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What to Expect
(With thanks to Ruth Suehl)


Though references to similar concepts exist going back many centuries, the modern concept of the Highland games likely did not appear until the 1800s. Today they feature athletic competitions of strength, music, and dancers and take place around the world, particularly in areas where large number of Scots have settled, such as North Carolina.


North Carolina has a long history of several significant arrivals of Scots, with a handful arriving earlier but largely beginning with the Argyll Colony that settled along the Cape Fear River in 1739. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, for multiple reasons, emigration to what is now North Carolina and the United States increased so much that even today, as much as 10% of the US population is of Scottish descent. They brought with them the arts and traditions that we carry on today in events like the Highland games. 

Athletics (in order of competition)

1. Clachneart (Open Stone)

“Putting the stone” is most comparable to the shot put you’ve seen in track and field events. The stone weighs from 16-22 pounds and must be thrown with one hand only from in front of the shoulder. Traditionally the same stone is used from year to year on the same grounds. 

3. Hammer Throw

The hammer is about 42” long with a spherical head and a total weight of 16 or 22 pounds. The athlete turns their back to the direction of the throw and does not spin, usually digging into the ground with blades attached to their boots. They swing the hammer around their head several times and release it, aiming for maximum distance. 

5. Sheaf Toss

That’s an "f" –we’re not tossing sheep! The sheaf is a 20-pound burlap bag of hay or straw thrown over a crossbar for the greatest height. It can be thrown in any manner desired using a pitchfork. 

2. Weight for Distance (Heavy & Light)

A spherical or box-shaped weight weighing 28 or 56 pounds is fixed to a chain and handle. It is thrown with one hand for furthest distance, measured to the first break in the ground made by the weight.

4. Turning of the Caber

If you know only one Highland event, it’s probably the caber toss! This log around 20’ long is balanced on one end in the athlete’s intertwined fingers. Once they have balanced it upright, the goal is to launch it, flipping the caber end over end. Success is measured on an imaginary clock, with a perfect thrown being “12 o’clock,” as the caber lands directly away from the athlete standing at the imaginary 6 o’clock.

6. Weight Over Bar

Similar in shape to the weight for distance, this weight is 56 pounds and is thrown over a crossbar with the measurement being for the greatest height thrown. 


Piping at the Port City Highland Games this year will be demonstration-only, but there are many competitive bagpipers in the Lower Cape Fear! They are divided by grade per skill level, with Grade I being the most proficient pipers. Pipers in Grade 5 play two parts of march music. As the grades progress, marches become four parts and strathspeys and reels, hornpipes and jigs are added to the selections played. A piobaireachd event is offered in each grade, with longer, more complex compositions performed as the grades progress. Judges listen for tuning, tempo, execution, and expression.  


Competition marches are written in 2/4-time signature and are more complex in structure and technique than parade marches.  A well-expressed and technically correct competition march is played at a slower tempo.

Hornpipe and Jig

The hornpipe is a traditional English dance, played in 4/4 time, a bit slower than a reel and more heavily accented.  The jig is the oldest dance tune of Ireland, played for a lively dance in 6/8 time.

Strathspey and Reel

The strathspey is in 4/4 time and characterized by a high degree of “pointing” or “lift” (i.e. the dotted notes are heavily stressed).  Strathspeys are the only dance tune unique to Scotland.  Reels are traditionally played after the strathspey and their faster tempo and rounder rhythms contrast to that of the strathspey.  Reels are also in 4/4 time.


A piece of music composed for and played only on the great Highland bagpipe. It consists of a theme, or groundwork, with variations.   


Highland and National Dances

In Scotland, Highland Dancing was once an athletic event. Scottish dances such as the Highland Fling and the Ghillie Callum were the solo dances of Highland men, but now they’re performed by far more females than males. The dances are so vigorous that one must be in top physical shape to perform them. Long hours of practice are required for a dancer to become proficient enough to dance the intricate figures lightly and gracefully, as they should be danced. Dance steps are standardized by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) and competitions are held worldwide. Judges evaluate a dancer on three major criteria: timing, technique, and deportment. Dances you see may include:

Highland Fling

This is a dance of victory in battle. Traditionally, the ancient warriors and clansmen performed this dance on a small round shield called a targe, which they carried into battle. One can understand the quick footwork and dexterity needed when it is pointed out that most targs carried a pinpoint sharp spike of steel projecting some 5-6" from its center. A false step could be more than a little painful.

