Each year, through from spring through to autumn, villages and towns across Scotland hold competitions with demonstrations of skill, strength and endurance that have their origins in clan gatherings going back as far as the eleventh century. These Highland Games may not include the usual sports associated with the aristocracy, but that doesn't stop them being a firm favourite with the British royal family, whose affection for Scotland and things Scottish is well known.
Some of the events are small-scale rural festivals, others are on a much grander scale, but the most famous of all must be the games held in the quintessentially Scottish village of Braemar near Balmoral Castle in the north-east of Scotland. The Braemar Gathering was first attended by Queen Victoria in 1848 and is now a regular diary date for the royals on their summer break in the north.
Each year, on the first Saturday of September, from around nine in the morning until tea time, burly, kilt-clad Scotsmen show off their muscles – and who's to say what else – as they toss the caber, throw the hammer, put the stone, or dig their heels in and haul at the rope in the tug-of-war. As in the past, there's Highland dancing, too, and the Massed Pipe Bands, as well as other races and contests of skill and endurance originally designed to find the strongest of arm, the fleetest of foot and the best hunters and warriors among the men of the clans.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is patron of the event - traditionally, the monarch is acclaimed Chieftain of the Braemar Gathering - and each year she or other royals can be seen enjoying the warm welcome of this tiny village in the Grampians with its castle and typical stone houses set among the heather-clad hills of the Scottish countryside.
The Gathering regularly draws crowds of nearly 20,000 from all around the world; many of the contestants – and the spectators, too – will wear tartan kilts and plaids to identify their clan, family, home town or company affiliations. Don't worry if you don't have an invitation to one of the exclusive hospitality tents where you might rub shoulders with the Laird and quaff champagne or toast the winners in fine malt whisky: there are cheaper seats available, and the 12 acres of hills and terraces of the Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park, where the games have been held since 1906, provide plenty of viewing space.
Braemar is around 80 kilometres west of Aberdeen and 150 kilometres north of Edinburgh.
Entry to the park is free. Tickets are on sale from the official Braemar Gathering website. Prices start at £14 per person for seats.
Where to stay:
The Braemar website includes information about all types of accommodation in the area from B&Bs to rented cottages.
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