Sep 27, 2013

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24 hours at the Cowal Highland Games

Drew - Cowal Highland Games

Having spent a small fortune travelling around California and Australia in 2011, my girlfriend and I decided to spend the next few years travelling solely around the UK.

We visited the Snowdonia National Park, Anglesey and various other areas of North Wales in 2012, and this year we decided to travel slightly further afield – to the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, Argyll, for a weekend away. The ‘Cowal Games’ is held every August and is the largest Highland Games event in the world, attracting around 23,000 spectators.

As a wrestler, I was excited when I read on the organisation’s website that a ‘backhold’ wrestling competition would be held at the games. I made a few enquires and was eventually able to register myself as an entrant. Going along to watch the games was going to be be pretty cool in itself, but competing would be amazing – and being half Scottish made it all the more significant.

The trip begins

Drew Griffiths Highland Games arrival

We arrived at the games on the final day of the gathering after a stunning journey to our B&B the day before on narrow and scenic roads. Our accommodation was an hour away from where the games were held as we had left it until just a month before to book – so a good tip if you want to stay closer is to book well in advance.

The Cowal Stone - Cowal Highland GamesWe arrived at the games early and watched the impressive Highland dancing, the pipe band championships and the start of the heavy athletics. The heavy athletics include the unique opportunity to watch the legendary Cowal Stone being used for the shot-putt event. The concept of throwing the stone dates back to times when farmers would use stones to weigh their produce, such as cereals and potatoes. Farmers and their workers would test each other’s strength and power by seeing who could throw the heavy stones the furthest.

The Highland dancing and pipe band competitions are arguably the two most fiercely contested events at the games. Dancers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA come to test their skills against the best from Britain in a bid to win the Highland Dancing World Championship.

The dancers who claimed victory and a world title were Morgan Bamford from New Zealand in the adult category, Megan Sweeney from Toronto, Canada (junior), and Kaylee Finnegan from California, USA (juvenile).

Aside from the competitions, I particularly enjoyed the traditional bands playing throughout the day in a huge tent dedicated to ceilidh music and dancing. Ceilidhs are, historically, traditional Gaelic social gatherings, usually involving music from an assortment of instruments, including flutes, fiddles, accordions, pipes and, in more recent times, guitars and drums. A typical dance involves a number of participants positioned in a square or circle. Dancers mix with different partners, often with hands held together in couples or groups of four or more.

Pipe band - Cowal Highland Games

One of the many competing pipe bands at the games

Let the competition begin

After the entertainment of the ceilidh, I watched the well-known tossing the caber event. The event involves throwing a 20- foot caber (usually made from a larch tree), in an attempt to land it directly away from the thrower. Rather than going for sheer distance, the athlete must attempt to throw the log so that it rotates in the air and falls on the ground with its small end pointing directly opposite him or her.

I then had to go to register for the wrestling. Despite having competed in various martial arts and grappling competitions in the past, I was still quite nervous – although in hindsight, I needn’t have been, as being involved in the wrestling was great fun, even if I was severely outclassed and thrown around a lot!

Backhold Wrestling - Cowal Highland Games

The hold itself for backhold wrestling involves placing your right arm underneath your opponent’s left arm and reaching your other arm over their shoulder and linking your fingers together in a clasp around their back. Your chin rests on your opponent’s right shoulder. You can move your head, but you can’t break your grip, and you must endeavour to trip or throw your opponent without touching the ground with any part of your body except for your feet.

Backhold wrestling The Cowel Games 2Highlanders have practised this form of wrestling from as early as the eighth century, and it was a part of the earliest Highland Games on record.

I ended up finishing fourth in the 15 stone 7lbs division. Ryan Dolan won the official Scottish Championship, while Olafur Sigurdsson from Iceland won the open weight category -; despite the efforts of the renowned and fearsome wrestler Rab McNamara who came out of retirement to face his old rival.

Drew in defeat - Cowal Highland Games

How to plan and book a trip

The Cowal Games, is a great spectacle and an event I will definitely be attending next year, hopefully for the full three days this time. The atmosphere is great – noisy, vibrant and friendly – but as the weather isn’t guaranteed, it is a good idea to try to get a ticket for the stand, which normally costs between £10 and £20. You will, however, need to book in advance, as they tend to sell out by the end of February.


Thank you to William Baxter and everyone involved in the wrestling. Anyone interested in Backhold Wrestling should visit Carnoustie Backhold Wrestling club on FaceBook.


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