Sneak Away for a Wild Celtic Fling at Scottish Highland Games

The Paralympics just wrapped up London's golden sporting season, but athletic feats are still going strong in the UK. Highland Games run through much of the year, celebrating Scottish and Celtic heritage.

Even Disney-Pixar got into the spirit with its 2012 animated film "Brave," which follows the plucky Princess Merida, a skilled archer, as she tries to lift a curse. (Incidentally, this is Pixar's first period piece and features its first female protagonist — which makes the movie a fitting tribute to the Scots, who are known for history, ingenuity and innovation.)

Dating back to the 11th century, the games began as strength tests for troops. The Heavy Events — shot put, hammer throw and "Maide Leisg," where two seated athletes wrestle over a stick — still reflect this. Most dramatic among them is the caber toss: Contestants heave 21-foot chunks of wood that look not unlike tapered telephone poles. A bonny effort spins the caber end-over-end and lands it at 12 o'clock.

Competitive dancing, drumming and bagpiping are no less serious. Most Highland Games also weave in lighter-hearted matches like tug-of-war. And, of course, haggis gets a star turn. Scots hurl this traditional dish — a savory pudding of oats, onions and organs, stuffed in a sheep's paunch — from a platform (usually a whiskey barrel).

Legend traces haggis hurling back to the peat bogs of yore. Blocked by streams and marshy ground, women would lob lunch at their fellas, who would either catch the grub in their kilts or spice their meals with dirt. But cooler heads report it dates to a 1977 practical joke that raised funds for charity. Either way, the world record stands at 217 feet.

Games around the globe

Scots have taken the party worldwide, from Snefjørd, Norway, to Dunedin, New Zealand. Some French versions even toss giant champagne corks instead of cabers.

Americans kick up their heels in earnest. The country stages dozens of games, but those at North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain weigh in as one of the planet's largest Highland Games events. The gathering attracts around 40,000 visitors to the Appalachians each July.

Ashley Armbruster — an occupational therapy graduate student from Panama City, Florida — grew up dancing at games around the South. "My mom and I always frequented the booths with the Scottish eggs and shortbread cookies," she recalled. "And we'd usually attend the ceilidh (big party) afterward."

The gatherings brought her close to her roots, she said. "It's such a proud and loud culture, you can't help but want to be a part of it. But you can usually tell commercial plaid from a meaningful family tartan. A true Scot will light up when you talk about their heritage."

The high road to Scotland
Armbruster hopes to one day experience the real McCoy (or "MacKay," as the Scots would have it) in the old world. "Any country that enjoys dancing, good beer, and bizarre fried food is a definite interest of mine."

Here are some gatherings she — or any fan of sports or Scotland — should consider adding to the calendar.

The auldest: The June celebration in Ceres, Fife, originated in 1314 with Robert the Bruce, who led Scotland in its struggle to shuck off English rule.

The poshest: Braemar Gathering regularly attracts Britain's bluebloods, since Her Majesty is patron of those games. This September, Prince Philip kilted up for the event, despite having endured three hospital visits in the last eight months. The Queen sat beside her 91-year-old duke, laughing and applauding at the sack race just a short distance from Aberdeenshire's Balmoral Castle, where the royals often spend summer holidays.

The best place to feel your oats: Fife's Cupar Highland Games set a world record for the largest porridge bowl in July 2010. Firefighters pumped their truck tanks to soak Scott's Porage Oats into 1,521 pounds of breakfast — enough to serve 2,000 people. "We put Cupar back on the map," the event's chairman at the time, Craig Manson, told the BBC. (Unfortunately, the next year, a 1,905-pound bowl of Russian gruel, cooked over an open birch-tree fire, took the title.)

The next up—Pipes will skirl on September 15 at the Invercharron gathering in Bonar Bridge, traditionally the UK's final games of the year.

by Amanda Castleman

Top: Highland Games challenges include "putting the weight," as shown here at the Braemar Games. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)