Whilst we came to Scotland in search of soaring eagles, majestic stags and far stretching wilderness, we couldn’t not go to the Highland Games. These community run events take place from May to September and showcase the traditions that you probably most associate with Scotland, there are plenty of pipes, kilts, cabers and a little bit of whiskey thrown in as well.
The Arisaig games coincided with our work days off and they were being held on the farm of our favourite campsite right on the beautiful Traigh beach, so we loaded up the van for a looksie. It’s only a 45minute drive from where we are based on Loch Sunart and the drive along the twisting single track roads that hug lochs, forests and the open sea is possibly one of my favourite drives on the peninsula. It’s not all single track though, once you get through Glen Uigg and hit the road to Mallaig you follow the road to the Isles (the A830) until the sky and sea meet and seem to go on forever. Yes, Arisaig is busier than where we work, but it’s got wildness seeping in from the edges of the Atlantic and the views of the Isles across white sandy beaches and turquoise waters make my hairs stand on end. It is hard to believe you are in the U.K still, even on days when it’s a struggle to see through the mizzle.
Arriving at the campsite we were greeted not by sounds of waves lapping on smooth sands but by the sounds of 6 or 7 pipers practicing and tuning up. We were pitched right next to the pipe and drum band that would be ceremoniously performing at the games. The pipers practiced in full Scottish dress against a backdrop of crystal waters and voluminous inky clouds full of rain, it really was quite something to behold and a sight that I won’t forget for a long time. And, they must have been pretty good because even the dog didn’t protest, she just sat and stared out the window watching, perhaps Bill and I need to learn the pipes in our next attempt to keep her calm.
These aren’t one of the big highland games, but for a smaller event the farm was heaving. There were people piling in all over the place. It was a sea of tartan, children and dogs, and everyone was keen to get stuck into something whether it was the open races being held, fairground games or the queue for the burger van. The aroma of frying onions and hotdogs floated through the air, mixing with the chatter and laughter of visitors that rose of over the sound of the bagpipes. Families sat together on the grass around the main arena, children rummaging hands through bags of pick and mix, a group of young girls, hair piled immaculately high on their heads, were gathered springing on the spot warming up for the highland dancing. One man dressed in a kilt with a badger sporran was squeezing his way through clusters of people, pint in hand, laughing and joking with everyone he met. The heavy sky over head posed no threat to these games, or the wonderful atmosphere they had.
The first thing to catch our attention was the highland dancing, particularly the highland fling. The dancers were dressed in an array of bold colours emphasised against the darkening sky and hills behind them, emerald greens of the lush forests, vibrant purples of the heather that is just starting to appear on the hills and turquoises as bright as the west coast sea. The highland fling is said by some to be the dance of the stag, the arms held high and strong above the head, proud like antlers whilst feet tread lightly and quickly like a stag across the moor. I don’t know how they manage to stay up right, from a distance you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a lot of jumping around and twirling but that is not the case at all. Up close you can see the technicality involved, each foot is placed with poise and care. The sword dance was my favourite, two swords are paced in cross on the floor and the dancers dance in the spaces they leave, careful not to touch the blades. There have been a few mentions that the sword dance was performed the night before a battle, the chief would call upon the finest dancers of the clan to perform and if the dance was completed without the blades of the sword being touched then the next day’s battle would fall in their favour. No pressure or anything!
The heavy sports are probably what the Highland Games are best known for. Huge, tall, ridiculously strong men that can throw hammers and toss cabers as though they weighed the same as a chihuahua. I didn’t think I’d be that engrossed in it but it really is quite tense – especially the caber tossing. The caber is essentially a 6metre telegraph pole and the aim of the game is to pick it up and throw it. It only counts if it is flipped completely with the highest points going to the men that are able to land the telegraph pole (sorry caber) in a 12oclock position. Only two of the competitors managed to flip it, the rest only managed to toss it but not flip it, which in all fairness is still impressive. One bloke judged it at such an angle that when he tossed the caber it caught the ground in front of it and snapped in half like a twig. I was shocked to find the next event consisted of the men throwing a 56lb weight over a high bar. Backwards. It was enough to make your stomach twist in knots and I had to stop my hands from coming up to cover my eyes. For most of the competitors it was easy breezey with no head injuries in sight.
Amidst the highland dancers, the strong men in kilts and weights flying to the accompaniment of pipes and drums there was one thread that held all the tartan together. Community and national pride. Everyone there was supporting each other, smiling, laughing, cheering each other and revelling in their Scottish roots. It’s heart warming to see traditions so actively embraced and alive, especially in younger generations. Back home in the U.K. at the smaller country fetes the tradition is limited to a bit of Morris dancing or dancing around a May pole, there are definitely only a very small number of young people keen to keep the traditions alive. No teenager back home is racing to do some traditional dancing to a trad band, or weave brightly coloured ribbons round a pole. It was refreshing to see a community of people so in touch with their roots. Not only is the Scottish pride admirable but also infectious, it was difficult to stop the hairs on my neck standing on end as the pipes and drums strode passed against a back drop of dramatic hills bathed in that unmistakable Scottish light.