Seann Triubhas

This dance originated as a political protest dating back to 1745 when the wearing of the kilt was an act of treason. Pronounced “shawn trews,” this Gaelic phrase means “old trousers.” The beautiful, graceful steps reflect the restrictions imposed by the foreign trousers. The lively quick time in the dance recreates the Highlanders’ celebration of rediscovered freedom.

Flora MacDonald's Fancy

This is said to be the last dance Flora MacDonald danced for Bonnie Prince Charlie before he fled, but it is more likely to be a dance named in her honor. Flora MacDonald helped the prince escape from North Uist to Skye disguised as her maid. She immigrated to America and briefly settled in North Carolina (near Red Springs — thus the Flora MacDonald Academy) but returned home to Skye later in her life.

Sword Dance (Ghillie Callum)

The Sword Dance is an ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael dating back to King Malcolm Canmore and is thought by many to be the oldest of the Scottish dances, performed centuries ago on the eve of battles as a means of relieving tension, exhibiting self-control, and as an omen for the forthcoming battle. Sword and scabbard were placed on the ground in the form of a cross, and if the dancer's feet managed to avoid touching either one, it was believed the clan would be blessed with good fortune in the coming battle. However, if the sword or scabbard were disarranged, the prediction was defeat. The slip in footwork formerly interpreted as an evil omen now provides one of the principal methods of eliminating contestants during the judging.

The Strathspey and Highland Reel

Of all the Highland Dancing events in which the competitors vie, the Reels are the closest approach to social dancing. Even these, however, are individual competitions. While the teams consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually. Legend has it the Reel originated with well wishers waiting for the minister to arrive at the church for a wedding on a cold day. The chilly group danced as a means of keeping warm.

Earl of Erroll

Irish Jig

The Scottish version of the Irish Jig is meant to parody an angry Irish washerwoman when she finds out some neighborhood boys have knocked all of her clean wash to the ground. Another version describes a woman who shakes her firsts and flounces her skirt because she is furious with her husband who has been out drinking until the wee hours.

Sailor's Hornpipe

The dance takes its name from James Hay, 15th Earl of Erroll. It has been suggested that it was choreographed by Francis Peacock for the eponymous Earl because the Earl of Erroll was listed as one of the subscribers to Peacock’s 1805 book Sketches Relative to the History and Theory but More Especially to the Practice of Dancing; however, no Earl of Erroll dance is described within that book. Peacock, also a musician, did dedicate a published collection of tunes, including one with the title “The Earl of Erroll,” to the Earl of Erroll.

This dance is common to many parts of the British Isles. It derived its name from the fact that usually the musical accompaniment was played on a hornpipe rather than on bagpipes. The hornpipe, an instrument comparable to our present-day tin whistle, was common in those days. In time the dance became popular among seafaring men and is now associated with sailors. The modern Hornpipe imitates many shipyard activities common in the days of wooden ships and iron men.

Scottish Country Dancing

Scottish country dancing and social dances are generally danced in couples, often in patterns, similar to many other folk dances or square dances that Americans are familiar with. Scottish country dancing became popular in Scotland in the mid-to-late 1700s, later finding a revival with the formation of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in 1923. 


Join us not only to see these dances, but to learn how to do them and join in! There’s no athletic movement like jumping required. 

Cape Breton Dancing

The exact origins of Cape Breton step dancing are not entirely clear, but the tradition came with the Scottish who emigrated to the Cape Breton Island region of Nova Scotia, possibly as early as beginning with those looking to escape the Highland Clearances and continuing through the early 1800s. Its steps and style of emphasis on footwork with minimal upper body involvement show a connection to the Irish Sean Nos style of dancing. Unlike the Highland and Scottish country dances, it is still largely passed on orally and in small community settings, rather than having formal organization structures and written textbooks of steps. 

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