Scottish Highland Games. Heritage, Invented Tradition and Identity Formation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017
23 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Defining Heritage, Invented Tradition and the Development of the Highland Games throughout the Centuries
2.1. A Definition of Heritage
2.2. The Invention of Tradition
2.3. History of the Scottish Highland Games

3. The Highland Games between Heritage and Invented Tradition
3.1. Aspects of Heritage
3.2. Aspects of Invented Tradition
3.3. The Highland Games: a Hybrid of Heritage and Invented Tradition

4. Identity Formation

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

On 20th August 2017, the small village Wittental in the rural countryside of the Black Forest celebrated the tenth anniversary of hosting their traditional Highland games. According to a newspaper announcement the event was firstly introduced in 1999 and ever since has been organised by the local community every second year, offering sport competitions like the ‘Heavies’ as well as music, food and Scottish Whisky tasting (Badische Zeitung n.p.)[1]. But why is an ancient Scottish tradition practised in the South of Germany? Is it an example of the Highland games being used by Scottish people to identify with their origins and Scotland? Or is it simply an invented marketing idea to promote a sport event of a remote Black Forest village aiming at attracting visitors through a well-known name? Joachim Hoch, webmaster and organizer of the event, explained in an interview:

Our Highland games in Wittental were firstly introduced by an English member of our community in 1999. […] He suggested a social event based on the model of the Scottish Highland games for all the Scots living in the south of Germany in order to remember their Scottish roots, as well as for everyone else interested (n.p.).

Hoch also mentioned that the Wittental Highland games have evermore become a firm tradition during the last 18 years. Not only members of the Scottish community surrounding Wittental would visit regularly, but in particular, the German population living in the region (n.p.).

For many, the Scottish Highland games “represent a local heritage” (Brewster 272) and are considered a Scottish symbol of cultural independence and national identity, at least where being practised regularly (Bockrath 188, 192). Considering Scottish history, critics argue that the Highland games in their modern form were introduced by the British gentry. Furthermore, the Highland games would only be the basis of an invented, romanticised Scottish cultural identity not really having much in common with the original rural tradition (Jarvie 92, 100). Being now as an example hold in Wittental by mostly German participants and, paralleling history, even introduced by an English, several questions arise: Might the Highland games be less ancient Scottish heritage and much more a type of social event, which can be invented and used as tradition by every society all around the world, no matter the historic background? What classifies such a tradition as heritage, what are the characteristics of an invented tradition? Why are the Highland games, invented or not, able to help to create group identities, in this case, the one of an entire nation such as Scotland?

George Orwell once wrote in his famous novel ‘1984’: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (39–40). There was a time after the battle of Culloden when British aristocracy controlled the present of Scotland. In order to tame the wild clans of the Highlands, the British first eradicated all aspects of original culture and afterwards reintroduced selected elements, such as the tradition of the Highland games (Jarvie 44, 57). As these events are seen as typical Scottish heritage today (Bockrath 192), the British of the past contributed to the future, an aspect of today’s perception of the nation. This paper will concentrate on the Scottish Highland games in Scotland as well as in other parts of the world. Despite the fact that they are separated from their original background and could be seen as an invented tradition by the British, there is reason to classify them as heritage as well. Albeit their hybrid form between invented tradition and heritage, Scottish people all over the world hold on to the Scottish Highland games as they have the ability to create the basis for a common identity. To explain this, in the following the ideas of ‘Heritage’ and ‘Invented Tradition’ will shortly be introduced, a historic background of the event’s development throughout the centuries will be given and all this information will be applied in an analysis of the Highland games.

2. Defining Heritage, Invented Tradition and the Development of the Highland Games throughout the Centuries

2.1. A Definition of Heritage

Even though heritage is often assumed to be “as old as the world itself” (McCrone et al. 1), the term itself is in fact rather modern (1) and firstly came up in the late nineteenth century (Waterton 2). Ever since, heritage is on the rise (Lowenthal 94), not least because of political support as England has seen it through several ‘National Heritage Acts’ (Waterton 2-3). By definition, heritage is specified as “the history, traditions and qualities that a country or society has had for many years and that are considered an important part of its character” (Hornby 322). Thus, heritage is the product of combining significant aspects of the past with the present situation of a society, for example a nation, and its identity today.

