It's just like any summer sport.
Like the Olympics themselves, the Highland Games are another invented tradition. Although many sources will quote links to a hill race at Braemar organised by Malcolm III (1031-1093 - son of Duncan, murdered by Macbeth), there is no reliable source for this. Like clan tartans, the modern highland games are a product the great Scottish revival of the early 19th century.
The first games were held at Strathearn in Perthshire in 1821, inspired by the imminent royal visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 and organized by the recently formed St Fillan’s Highland Society. It was more like a society fundraiser than a sporting event aimed at ‘relief of the poor, the encouragement of the deserving, and to promote the practice of those athletic exercises which create a spirit of laudable emulation among the youth, and fit them for the defence of their country’. Other areas like Braemar and Inverness soon followed suit, and Queen Victoria’s patronage cemented the games’ popularity.
The games consists of many competitive disciplines. Highland dancing (originally only for men, but now almost entirely performed by women); a piping competition; the heavy events (putting the stone, throwing the hammer, sheaf toss, tug-of-war, wrestling, and tossing the caber) as well as other track and field events.
In 1889 the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Coubertin was greatly impressed by a Highland games held in conjunction with the Paris Exhibition. After rule standardisation, the hammer and the shot put, wrestling and the tug-of-war were all included as Olympic events.
The games quickly became very popular all over the world, wherever there was a large Scottish community. The Caledonian Club of San Francisco, which hosts the world’s largest games (over 50,000 spectators), has held a gathering continuously since 1865.
In modern highland games, the caber is a large, tapered, wooden pole (like a telegraph pole) between 15 and 23 feet (5-7 metres) long and weighing between 5 and 11 stone (30-70kg). Tossing it involves picking up the post vertically (unaided), balancing it against the shoulder, running up to 20 yards and ‘tossing’ the pole skywards. The aim is to ensure the pole turns over in the air, land on its top and falls forward to land on the ground pointing directly away from the thrower. This is the 12 o’clock position; positions to the left and right are identified by other points on the clock face. Just as in QI, points are awarded subjectively for style, stance, balance and ability. Points are deducted for variance from the 12 o’clock position. Height and distance thrown are immaterial.
If a new caber proves impossible for anyone to toss, it may be cut to a more manageable length. Once tossed, a caber is not cut again. One of the most fearsome cabers of all is the 20ft (6m), 9.5 stone (60kg) Braemar caber, first tossed in 1951.
The origin of the caber toss is unknown and may not even be Scottish; there are similar sports in France, Germany and Scandinavia. A 1623 illustration depicts a man ‘spurning the bar’ at Robert Dover’s (English) Cotswold Olympicks. Even the etymology of the word is disputed: it may be Gaelic for rafter, or a shortened form of ‘casting the bar’.
Probably the best tosser of all time was the Victorian strongman Donald Dinnie. His career spanned 40 years (1850-1890) and he excelled at every discipline of the Highland Games, once taking twenty different prizes in a single day. He refused to toss in front of Prince Albert unless paid £2 appearance money; but when all other comers failed in the attempt, he relented and tossed the huge log easily. He was also a champion high jumper. Once after failing twice at a height, he removed his kilt to ensure success at his third attempt.
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The official world record for haggis hurling is 217ft set by Lorne Coltart in 2011.
At some Highland Games in France a giant champagne cork is tossed instead of a caber.
The world record for the biggest bowl of porridge (690 litres) was set at the Cupar Highland Games in Fife in 2010.
Snefjørd Highland Games held in Finnmark, Norway, are the most northern games in the world.