It’s a strange phenomenon, but when a group of men get together for any sort of gathering, the fugg of testosterone can often turn the most unassuming chap into a gallus, vainglorious cock (the feathered variety, you understand). And so it has been throughout history.
During medieval times, at the end of a long cattle drove, or perhaps as part of a village fair to celebrate a holy day, the men would come together and enjoy the opportunity to presumably, then as now, get a bit tipsy and display their strength and prowess to their watching pals and WAGs. Wrestling, horseracing and running were all popular ways of demonstrating bravery, agility and power.
Similarly, at the end of military muster, each Scottish clan would rally to have a wappenschaw. It was at these events that the clan warriors could really strut their stuff. Events were specifically designed to show the fighting warrior’s ability, with each contest specific to the clansman’s necessary skills in battle. Here the hulking great bears of clansmen could demonstrate their strength, while the whippet-like could excel with an exhibition of extreme speed and stamina.
A number of possible events were enjoyed by the clansman, from the lesser-known twisting-the-legs-off-a-cow to tossing of ye barr. All events had a purpose (with the possible exception of the cow event, which may have just been gratuitous), and it was this clan hoolie, or wappenschaw, that is said to be the precursor to the modern Highland Games. Being a Scottish event, alongside the various athletic endeavours, a party atmosphere would prevail with the inclusion of plenty of food, alcoholic drink, poets, bards and musicians.
Things have moved on a little, but still expect to find plenty of testosterone, whisky and steaks rolls. The Scottish Highland Games Association (SHGA) is now the governing body of Traditional Highland Games in Scotland. It represents over 60 Highland Games in Scotland with several associate members overseas. While it might not endorse pulling the legs of cattle, it does ensure that the games are run correctly, safely and to a set of standards. They even
have league tables, which perhaps the Celtic warriors also used to keep a note of their place in the clan pecking order. Or, perhaps not.
Most current events remain very close to their origins:
Tossing ye barr – tossing the caber involves tossing a tapered pole (read as tree), 15-23ft long, weighing 70-150lb. The competitor must cup the narrow end in his hands without help, stand and balance the caber, then with a small run for momentum flips it end over end. To achieve a perfect throw, if you imagine a clockface and the competitor is at 6pm, it would strike the clock at 12 o’ clock. The origins of this are not clear, but it may have been necessary to accurately toss
the cabor across a river to afford a crossing place for the army during wartime.
Putting the Stone Clachneart (Braemar Put) – this is a “best of three” event where, with the competitors toe against a wooden footplate (trig), the thrower must ‘put’ the stone, weighing approximately 25lb, from the shoulder using one hand only. The stone covering the greatest distance will win. The clachneart means stone of strength and would have been a smooth round stone selected from the riverbed. It is thought that early Highland chieftains would have such a stone at the gateway to their dwelling and visiting warriors obliged to demonstrate their strength by hurling the stone. Obviously a bottle of mead would not suffice.
Throwing the hammer – the Scottish hammer now used is an iron ball with a bamboo shaft 4ft 2ins long and weighs either 16lbs or 22lbs. The athlete stands with his back to the trig and, having swung the hammer round his head a number of times to gain sufficient momentum; he then releases the hammer as far as he can. The history of this may be with the collection of youths hanging around the local Smithy (it’s a long wait to get a horse shod) and chucking smithy hammers to kill
time and find the strongest bored youth.
Throughout the summer months, from mid May through to September there are clan gatherings and Highland Games from the Lowlands of Scotland to the farthest reaches of the Highlands. Visitors are positively encouraged to come along and savour the atmosphere and watch the events. Each event is slightly different and can range from a small local affair, a celebrity day out, to a huge tourist attraction with 10 000 visitors. Each has it’s own merits. Aside from the ‘heavy’ events, there are many other competitions, including tug o’ war, running and cycling at some Games. If you’re feeling fit you might want to enter the event in advance and relish the warrior-like camaraderie.
At any rate, the men-folk will still partake of a wee dram, parade around in their kilts and are as gallus as they ever were.