Think of Scotland and you probably conjure images of kilts, bagpipes and stunning landscapes. Well, we found the perfect way of experiencing all three in one day – attend a Highland Games! From May to September, over 60 Highland Games & Gatherings are held every weekend throughout the country, and we decided to attend the Lonach Gathering. This event is held in August in the small village of Bellabeg, Aberdeenshire, just a stone’s throw from the beautiful Royal Deeside.
What happens at a Highland Games, we hear you ask? These festivals are a chance for athletes to compete in traditional Scottish sports, and for pipers and dancers to face off in competition, all of which gives the crowds that attend great entertainment. At the Lonach Gathering, we were among around 7,500 spectators, which is perhaps a medium sized games. The Cowal Games being the largest in Scotland, with around 23,000 attendees and the largest in the world is held by The Caledonian Club in San Francisco, which attracts more than 50,000 visitors!
The 177th Lonach Gathering
This was the 177th Lonach Gathering, but highland games have been held for many centuries throughout Scotland. Indeed, they may originate as far back at the 11th century, when King Malcolm III called participants for a race to the top of Craig Choinnich, near Braemar, hoping to find the fastest runner of the country that would become his personal courier.
“Scotland’s Friendliest Games”, as the Lonach Gathering is known, was founded in 1823 by Sir Charles Forbes, 1st Baronet of Newe and Edinglassie. The society which was established to run the games had the original mission of preserving Highland dress and “supporting loyal, peaceful, and manly conduct; and the promotion of social and benevolent feelings among the inhabitants of the district.” After attending the Gathering, we think that they have done a great job in sustaining the tradition.
The unique feature of the Lonach Gathering is the march of the spearmen. These local Highlanders, from the surrounding area of Strathdon, march the Bellabeg vicinity from 8am till lunch time, dressed in full kilt attire, carrying their spears. The highlight of the Gathering is when the spearmen march round the arena on two occasions during the afternoon. Both times, they are followed by Massed Pipe Bands. Most of the spearmen are from the Forbes clan, although there is a section for the Wallace and Gordon clans as well, each with their own tartan.
We arrived at the Gathering from Aberdeen just as the festivities were starting. Whichever route you take from Aberdeen – along Royal Deeside or Donside – the landscape is stunning, with the car journey taking almost an hour and half. Bellabeg is quite isolated, so a car is essential. Parking takes the form of several large fields, and we found them to be well maintained and marshaled.
The Heavy Events
Throughout the afternoon, we spent some time watching the various events taking place in the arena. The Gathering’s heavy events including the Shot Put, Hammer Throwing (the metal ball is attached to a wooden pole), Weight For Distance (throwing a metal ball and chain), and Weight For Height (throwing a metal weight up over a horizontal pole).
Perhaps the most iconic heavy event, however, is the Tossing the Caber. Here the strongman lifts a long log of Scots Pine, then, after a short run, attempts to throw the log in the air, end over end, so that it lands in the 12 o’clock position. Amazingly, we saw several competitors complete a full toss.
The Light Events
In between times, there was also the light events to keep the crowd entertained - long race; high jump; short race; long jump; hop, step and leap; ¼ mile race; hill race. There was also a Tug O’War competition, as well as sporting events for children. These events even included Pillow Fighting, with the 12 years or over category being won by a young Polish lad, demonstrating how multi-national the competitors are! We were very impressed by all of their efforts.
We weren’t the only ones that have admired the sporting prowess of competitors. Did you know that Baron de Coubertin, the organiser of the modern Olympic movement, was so impressed by the heavy events he saw in Scotland that he added 3 parts to 'his' Olympic Games? Two of them are still on the program: shot put and hammering. The missing third event being the Tug O’War.
Bagpipes and Dance
Music and dance form an important part of the games, indeed, it is hard to avoid the sound of bagpipes throughout the whole afternoon. It is thought that these competitions were very significant for the Clan chiefs who presided over the early Highland Games, as it allowed them to select the very best pipers and dancers to be part of the household, providing the very best entertainment during special events.
As well as the competitions, we found that the Gathering had plenty to entertain us. There were amusement rides for the children; stalls run by local businesses and charities, including ample opportunity to try samples of Scottish whisky, gin and ale; and of course, there was a well-stocked beer tent!
All in all, we found that we had a packed and enjoyable afternoon and spent the journey home plotting which Highland Games to visit next!
Join us next time when our family adventures take us on a hunt for the Scottish Crown Jewels!
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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