Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Monday, April 27, 2009

Guest Bloggger: Nancy Badger on Highland Games, Then and Now

Today we have a special guest author, Nancy Badger! Nancy Lee Badger is a member of RWA, Sisters-In-Crime, and Celtic Hearts. She is PRO Liaison for HCRW in Raleigh, NC. She and her husband, Richard, are long-time volunteers for NHHG, headquartered in Concord, NH. They are lifetime members of the St. Andrew’s Society of NH, and now live near family in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Here is the caption for the picture to the left: A visitor to the NH Highland Games dresses in ancient garb in contrast to this author’s son, Army Reserve Spc. Eric Badger, who chose to wear a modern kilt in the U. S. Army camo material. These men represent the highland games, then and now.

Modern Day highland games have a short history here in the United States and I have been fortunate enough to attend several over the last twenty or so years. I am also proud to be a long-time volunteer at the annual New Hampshire Highland Games, even though my husband and I moved from New Hampshire to North Carolina. We still go back each fall to help. It takes hundreds of volunteers to pull off a multi-day event attended by over 40,000 people!

The modern games incorporate so much more than athletic competition. People assume this is what is meant by the term ‘games’. They are so much more. Historically, the games came into being as a way to hone skills and build a sense of community when upheaval scarred the country. Scotland came under duress when it became illegal to bear weapons or wear ‘the plaid’ of one’s clan. Many of the athletic events require skill, stamina, or down-right determination to carry out. The use of simple tools such as stones, hammers, and even the occasion sack of hay, morphed into tremendous feats of prowess.

Take the sheaf toss, one of my favorites. Using a pitchfork, participants try to throw a sixteen pound sack of straw over a bar for height. Considering the bar gets raised again and again to well over their heads, this isn’t as easy as it looks.

The heavy hammer event introduces us to kilt-clad muscle men swinging a twenty-two pound sledge hammer around their heads while their feet stay put before giving it a gut-wrenching toss for distance. Ouch!

The most popular event is the caber toss where men, and a few women, attempt to throw a telephone pole end over end to have it fall as close to twelve o’clock on the ground as possible. They must balance it on their shoulder then run forward. Easy you say? Cabers are typically eighteen to twenty feet in length and weight over one-hundred-thirty pounds!

The kilted mile, generally open to all ages, is a popular event and some believe it came into being when clan members ran to prove the fastest, who was then chosen as the clan’s messenger during tribal wars. The only requirement during the modern day equivalent? The participant MUST wear a kilt. To see a six year old boy running his heart out in a kilt well below his knees tugs at your heart…until the men arrive. Honestly, there is something about a man in a kilt, especially when he tosses away his shirt and lets his long hair loose to fly free behind him and…oops, getting off-track.

What do the other athletic events have to do with the past? Well,

I’ve been told the hammer has the richest early history, being once called ‘casting the bar’ or ‘putting the stone’. All of the heavy events were the object of periodic royal bans as they might encourage the practice of military skills. It has been said Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) and Henry VIII (1509-1547) considered the events to be promoted as being essential training, so thinking changed now and then.

The Braemar games are said to have been derived from the contests introduced by King Malcolm Canmore in 1040 A.D. These events included a hill race, but it is uncertain whether heavy events were included. In twelfth century London, which may have influenced the nearby Scots, open spaces were provided so that the populace could practice "leaping, wrestling, casting of the stone, and playing with the ball". Unfortunately, 'The Scots Laws and Acts' of 1572 banned many sports, which were said to interfere with church attendance and archery practice.

Also, the Act of Proscription in 1746 outlawed Scottish customs, including gatherings and dress. Yes, the colorful tartans seen predominately displayed at modern games were outlawed. Happily, the act was appealed in 1782, and so began the revival of the highland games.

In 1822, things improved immensely for the games when King George IV strutted about in Edinburgh dressed in Scottish garb. This event started a fad for all things Scottish, and many of the things regarded as ‘traditional' at modern day Scottish games date from this period, including the vast majority of tartan patterns.

The wearing of kilts, kilt hose, sporrans, billowing ‘ghillie’ shirts, tams, and more (or less, if most men have their way) have become tradition. With a wool kilt made to order and costing upwards of six-hundred dollars, they are worn with pride and ceremony. My husband, Richard, looks sexy in his ‘Gunn’ tartan and will soon strut around in a new kilt, currently being hand-made in Scotland in the ‘MacBean’ colors, thanks to his wife (me!) buying a raffle ticket at a fund-raiser.

Many states, and Canadian provinces, host highland games and all are family-friendly with programs for children. Scottish dress is never required, nor do you have to be of Scottish descent. Any author contemplating writing a Scottish Historical ought to look into attending one to get the flavor and romantic vibes emanating from every clan tent, dance performance, and rock concert. Young men sporting leather vests and sassy kilts playing bagpipes and guitars? Heavenly!

Not to be missed, but that’s my opinion.


Helen Hardt said...

Great post -- I love Highland Games!


Ms. Lucy said...

This was so interesting! I love the history in this:)

Deb Marlowe said...

I agree--there is just something about a man in a kilt!

It's my goal to make it to the Grandfather Mountain Highland games in NC some day!

David said...

Very interesting post well researched.

Perhaps Nancy might care to write an article for my site at http://www.your-kilt.com

Excellent work, well done!

Kind Regards,


Pat McDermott said...

No wonder those guys have the muscles! Love the info in this article, Nancy. Thank you!

Sarah Simas said...

Awesome post, Nancy! I really enjoyed reading about the heritage of such a prestigious event.

I'm of Scottish decent, my maiden name was Armstrong, and this year will be my first time attending the Highland Games in my area of central CA.

The ladies in my crit group share more than an addiction to writing with me, we love Tempest! They are going to play at the HG this fall. I'm thrilled to go and will have notebook in hand as I'm planning a Highlander romance for my sequel.

Thank you so much!

Cheri said...

Great fun! Thanks Nancy for a great article. I've also attended the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain in NC a time or two, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. For those who aren't as inclined to enjoy athletics, the games at Grandfather include sheep herding trials, contests of Highland dancing, and torchlight ceremony the first night as all the Clans parade into the grounds. Definitely worth seeing.

Ms. K @ Write On Thyme said...

How perfect! I just attended a very casual Scottish Highland Game party in Napa this past weekend and now I get to read more about what it all means. Gotta love those men in kilts!! Thanks for the info.

Eliza Knight said...

Nancy, thank you so much for blogging with History Undressed! Amazing article and pictures!

Nicole North said...

Great post!! I'm late but wanted to say I love Highland Games!! They have inspired a couple of stories for me (and both will be released soon.) I've attended the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games a number of times and the Foothills Highland Games twice. These events are the best place for kilt-watching. ;)