Imagine you are King Malcolm III, of Scotland. The year is 1060 and you are holding back the Norse in the north while simultaneously fighting the English in the south. No wonder Malcolm was called Canmore, or “ceann mòr”, gaelic for “Great Chief”. He reigned in Scotland for 35 years. The reason for his military advantage was… The Highland Games.
I’m dead serious about this. Malcolm is believed to have held the first ever Highland Games in Scotland not for amusement but as a recruitment tool. The games were a test of brute strength, endurance and discipline. Winners in each of the heavy sports, dance and pipe and drums competitions would join his army, making it one of the most powerful fighting forces of it’s day.
The Heavy Sports like Caber toss, Hammer Throw, Sheaf Toss and Putting the Stone are awe inspiring displays of raw strength. Hammer throw and shot put are still today, Olympic sporting events. For the Highland Games, each sport was an adaptation of demanding but common practices for everyday Scots.
For example, caber toss was the domain of Lumberjacks. To get long tree poles across creeks they would toss them by hand. The word toss does not quite match the hernia inducing physicality of the activity. In competition today the caber is over 19’ and weighs 170lbs. Sheaf tossing would have been a common chore for countryside farmers to stack sheafs of straw onto tall piles. This sounds benign until you consider what repeating such an action hundreds of times a day would do to the core of the farmer.
Even Highland Dance was a test of cardiovascular endurance. Originally Highland Dances were performed only by men. The style involves long sequences of choreography where a jump happens on every beat of the music, usually on just one leg. This author was a competition highland dancer in her youth and can attest to its difficulty. When you watch competition Highland Dancer she is smiling, but if you look closer you will notice nostrils flared like a racehorse in the final stretch. Every cell in her body is screaming for oxygen and her muscles, from toenails to hair tips, feel on the brink of explosion.
Pipes & Drums, would have lead the charge into battle so their importance to Malcolm could not be overstated. It is one thing to have the pressure of competition with a fellow musician to focus your attention. It is another thing entirely to hold that same composure while walking into the fray of battle, a line of ax wielding Norse or Englishmen screaming like banshees. The temptation to quicken the tempo would be great, but to stay the line a Piper or Drummer would have to hold the beat.
There is a reason Malcolm made it into Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He was an interesting character with a creative mind and relentless determination to win by any means necessary. The Highland Games in modern times are about winning ribbons and trophies rather than a place in the army. Thank goodness for that.