Characteristics of today’s dealings with heritage that are frequently recurring are, among others, an emphasis on tradition and everyday life in the past (Lowenthal 100) and on reanimation in order to evoke a situation alike to time travel (Samuel 280; Lowenthal 100). Furthermore, stress is regularly laid on being an authentic learning opportunity by raising interest and discourse (Samuel 280) and on a celebrational character, in which an aspect of the past is looked at (Lowenthal 88). In addition, the designation as heritage can support economically, as a means of preservation (Samuel 277), and helps to “create the space for [..] ‘Public History’” (278).

It is at this point important to emphasise the distinction between heritage and history, which “are closely linked, but [..] serve quite different purposes” (Lowenthal 104). In opposition to history, heritage does not meet the requirements to be testable. “Critics assail heritage as the enemy of truth, lethal to authentic tradition” (88), as the American historian David Lowenthal, University College London, describes it. Often mentioned in this context is the allegation of ‘Disneyfication’, thus, the commercialization and glamorization of history as an extraordinary experience (88; 104). In this regard, Lowenthal states: “Heritage should be beyond price” (97). In addition, heritage is not universal but more often exclusive and partial: “History is for all, heritage for ourselves alone” (128) and frequently “run by exclusive elites” (89-90). Concluding, whereas history is the actually happened past, heritage is interpreted by critics as “the past manipulated for some present aim” (102), often by an exclusive part of society and not because of general agreement. These aspects as well as other accusations have been made within the framework of the ‘Heritage Debate’ in England during the last decades. One of the most striking charge is “the abuse of history for chauvinist causes” (89):

Myth and invention are essential to the politics of identity. As poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction, history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies. [Heritage] is an essential element, perhaps the essential element in these ideologies (Hobsbawm New threat n.p.).

Accordingly, heritage may be constructed of myths and inventions but nevertheless gets used or abused for inculcation of certain convictions and ways of thinking.

It is to mention that there are various forms of heritage, such as natural heritage or cultural heritage. Examples for the former would be particular ecosystems, flora and fauna and for the latter architecture, literature or language. In the context of this paper more interesting and hence concentrated on variation, is the intangible part of cultural heritage. Especially in this field, heritage strongly depends on what is remembered, conserved and kept in the collective memory of a society, or as Jan Assmann, cultural scientist from the University of Heidelberg, explains it: “crystallization of communicated meaning and collectively shared knowledge is a prerequisite of its transmission in the culturally institutionalized heritage of a society” (Assmann, Collective 130). Hence, a certain aspect of the past such as knowledge needs to be communicated and repeated for it to achieve becoming a part of the collective memory. Heritage or ‘Cultural memory’, as Assmann refers to it, furthermore “depends on a specialized practice, a kind of ‘cultivation’” (131). Heritage is in need of organization by some institution which is willing to sustain the memories and repeat them. Being repeated, memories can emerge, according to Assmanns’ theory of cultural memory, to a collective memory, which “is shared by a number of people and [..] conveys to these people a collective, that is, cultural identity” (Assmann, Communicative 110).

In the light of the arguments mentioned above by Assmann and Hobsbawm, heritage can work in a supportive manner for group and identity formation. Therefore, a historic element of a society, tangible or intangible, has to be kept in memory and well-tended over the years. Exemplary for such a conservator, several institutions like ‘UNESCO’ or ‘The National Trust’ can be named. A subtle but substantial difference to an invented tradition, a concept described later in this paper, is the fact that heritage must have a real reference point in the past, even though often being largely modified (Lowenthal 102).

What kind of identity emerges depends among other things on the heritage utilized, on the interpreter himself, his bias and his intention as well as on the character of a society:

Through its cultural heritage a society becomes visible to itself and to others. Which past becomes evident in that heritage and which values emergence in its identificatory appropriation tells us much about the constitution and tendencies of a society. (Assmann Collective 133).

2.2. The Invention of Tradition

In our dynamic and constantly altering world, human nature attempts to “structure at least some parts of social life within it as unchanging and invariant.” (Hobsbawm 2) . As stated above, the years of unforced developed, repeated and/or inherited variety of traditions can give a constant and firm framework and thus enable the establishment of a cultural identity (Assmann Communicative 110). History gives various examples that in the absence of such, historic fictions have often been created to legitimize group structures and claims to power (Hobsbawm 9; Plener n.p.). This idea was firstly introduced as the concept of ‘Invented Tradition’ by the Marxist social historian Eric Hobsbawm and the Africanist Terence Ranger in their anthology “The Invention of Tradition” published in 1983. The series of essays illustrate several examples of “’Traditions’ which appear or claim to be old [but] are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented” (1). Examples of the last 200 years vary from mass production in Europe to identity construction of British colonial rule in.

According to Hobsbawm, invented tradition is:

[…] taken to mean a set of practices governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (1).

