl ever since. Having been safely returned the silverware will once again be awarded to the top performer. But even Cabrach have offered something new by letting visitors take part in the Highland Games.

So do Highland Games represent a relic of the past, or are they a continuation of traditions we love, and above all else a fun day. Like many other countries should we be trying to move away from the stereotypes and present a bit more of a modern and robust image. Would this also help them to survive? New York recently celebrated ‘Tartan Day’, a display of bright tartan that never really existed, a shortbread tower in the shape of the Empire State Building, and actors resembling Braveheart. It’s a very narrow view of Scotland and its culture, we are more than a poor accent delivered by Mel Gibson. Of course this doesn’t stem from the tradition of Highland Games and nor should it mean we shouldn’t continue to enjoy them. But perhaps that in order to ensure they will still be here in many years to come we need to both celebrate this long rooted tradition and diversify in order to keep fundraising efforts high and people and communities engaged.

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