Sunday, February 14, 2016

Olympics: The Scottish Highland Games

The origin of the Highland Games predates recorded history. It is known King Malcolm III (1031-1093) summoned contestants to the the Braes O' Mar (Braemar) for a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich. He was determined to find the fittest soldiers and fastest runners to serve. This event, the ‘gille-ruith’ or running footmen, may have been the origin of the highland games. It is possible the King's wife, Margaret, a well educated woman, had read about the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece.

In their original form the Highland games revolved around athletic and sports competitions and invariably involved chieftains who were often very athletic. These popular events were not always restricted to the Highlands with games known to be held in the village of Ceres (Fife) shortly after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The games were decreed by King Robert the Bruce as a celebration of Fife villagers who had returned from the battle field and have been have been held annually ever since. The Ceres Games are the oldest free games in Scotland.

The modern Highland Games are largely a Victorian invention developed after the Highland Clearances during the 18th and 19th centuries. The current Braemar Gathering and Highland Games started in 1816 when the Braemar Wright's Friendly Society was formed. The 'athletics' competition was held under the auspices of the society for the first time on 23rd August 1832. Queen Victoria attended her first Braemar Games in 1848 and soon after became the Patron. During Queen Victoria's reign the Gathering was attended by three neighbouring clans, representing the three large estates, the Balmoral Highlanders, Duff Highlanders (from Mar Estate) and the Farqharsons from Invercauld Estate. (Other Highlanders such as the Forbes and Lonach Highlanders sometimes took part.) Apart from athletic events the games include 'tossing the caber', 'putting the stone' and 'throwing the hammer'. The tug of war competition was always a great favourite.

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin (a close friend of Prince Albert) saw a display of Highland games at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 he was inspired to plan the revival of the Olympic Games. Today the Cowal Highland Gathering, better known as the Cowal Games, held in Dunoon, Scotland, every August, is the largest Highland games in Scotland attracting around 3,500 competitors and somewhere in the region of 23,000 spectators from around the globe.

In 1781 sports gatherings had become very popular in many lowland towns. To make competition more fierce rules were standardized and sanctioning bodies formed to develop uniform rules and maintain records. As Scots immigrated to far-flung lands they took their sport and culture with them. By the late 19th century athletic clubs had formed within many University and Private Schools in Commonwealth Countries. Initially known the Scottish Games abroad these became integrated into the bludgeoning popularity of physical culture. The Highland Games remained the primary focus of ex-pats and some of the biggest Highland Games in the world today are held in the US.

In the early days the Scots were famous for distance runners but by far the best known athlete Scotland ever produced was Eric Henry Liddell (1902 –1945), better known as The Flying Scotsman. He won gold in the men’s 400 metres 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. More famously he refused to run in the 4 x 400metre relay on the Sunday because of his devout Christian beliefs. His performance in the 400 metres however stood as a European record for 12 years.

The Commonwealth Games (the Friendly Games) were first held in 1930 in Hamilton, Canada where 11 countries sent 400 athletes to take part in six sports and 59 events. Since then, the Games have been held every four years (except for 1942 and 1946). Originally from 1930 to 1950 the Games were known as the British Empire Games and from 1954 until 1966 they were called the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Later, from 1970 until 1974, they took the title of the British Commonwealth Games. Finally, at the 1978 Games in Edmonton, Canada this multi-sport event change its name to the Commonwealth Games. Edinburgh has hosted the Games in 1970 and 1986. Glasgow will host the XX Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Reviewed 14/02/2016

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