Highland Games: 'Part of our heritage and culture'

Hammer throwing Hammer throwing is a popular Highland Games event

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It is Highland Games season with communities across Scotland holding their annual gatherings.

Many imagine their origins lie in a Victorian view of Scotland, but their roots go much further back, and enthusiasts say they are a window on Scottish culture, exported across the world.

"It's part of my heritage, it's part of my culture," says one woman of her local Highland Games.

Traditionally Highland Games include pipers, dancers and of course the heavy events like tossing the caber.

While there is much that is similar across the games, villages and towns hold their own particular versions.

The picturesque village of Ceres in Fife holds its gathering this weekend on the traditional site of the Bow Butts or the green in the centre of the community.

The village is celebrating a significant anniversary this year.

"The Highland Games in Ceres are the present example of a market or a fair or a celebration which has been held at midsummer every year since 1314," says the games' president, Brian Henry.

Highland dancers Highland Games bring visitors to the area and can boost the local economy

"King Robert the Bruce granted the village of Ceres a charter to hold a market or a fair at midsummer and this market or fair has been held at midsummer I'm sure in many guises."

Visitors come from the wider local area but also often from the United States, Australia, the rest of Europe and elsewhere. Local volunteers are on hand to give information about the events and competitions they are seeing.

"I've been coming to games for 35 years," says committee member, Faith Nicholson.

"It's part of my heritage, it's part of my culture and I want my children to grow up knowing exactly that as well.

"Our friends come down for the day, we meet people we went to school with, it's just such a brilliant experience. Some people don't have a clue what's going on but they don't care because the atmosphere is great, even if it's raining."

The Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen and Prince Charles at the Braemar Gathering Royal interest is thought to have contributed to the popularity of Highland Games

But where did all of this start?

"Queen Victoria was very, very important to Highland Games, perhaps the most important person of all," says David Webster, a lifelong Highland Games enthusiast who has written a number of books on the subject.

He explains that the royal interest helped the games as an event spread throughout Scotland.

But he argues that the earliest origins go back much further to Irish games which started before the ancient Olympics. By 1819 they had been formalised into something more like what we would recognise today.

"A place like Killin for example," he continues "they can get a crowd of five or six thousand, now imagine what good that can do for the local economy and that's going on all over Scotland and then we've got the big games."

He has also been keen on the idea of Highland Games spreading across the world and says that in some places in the United States and Canada events can see crowds of up to 50,000 people.

But in this country more modestly sized games are more usual.

tug of war Highland Games events in the US and Canada can attract crowds of up to 50,000 people

Charlie Murray, president of the Scottish Highland Games Association, says while there is some modernisation in terms of looking at the rules "you'll never do away with tradition".

So what does the future hold for Highland Games?

"It's had better times but it's had a lot worse times," says David Webster.

One problem he points to is just how difficult it is to get volunteers to help organise events. Planning for the next year starts almost as soon as one event is over.

"At the top of the tree the standard of piping, dancing and heavy events are better than they've ever been," he says.

"People hear bagpipes, they see kilts, they see dancers holding their hands in the air. It's a wonderful testimony to Highland Games that they've got this identity throughout the world and yet the games themselves get very, very little support and that in a changing world is not a good omen.

"I think that the Highland Games will always exist but it'll not get any easier until people open their eyes and see what a wonderful thing this is for Scotland."

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