Take a Peek Into Scottish Culture at the Skye Highland games!

Highland games have been central to Scotland’s culture for centuries. They take place all over the highlands and showcase the country’s culture and heritage, not to mention fierce competition and community. 

During my summer living in Scotland, I was lucky enough to catch the Skye Highland games, taking place in Portree. It was a day of celebration, traditional music and some very impressive Highland sports, including the throwing of an actual tree. That was one thing I definitely wanted to see! 

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Lone piper looks out over river
The Highland games reveal a lot about Scottish traditions and culture.

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What are the Highland games? 

The games take place all over the country in the summer months and usually involve a day of outdoor events centred around traditional Highland sports such as hammer throwing and caber tossing. It has a similar kind of vibe to that of a community fete, only with much better entertainment!

As well as the sporting side of things, there are also piping and dancing competitions, not to mention a whole lot of food! This is the perfect activity for travellers to Scotland and offers a unique peek into the history of the Highlands. 

Skye Highland games sign
Portree welcomes you to the Isle of Skye Highland games!

What happens at the Isle of Skye Highland Games?

Although there is one day where the bulk of the Highland games take place, officially the event stretches over three days. There are sailing and rowing competitions a couple of days before the main event (weather dependent), as well as piping on the following two days. 

The piping forms an important part of the games and showcases local talent, as well as pipers from other parts of the world. Although some people will be piping competitively, other pipers will usually provide the soundtrack for the dance competitions, which include adults and children alike.

Although all of the dances differ, they look very sillier to the untrained eye. The only one which I am able to recognise is the sword dance for the simple fact that they are jumping over swords as part of the routine. Despite this, traditional highland dance is very impressive and should definitely not be skipped!

Perhaps the most exciting for visitors is the athletic events. Judging by the competitors’ outfits, it would be easy to assume that everyone is from Scotland as they are all in kilts, however, participants are welcome from all over the world. To make sure you’re dressed to impressed, pick up some Isle of Skye tartan from Portree!

Pipe band
The pipers are integral to the celebrations.

Some of the notable events include:

  • Throwing the hammer

This hammer is made from a heavy metal ball which is attached to a wooden pole or handle. It is whirled around the competitors head before being thrown as far as possible. As some of the events at the highland games are quite dangerous, it is always advised that guests stay behind any barriers and don’t stray into the event circle, you never know what might hit you! 

  • Throwing 56lb weight (over bar) – not the most imaginative name…

This sounds like it would be a strange one to watch but it is oddly gripping! In this event, the weight must be thrown over the bar with one hand, which gets raised after every successful attempt. During our visit to the Skye Highland games, we actually saw this record broken by the burly American, Colin Dunbar!

  • Tug-of-war

You will be surprised how seriously this is taken! Many of the team members actually affix metal spikes to the heels of their shoes to help them dig in and keep their ground! There is a maximum team size of nine and events for both men and women.

Women doing tug of war
The tug-of-war is taken very seriously – maybe because there is alcohol at stake!
  • Hop, step and leap

From what I gathered, this is just another term for the triple jump. It is definitely impressive (my high-school self never got the hang of it) but probably not quite as fun as watching strong men throw things around. 

  • Hill race

This involves competitors racing up the top of a hill (known as a mountain to all you folk who live in flatter places than the highlands) and back down again. It can be surprisingly brutal and occurs in all weathers. It wouldn’t be Scotland without a little bit of rain after all!

This event involves the competitors leaving the area so unless you have binoculars, you won’t be able to follow this one as it happens. However, you will get the joy of seeing everyone leave and return to the arena, looking significantly more weathered and dirty than when they left! 

  • Caber toss

The most famous of all of the events is the caber toss. This is essentially when strong men get together and throw trees around. Literally. The caber is usually made from a larch tree, measures in at 5.94 m and can weigh 79 kg. The aim here is not to throw the tree as far as you can but instead to toss it over its end so it lands in a 12 o’clock position. It might not be your standard entertainment but it is well worth watching!

Man lifting tree
A brave man attempts the famous Caber Toss!

As the events at the Highland games are competitions, prize money is awarded to winners. Monetary prizes are usually given for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and depending on the event, 5th places. For team sports such as the tug-of-war, winning participants will usually be awarded a bottle of either whisky or gin. How very Scottish! 

Planning your visit 

As of 2021, the entrance fee to the Skye Highland games is as follows: £10 ($12USD) for adults and £4 ($5.50USD) for children. It is a great day out for anyone visiting Skye, including families. 

There is a variety of food available inside the venue but it is slightly more costly than what you can purchase elsewhere in Portree. As well as food and ice-cream trucks, there are free to use portable toilets for those who need them. As with any kind of public toilets, it is always worth bringing your own toilet paper and hand sanitiser just in case!

When are the Skye Highland games? 

The Skye Highland games have taken place every year since 1877, excluding the war years. Although the exact date varies year by year, they usually take place in August. In 2020, the games will be on August 5th. Keep up to date with the official events calendar to help plan your visit.  

Band at highland games
The Skye Highland games are a celebration that you don’t want to miss while you are on the island!

Where are the Skye Highland games?

The Isle of Skye Highland games takes place annually in Portree, the most common start point for the Trotternish Loop. They are usually held at The Meall, known to the locals as ‘the lump’. This spot is very easy to find as it juts out over the harbour, offering stunning views from either side. 

Where can I park? 

There will be signs all over Portree directing visitors to the Highland games carpark. However, despite what the signs suggest, there isn’t just one dedicated carpark. These signs actually direct drivers to all of the usual parking spaces in the town. Generally, these are free but they will fill quickly, making finding somewhere else to park difficult. 

Remember the importance of safety on Skye’s roads. Never park in the passing spaces as it makes road travel near on impossible. Instead, trawl the town’s backstreets and park up when you are not posing a risk to other drivers or causing an obstruction. 

People stand around on field
Competitors from all over the world await their turn in the athletic events.

Where should I stay when I visit the Isle of Skye? 

Backpacker option: Portree Youth Hostel

Located in the centre of Portree, this backpacker favourite has a communal lounge and a shared kitchen. This is ideal for saving money during your trip. The front of the hostel looks out at beautiful views and there is also adequate parking – definitely a plus point if you are planning on visiting the Skye Highland games! Dorm beds begin at £26 each. 

Mid-range alternative: Braeside Guest Rooms

 Set inside a former farmhouse just two minutes from the harbour, Braeside Guest Rooms is a great choice for visitors looking for a clean and private retreat. All of the rooms are ensuite and the host Ruth is rated for her top island tips! A double room at Braeside Guest Rooms costs from £99 for two people for a night. 

Luxury choice: Cuillin Hills Hotel

The Cuillin Hills Hotel is one of the nicest accommodation options on the island. Although more expensive than the other options, this hotel has some of the best views of both Portree harbour and the Cuillin Mountains on Skye. There is also an award-winning restaurant inside the grounds of the hotel. A double room costs from £285 per night. 

Spectators look in on the ring at the Highland games
Tourists and locals alike visit the Skye Highland games.

Have you ever been to the Skye Highland games?

Skye Highland games

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