Highland Games History

Not unexpectedly the date of the first gathering on the banks of the River Ness by our ancestors has been lost in the mists of time and will remain a mystery forever. Despite what you might read elsewhere, Highland Games as we know them are a relatively modern invention, which first appeared in Victorian times - and if that isn’t what you believed to be true - here’s why.

No matter what anyone might say about a Hill Race above Braemar in the days of King Malcolm; or a party in a village held as folks returned from the Battle of Bannockburn; they are not Highland Games. A Hill Race is a Hill Race and a Party is a Party. A real Highland Games is a gathering which consists of Heavy Events, Highland Dancing, Solo Piping competitions and Pipe Bands. For the sake of discussion let’s call them the Big Four.

Everything else you will ever see at a Games is optional, and that incidentally, is the beauty of Scotland’s Highland Games. Their core events are the same and everybody knows that it is all the wonderful optional and sometimes quirky additional events and attractions and pieces of local pageantry which make them such a delight to explore all around the world.

All the academic research has proven that the first gathering at which it can be proven that the Big Four events took place for the first time was held at St Fillans in Perthshire in 1815. That gathering lasted for 12 years which is really significant for our own Games here in Inverness.

What we do know about our own gathering is that back in 1822 the Inverness Courier reported that fundraising was taking place in the town to revive the ancient Games that had been held in previous years and to give the Capital of the Highlands a Gathering that its townsfolk could be proud of. Thanks to the efforts of those early fundraisers, the ball (or should that be caber) was set rolling; and almost two centuries later, the Inverness Highland Games is firmly established as one of Scotland’s finest and oldest Highland Games.

In the early days (1822 – 1938) the Highland Games staged in Inverness were organised by the Northern Meeting. Such was the popularity of the Games during the Victorian era (when Highland Games burst into life not only in Scotland but also all around the world!) that in 1863 the Northern Meeting Committee decided to take action to accommodate the thousands of spectators that were arriving to see the show by building a purpose built Highland Games stadium. The stadium is of course our much loved  Northern Meeting Park, which opened in 1864, and is located behind Inverness Cathedral which appeared a couple of years later.

As everybody who has been involved with running a Highland Games knows; it can be a very time consuming and very expensive affair. By 1938 the Northern Meeting members had decided that they had had enough and needed some help; and in July 1939 two meetings were held in Inverness Town House on the 11th and 14th at which the Northern Meeting members asked the Provost for the Town Council and Local Businesses to assume responsibility for staging the Games. The records show that the Northern Meeting were reluctantly persuaded to stage a Games later that year and after an announcement was made that the Games would go ahead in September, the lights went out all over Europe.

Following the Second World War, 248 Highland Games burst into life all over Scotland. It is hard to imagine the challenges faced in the immediate post war years; but despite Scotland being bankrupt and exhausted like the rest of the United Kingdom; it is undoubtedly true that there was a huge demand for community events to be staged as quickly as possible. Across Scotland many new groups were formed to revive events that had not taken place during the War Years; and when the dust settled, not unexpectedly responsibility for staging the Highland Games in Inverness had passed from the Northern Meeting to the local community with the Town Council and the newly formed Inverness Harriers taking up the challenge of organising the Games. The Northern Meeting requested that the name of the Games be changed from the Northern Meeting Games once they stopped running it and so the Games here in Inverness followed the traditional way of being named after its location.

Prominent amongst those involved with ensuring that the tradition of staging a Gathering continued during the launch of the newly named Inverness Highland Games was the late Tom Mackenzie (1913-2005) who officiated at our Games for over half a century. Known as Mr Inverness to many – Tom was a decorated war hero and former Deputy Provost who joined an illustrious list which included the Queen Mother, William Gladstone, Andrew Carnegie and David Lloyd George when he was awarded the freedom of Inverness. To commemorate his contribution to our Games, the arrival of our Games Chieftain is now heralded by the playing of “The Inverness Gathering” in memory of Tom Mackenzie.

Unfortunately (with the benefit of hindsight) in 1947 the Town Council agreed to sell the Public Grandstand from Northern Meeting Park to Inverness Thistle Football Club for £750; and it quickly became clear that the reduced capacity at Northern Meeting Park had combined with the nationwide enthusiasm to attend Highland Games in the 1940’s to create a problem. Additional space was needed and fast!

From 1949 – 2009 our Games were held at Bught Park; before the Committee moved the it back home to Northern Meeting Park in 2010 as interest in the world’s oldest Highland Games stadium began in the run up to the 150th anniversary of its opening began to grow. Following four years at Northern Meeting Park; which involved the much needed and much appreciated loan of the Highland Council Car Park and Eden Court Theatre Gardens; as soon as the wonderful Anniversary Games were held in 2014, the Games were quickly relocated back to Bught Park in 2015 where they remain to this day.


Nobody knows when the first Inverness Highland Games were held...