Thus, through constant reproduction of certain practices such as a special ideology, being guided by implicitly accepted rules, a certain part of society can exert influence on the common perception of, for instance, history. Furthermore, Hobsbawm stresses the point that in the case of an invented tradition this mentioned past is predominantly artificial though suitable for the cause (1-2). Or as Gaurav Desai, professor at the University of Michigan, expressed it rather concisely: “a process of faking and making.” (122).

Hobsbawm distinguishes in this context ‘Traditions’ from ‘Routine and Convention’ and ‘Custom’ (Hobsbawm 2). The constitutive characteristic of traditions is invariance (2). Traditions refer to “fixed practices such as repetition” (2). Just as traditions, routine and convention require a certain invariance but cannot be equalized as such, as their “functions, and therefore [their] justifications, are technical rather than ideological” (3). Due to the fact that even in traditional societies, life is seldom steady, custom on the other hand, needs to be changeable and cannot exclude innovation (3), hence must not be invariant. In other words, whereas customs need to adapt to a certain point to new circumstances, traditions are unchangeable ritualised practices surrounding, for instance, a certain custom. routine and convention are simply facilitating repeatedly carried out practices such as work steps for the purpose of efficiency (3).

As stated above, traditions require constancy. Invented traditions are therefore especially likely to occur “when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions have been designed [..]” (4). The removal or loss of adaptability of old traditions and/or their institutional carriers can have effects in the same direction (4). Hobsbawm and Ranger determine such clusters of “formalizations of new traditions” especially during the last 200 years since the beginning of the industrial revolution (5). Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that not all invented traditions are completely made up, but are sometimes hybrid forms, rooted in existing ancient material and adopted from somewhere else (Plener n.p.; Hobsbawm 6). An abundance of suitable material can be found in nearly every society’s past (Hobsbawm 6).

As specified by the authors, a distinction can be made between three types and functions of an invented tradition (9). The first type constitutes “social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities” (9). The second type leads to the establishment or legitimization of “institutions, status or relations of authority” (9), whereas the third type’s aim is the “socialization and the inculcation of beliefs, value systems and conventions of behaviour” (9). Hence, invented traditions can help to create a common identity for a certain society, justify hierarchies and can be used for inculcation of beliefs. A fitting example given in “The Invention of Tradition” in this context is the construct of the institution ‘nation-state’ (14). Often claiming to be ancient and of almost natural roots (14), but in reality, usually being invented only in the more recent history and furthermore using aspects of the three functions mentioned above, ‘nation-states’ “must include a constructed or ‘invented’ component.” (14).

Based on Desai and Plener and the concept by Hobsbawm and Ranger, invented traditions can have liberating as well as oppressive (Desai 122) impacts and are an efficient instrument to establish and legitimize power, values and beliefs (Plener 1; Hobsbawm 9). In contrast to the idea of heritage, invented traditions do not need to be proven by historic facts, or have any relation to a historic background. More often, in particular when a suitable tradition is lacking, they are an entirely invented set of practices or beliefs.

2.3. History of the Scottish Highland Games

To begin with, the aim of this paper is a study of the Scottish Highland games from a cultural point of view, not from a historical one. Nevertheless, in order to gain a broad understanding of the complex history and development of the Highland games, it is an indispensable prerequisite to be aware of Scottish history on the whole (Jarvie 101). The establishment and various changes of the Highland tradition, in particular the development of the Highland games, cannot be separated from the historic context, as it has “paralleled much broader transformations within the Highland and Scottish social formations” (101). As many aspects relating to this tradition have been passed on by word of mouth throughout the generations, it is quite difficult to avoid inaccuracies and to point out one exact period of time of origin (Jarvie 7; Brewster 273). Therefore, according to the concept of Jarvie and Bockrath, in the following four larger periods of Scottish history will be categorized in order to classify the historic development which then will be examined in further depth later in this paper.

