Braemar Highland Gathering

Braemar Highland Gathering

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: First Saturday in September
Where Celebrated: Braemar, Scotland
Symbols and Customs: Tartan, Tossing the Caber


The Highland Games at Braemar date back to the eleventh century, when King Malcolm (1058-1093) held a gathering of the Scottish clans at the Braes (brae means hillside) of Mar to compete in running races. The fastest runners were then chosen to carry messages for the king throughout Scotland-a kind of primitive postal service. The first race was to the top of Craig Choinnich, a hill that overlooked Braemar.

For thousands of years, Braemar had been a gathering place; it was located in the heart of Scotland's largest deer forest and had always been a favorite among kings and nobles who enjoyed hunting. It was also a place of great strategic importance for the Scottish Highlands, which is what the hilly northern part of the country was called. The Highlanders formed clans that were widely regarded as primitive and violent, and their way of life was very different from that of the British-dominated regions to the south. Feuds between clans were common and often passed down from one generation to the next. In other words, competition among them was fierce, and they welcomed the opportunity to engage in contests that would show their superior strength and endurance.

These annual gatherings were formalized under the sponsorship of the Braemar Highland Society, founded in 1817. Although it had originated as a kind of trade union and social organization providing assistance to the sick and the elderly, by 1826 the society was also concerned with preserving the Highlands' unique form of dress, language, and culture. The society's annual gathering began to feature athletic contests, similar to those that had been held in King Malcolm's time, and the wearing of the kilt (see TARTAN ). Several times during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria invited society members to hold their gatherings on her estate at Balmoral. The queen's patronage was reflected in the organization's name, which by 1866 had been changed to the Braemar Royal Highland Society.

By 1904, "Highland gatherings" or "Highland games" were being held in more than fifteen locations throughout Scotland, and Scottish emigrants to North America had established similar events throughout Canada and the United States. In fact, Highland games have taken place in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Newark, New Jersey, since the end of the nineteenth century. These gatherings typically feature dancing to traditional Scottish reels, bagpipe music, and such athletic events as throwing the hammer, putting (hurling) the stone, TOSSING THE CABER , and hill races.



Highlanders had a unique way of dressing as far back as the eighteenth century. They wore a mantle-a length of tartan (or plaid) cloth wrapped around the shoulders and tied around the waist to form a sort of skirt or "kilt" which made them look very wild and primitive. While the wearing of tartan originally symbolized a way of life known only to Highlanders, specific tartan colors and patterns eventually came to be associated with certain families or clans.

Today, many of these tartans have been reproduced and made into kilts, caps, shawls, and scarves. In fact, tartan has become a symbol for Scotland as a whole, and it can be seen on everything from whiskey bottles and tins of shortbread to Scottish tourist brochures. The typical Highlander no longer walks around in kilts, scarves, or other tartan clothing, although such costumes can occasionally be seen during the Highland Games.

Tossing the Caber

The event that is usually considered the highlight at Braemar and other Highland gatherings is called tossing the caber. It is one of the world's oldest sports, and it can be traced back to the eleventh century, when men hoisting beams to build houses often got bored and decided to see who could toss his the farthest. In the days when King Henry VIII of England practiced it, this sport was known as "Ye Casting of Ye Bar."

A typical caber is 19 feet long and weighs about 150 pounds. The thrower stands with his legs apart and the caber vertical, holding it near the bottom with clasped hands that have been coated with sticky resin. The actual lifting is done with the palms, and once the caber has been lifted waist-high, it is tilted slightly forward and the competitor begins to run. He must accelerate before planting his legs, or he'll never be able to toss the caber on the run. Ideally, it should turn end-over-end as it moves through the air, but in fact, this is a rare achievement. A "12 o'clock," which is similar to hitting a home run in baseball, occurs when the caber lands directly in front of the thrower, who is standing in the six o'clock position on the face of an imaginary clock.

Competitors always wear kilts, although the sport is increasingly popular among non-Scots. Tossing the caber has been an international event since the early 1980s; in recent years, famous caber tossers have come from Scandinavia, Australia, the United States, Canada, and even Nigeria.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Jarvie, Grant. Highland Games: The Making of the Myth. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Braemar Royal Highland Society
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Braemar Highland Gathering

First Saturday in September
In the 11th century, King Malcolm held a gathering of the Scottish clans in Braemar to test their strength and to choose the hardiest soldiers. Competitors were asked to toss the caber—a pole 16' to 20' long and weighing 120 pounds—in such a way that it landed on its other end, much the way loggers used to toss logs across a river. The Braemar Gathering is still an annual event in the village of Braemar in Scotland, and the participants are still required to wear kilts and toss the caber. But the event has been expanded to include traditional Highland dancing, bagpipe music, games, and other athletic competitions as well.
See also Highland Games
Braemar Royal Highland Society
Ballater, Aberdeenshire AB35 5UH United Kingdom
44-13-3975-5377; fax: 44-13-3975-5377
AnnivHol-2000, p. 147
BkHolWrld-1986, Sep 6
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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