Throughout Scotland, not just in the Highlands, summer signals the onset of the Highland Games, from the smallest village get-togethers to the Giant Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, which draws a crowd of 10,000. Urbanites might blanch at the idea of al fresco Scottish country dancing, but with dog trials, tractors, fudge stalls and more cute animals than you could toss a caber at, the Highland Games are a guaranteed paradise for kids.
It’s thought that the games originated in the eleventh century as a means of selecting soldiers through trials of strength and endurance. These events were formalized in the nineteenth century, partly as a result of Queen Victoria’s romantic attachment to Highland culture: a culture that had in reality been brutally extinguished following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden.
The military origins of the games are recalled in displays of muscle-power by bulky bekilted local men, from tossing the caber (ie tree trunk) to hurling hammers and stones, and pitching bales of straw over a raised pole. Music and dance are also integral to the games, with pipe bands and small girls – kitted out in waistcoats, kilts and long woolly socks - performing reels and sword dances. You might also see showjumping, as well as sheepdogs being put through their paces, while the agricultural shows feature prize animals, from sleek ponies with intricate bows tied in their manes and tails to curly-horned rams.
Highland Games are held from May to September – the big gatherings include Braemar (www.braemargathering.org) and Cowal (www.cowalgathering.com).