1. Development of Patriarchal-Feudal Set of Social Relations (500-1750 AD)

The earliest mention of a community based sporting event can be traced back to the settlement of the ‘Scoti’ (Bockrath 104), who migrated to the west of Scotland in the sixth century, bringing with them several elements of Celtic culture such as the Gaelic language and the ‘Tailteam Games’, an early form of athletics (Jarvie 16–17; Webster 18). Nevertheless, the “initial phase in the development of the Highland Gatherings” (Jarvie 16) can be traced back to the eleventh century, when, in line with the legend, King Malcom Ceann-Mor held the first Highland clan gathering at today’s Braemar, to select the “fastest athletes amongst the clansfolk (to) act as postal runners” (Jarvie 6; Webster 20). In the following centuries, “[summoning] the clansfolk to a gathering“, became increasingly common in order to celebrate the end of the harvest season, prepare raids to the Lowlands or transact clan business (Jarvie 29). Thereby, dancing and music, especially piping, which is one of the most important elements (36-37), as well as sport activities became firm components of such clan reunions (Jarvie 29; Brander 15–16; Donaldson 17). It is to emphasise that these early events, “originated in rural areas” (Brewster 273) and just as the sport competitions being held, developed out of the social environment of farmers (Bockrath 190). ‘Heavy events’ such as ‘Tossing the cabber’ or ‘Throwing the hammer’[2] therefore assumingly originated from the work in the forest and alike (Brander 21). The demonstration of physical strength was at this point in particular an affirmation of power and readiness for battle (Bockrath 196).

By this time, the Scoti and other tribes had already emerged to “a number of relatively independent social fractions” (Jarvie 16) and a clear distinction can be drawn between the Lowland Scots and the Highlanders already at this point in history (18-19). Being influenced by the starting ‘Anglicisation’ from the Anglo-Norman civilisation in the South (18), the Lowland population differed drastically from the North in terms of wealth, economy, dress, language and in particular, their feudal structure (19). The ‘highland way of life’ of the ‘clansfolk’ (23), living in a much more patriarchal system beneath their chief, with their Highland traditions and gatherings, was seen as primitive, violent, barbarous and “an embarrassment” (15, 23) to the Lowland and the (later) British nation.

2. Cultural Marginalisation and Transformation of Highland Tradition (1600 -1850)

For the purpose of changing this disorder, especially after the Union of Crowns in 1603 and later the Act of Union in 1707, the process of ‘Anglicisation’, thus civilisation of the Highland by the English, was intensified (Bockrath 196). As a watershed event, the Act of Proscription in 1747 is to mention. Following the suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, “the initiatives of the British state, in close alliance with Scotland’s ruling class, amounted to a campaign of cultural genocide aimed at eradicating all traces of a way of life which posed a direct threat to capitalist penetration of the Highlands” (Jarvie 44). Wearing the Highland dress, carrying arms or playing the bagpipes got banned, just as the Highland Gatherings and Games (Jarvie 44–45; Webster 29; Bockrath 197). Despite the repealing of the ban in 1782, the old ways of life had already been destroyed and did not get resumed by the people again (Jarvie 46). Another point to stress is that the patriarchal system of chief and clansfolk had undergone a fundamental change (45-46). Due to the Heritable Jurisdictions Act, former chiefs became economic landowners and in trying to maximise their profits evicted their former clan members, in order to replace human population by sheep, today known as the Highland Clearances (10, 47-48). Enduring push factors like this change in way of life, eviction, the loss of the clan formation, further catalysts like poverty and famines (63) and several pull factors such as “a new promised land”(49), many Highlanders decided to emigrate overseas[3] (51) or flee to the cities (Bockrath 198).

At the same time, a “paradoxical situation” (Jarvie 57) emerged when eventually “those people who had been responsible for the destruction of the old Highland social order were now becoming the guardians and promoters (of Highland Culture)” (57). This was especially due to the Romantic era and greatly influenced by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the appearances of elitist, so called “Highland Societies” and King Georges visit to Edinburgh in 1822 in tartan (56-57). “Many of the graphic symbols which were adopted by the Highland (..) societies became romanticised and partly divorced from their original context” (61). What was originally a specific Highland tradition began to be recognised as overall Scottish cultural identity (Bockrath 198). Just as the Highland tradition in general, the Highland games transformed into an exclusive cultural tradition with almost no connection to the original daily life of the Highlanders remaining (199).

3. Romanticisation and Popularisation of the Highland Tradition (1840 – 1910)

Within the scope of such popularisation, two more terms need to be mentioned. The first one is “Balmoralisation” (Jarvie 62, 64), whereby a direct link between Scottish Highland Gatherings and the Royal Family is described. This is due to the fact that along with the process of popularisation, the Highlands became more and more known as a sport and recreation locality (64), albeit exclusively for southern aristocracy and the Scottish gentry. Such groups of people were called “Sporting Landlords” (Bockrath 200), the second term worth stressing. The visit and purchase of the Balmoral estate by Queen Victoria in 1848, and the ensuing patronage bestowed on the Highland Gatherings at Braemar worked even more as a catalyst to Highland tourism (Jarvie 64, Webster 99-100; Brander 32). Especially the Highland Games, even though drastically divorced from their original context and increasingly civilised (Jarvie 68, 75), experienced a great upswing in popularisation through the royal approval (65). Through the sporting landlords, Balmorality and the reproduction of this transformed cultural tradition by romantic authors during this period, the Highland games as well as the image of Scotland was romanticised (72), not only in the UK but overseas as well (71).

