The competitors in highland games carry out traditions dating back to the eleventh century and perhaps even earlier. They were originally men who participated in acts showing off their manhood, using items that were found commonly in the Scottish Highlands, such as stones or logs. The Braemar Gathering claims to be the first recorded Highland Games. King Malcolm tested the athletes in a hill race in order to choose a messenger who was not only physically fit, but also quick. Thus the Highland Games were born, and other events were added throughout time as tests of the athletes’ strength and speed. The first formally organized and annual gathering dates back to around 1820.

Scottish Societies also sprung up around the United States in the 1820s. The first to hold Highland Games in the US held them in 1836. The members, mostly immigrants, competed in the sports to remind them of their native land and customs.


The best stones used by stone-putters are untouched by tools. They are found naturally in the bottom of rivers, worn smooth over time by the water. Early athletes used these smooth, round stones in their competitions. The stone-putters can practice their sport practically anywhere at little or no cost, because the only things they need are stones and ground. This made the sport easily accessible throughout Scotland, and was often practiced in farmyards and villages. Inferences to stone-putters can be seen throughout Scottish history, beginning with the ‘stone of strength,’ which was placed at highland chieftains’ entrances. The ‘Stone of Strength’ was the earlier version of putting the stone. Later, the ‘Manhood Stone’ was placed at the entrances to homes. A visitor who could lift this stone onto another stone about three or four feet high was assured hospitality and a good welcome.

The distances thrown by stone-putters at early gatherings were much longer than the distances thrown today. It is not because they were stronger or more skilled, but the techniques and rules differed in the earliest Highland Gatherings. Depending on where an athlete competed, they would use different sizes, shapes and weights of stones. Larger athletes, as well as inexperienced stone-putters may power their throws mainly with their arm and shoulder, while connoisseurs of the sport have developed techniques involving many more muscles in their bodies. These strategies allow them to throw longer distances.

Caber Tossers
Participants in the Caber toss must be strong. Dealing with bruises, splinters, possibly snapped tendons, professional caber tossers travel throughout the world to compete in the tough sport. They clutch 16 to 20-foot logs weighing around 120 lbs (the caber is this roughly trimmed tree trunk) and toss them end-over-end. The man who can toss the caber in a straightest line—that is, the closest to 12 o’clock—is the winner. This is known as “pulling a nooner”. The longer the caber, the more difficult to flip it over There is an old saying that says “the desire for strength is greatest where manliness is strongest.” This is suggested as part of the original motivation for caber tossing. In fact, the highland sports are tests of strength, and originally, manliness.

Hammer Throwers
When preparing for a throw, Hammer Throwers use Venice Turpentine in order to maintain a firm grasp on the handle of the hammer. Venice Turpentine was one of the ingredients used to make sealing wax in medieval times. It is a sticky, pale green liquid that comes from Larches. Hammer Throwers must be not only strong, but must have a good sense of timing and speed. Depending on their preference and technique, competitors are more successful with either more or less flexible shafts on the hammer. Also, early in the history of the sport, different athletes attained longer distances by using a turning style. This was banned soon after its introduction because it was considered to be cheating by officiators in Scotland. Hammer throwers were banned from practicing their sport in the early 1300s by King Edward II. However, this rule was soon avoided and forgotten as athletes began practicing it again. It became popular throughout the Highlands as a test of an athlete’s strength and skill.

Weight Throwers
Weight throwers are also famous for their strength, speed and overall athletic ability. The timing is also of great importance, because only a burst of energy at the right moment can produce an effectively lengthy throw. The weights are thrown with one hand only, and are either 28 or 56 pounds at U.S. games. They use Venice Turpentine or resin to attain a tight grip on the weight, but actual strength of their grip is most important. Often these athletes prepare by lifting weights. Originally, there was no grip or chain on the weights, which was problematic and uncomfortable for the athletes. Also, they were not allowed to move their feet when preparing to swing. In the later 1800s a half-turn as well as a chain attached to the weight was added to the sport. Even later an entire turn was allowed, and then a small run was allowed. Because of this, the early throwers did not attain distances which would be competitive today. Today athletes in this sport can be found mainly in Scotland, America, and Canada.

Sheaf Tossers
Sheaf tossers toss a straw-filled sack over a crossbar, using a three-pronged pitchfork to hoist it over the bar. These sheaves are 16 pounds, and it is quite difficult for athletes to hurl them straight up and over the crossbar. It takes strength and good technique, although athletes are not restricted to tossing the sheaf with any one method. Not only do athletes work out by lifting weights, but they also use special equipment to learn how to do the sheaf toss. The sheaf toss, while highly popular among spectators, is often not included in Canada, unlike the United States. In Scotland, it is often not included as a heavy event. In fact, in Scotland it is known as a farming sport. Because of this, there are athletes around the world who would like to see the sheaf toss taken out of Highland Games heavy event programs.

Children in the Highland Games
Often, children are allowed to compete in smaller, less competitive games at Highland Gatherings. These are not watched by spectators, but mostly for the entertainment of the children.

Women in the Highland Games
Though originally a sport exclusively for men, women have started playing a greater role in Highland Games competitions. In Scotland, the ratio is now closer to 60-40, more men than women, but women are quickly gaining ground.