4. Modernisation and Civilisation of the Highland Tradition (1920 – today)

During the last century the popularity of the Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games was characterised by unsteadiness due to the two World Wars (Bockrath 202) as well as due to other “cultural products and alternative sporting forms such as football (..)” (Jarvie 88). According to the number of events, the interest in Highland tradition in recent years increased (Brewster 284). Tartan, kilt, bagpipes and the “sense of tradition and uniqueness” (279) are today the most appealing factors for tourists (Bockrath 192-193) in Scotland as well as in North America (Webster 253). Furthermore, new elements and disciplines have been added to the Highland games through the years (193) and many events are set in extraordinary scenic locations” (Brewster 279), in order to attract more visitors. Increasing interest is to some extent also due to the foundation of the ‘Scottish Games Association’ (SGA), which has formalised the event by standardising rules and recording records (Brewster 275, Bockrath 202). Through the act of rationalization and the rising interest of the media, the Highland games are becoming more and more professionalized and advertised (Bockrath 202, Jarvie 86). The increasing commodification and bureaucratisation coming along with this development are for critics two of the main problems of the Highland games today (Brewster 278), besides only relative acceptance of rules (Jarvie 99) and the cultural domination through “continuing influence and dependency upon a romantic cultural identity including images of balmorality” (99).

3. The Highland Games between Heritage and Invented Tradition

Having in mind the definitions given by Hornby, Samuel and Lowenthal, at first glance, the Scottish Highland games would seem to meet all necessary requirements to be classified as heritage. Nevertheless, there are several indications for it to be considered an invented tradition, too. In order to verify this, some of the above mentioned characteristics of heritage and of invented traditions will be inspected individually in the following.

3.1. Aspects of Heritage

According to Lowenthal and Samuel, heritage sites often try to transmit the experience of a time travel, for instance by being dressed up in period costumes or by behaving in the appropriate way (Samuel 280; Lowenthal 100). In doing so the past gets reanimated for the visitor, in particular by stressing the similarities of everyday life in the past (Lowenthal 100). Until today, tartan and kilt are the most common clothing for participants of the Highland games[4] (Jarvie 26; Webster 91). Although there are criticisms on the originality of the kilt (Hobsbawm 15-43), Jarvie, referring to Scotland visitors of the sixteenth century, indicates that the highland garment already then consisted of a various coloured cloth, worn in the same way (25). Today, the “Best dressed Highlander” is even one of the competitions’ disciplines (Webster 91). Sticking with disciplines, as explained in the beginning, piping or the ‘Heavies’, such as ‘Tossing the cabber’ or ‘Throwing the hammer’, originated in the everyday life and work of the clansfolk (Brander 21) and hence represent authentic rural life in the past. Furthermore, events are typically held outside at special localities just as they were in the past (Brewster 279). At this point, it must be admitted that this time travel experience is also impaired by several changes in the Highland games throughout the years. For instance, today’s competitions are less about humans defeating the struggles of nature but, thanks to the SGA and its formalization like recording results, increasingly about records and the “war of figures” (Jarvie 87; Bockrath 191). As a result, today’s Highland games tend to develop into the direction of other modern sporting events (Bockrath 202). Furthermore, the enrichment of disciplines by introducing “fun elements” like skydiving or sack race (Bockrath 193) disassociated the Highland games from its original everyday life and work roots. Nevertheless, as elements like the ‘Heavies’, which are often seen as the core disciplines (190), still exist, the Highland games meet the requirements of this characteristic of heritage.


[1] Photographs of the Wittental Highland Games can be seen in the appendix.

[2] For further information about the ‘Heavies’ and other disciplines at the Highland Games, please see “The World History of the Highland Games” by D. Webster, p. 175-184.

[3] For further information regarding the Scottish emigration, see chapter 4.1.

[4] This also can be seen on the photographs in the appendix.

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Scottish Highland Games. Heritage, Invented Tradition and Identity Formation
University of Passau
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Aus der Reihe: stipendiaten-wissen
Scotland, Schottland, Highland Games, Invented Tradition, UK
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Leander Ross (Author), 2017, Scottish Highland Games. Heritage, Invented Tradition and Identity Formation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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