A Road Trip to the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon

At the end of August, I found myself back in Scotland for my third visit to this beautiful country and lucky for me, this trip coincided with two things I had been wanting to experience for a while: one was seeing the glens covered in purple heather and the other was attending the Highland Games!

I attended my first ever Highlands Games a few summers back in Fredericton, Canada, and that was a lot of fun. They had a ceilidh, Gaelic lessons, Highlands dancing, as well as a slew of athletic events including the famed caber toss where a massive pole (tree trunk!) is tossed end over end. I had been wanting to attend the ‘real thing’ ever since, and this summer was my chance!

After spending a few days in Glasgow, it was finally time for the big event, so Sam and I hopped in our rental car and set out towards our destination. Next stop: the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon!

The town of Dunoon is located on the west shore of the upper Firth of Clyde in Argyll and Bute, and we were treated to some pretty amazing landscapes on the drive over. Technically, we could have just taken a ferry across and cut our travel time, but we wanted lochs, we wanted forests, and we wanted winding roads to soak in the beauty of nature, so we were more than glad to tack on a few extra kilometres.

Our route took us west out of Glasgow and then north along the shores of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. Loch Lomond is the largest loch in Scotland and probably the most famous after Loch Ness, so we pulled over to stretch our legs and take some photos – unfortunately, there was no sighting of Nessie’s cousin!

From there we continued through Arrochar, over the Rest and Be Thankful lookout point, along Loch Fyne, through Strachur, and down the shores of Loch Eck before arriving in Dunoon…in the middle of a torrential downpour!

As there was little chance of sightseeing considering the weather, we grabbed a quick bite of dinner in town, and then continued on to the nearby town of Innellan where we would be spending the night.

Staying at a cozy AirBnB in a mansion

Now I feel like I say this a lot, but we ended up at one of the coolest little AirBnBs ever!

We had a room in a merchant’s mansion from the 1850s, our bedroom had views overlooking the water, and there was a beautiful Golden Retriever willing to accept all the pets and belly rubs in the world. We also had an amazing host who was a classical musician, so we actually ended up spending part of the evening together chatting in his dining room and having tea and biscuits (as you do!), which was really cool.

Lately, Sam and I have been staying in AirBnBs where we have the whole space to ourselves, so it was nice having a host for a change and to hear about life in this little corner of Scotland.

Also, that night I had one of the best sleeps of my life. I think it was the combination of that cool late-summer air, the fluffiest duvet and pillows, and the tranquillity of the town, all combined to offer an amazing night’s rest.

Going to the Cowal Highland Gathering

The following morning we got up bright and early and drove from Innellan to Dunoon. It was a short 15-minute drive and we arrived just as they were setting up for the Cowal Games.

This is the largest of all the Highland Games in the world attracting over 3,000 competitors and 20,000 spectators from around the world, so it was pretty cool to be in attendance!

Having only had a quick cup of tea before we ran out the door, we wandered over to the food truck area inside the grounds. Here we saw some Scottish classics listed on the menu, so we had to dig in.

It may have been way too early for lunch, but I ordered myself a plate of beef stovies (a potato mash with onions, vegetables, and different meats) and Sam got himself some haggis with neeps and tatties (sheep’s pluck with turnips and potatoes on the side). It was my first time trying beef stovies and I really enjoyed it – hearty, filling and perfect to kick start a busy day.

And then, it was time for some games!

So what can you expect from the games?

The games were broken down into 4 main categories, and even though we were only there for a day, we still managed to see a bit of everything.

Highland Dancing – The Cowal Highland Gathering hosted the Scottish and World Championships, so there were lots of international dancers – some even from Canada! We watched part of the competition but the dance that really caught my eye was the Scottish Sword Dance. This is a victory dance meaning that if the Scots won in battle, they would dance over their enemies weapons to celebrate a return home to their wives and families.

Piping – This category was split into pipe bands and solo piping. The solo piping had taken place the previous day, but we got to watch the bands compete in the Cowal Pipe Band Championship. Apparently, at the very end of the event, all of the pipe bands get together and salute the Chieftain to the tune of ‘Highland Laddie’. We missed this but I can only imagine what 1,000+ pipers playing in unison sounds like!

Wrestling – This event is focused on Scottish backhold wrestling which has been practiced since the 8th century and was also part of the earliest Highland Games! This form of wrestling involves wrestlers gripping each other around the waist, the right hand under the opponent’s left arm and the chin resting on the opposite right shoulder. If the wrestler breaks his hold or touches the ground with any part of his body except his feet, he loses.

Heavy Athletics – Now this is what I was most looking forward to! The heavy athletics are an amazing display of human strength and a celebration of a tradition that has been passed down over the centuries. It usually features the following events:

Caber toss: Where competitors toss a caber so that it turns end over end.Stone put: Similar to throwing a shot put, except instead of a steel shot, they use a large stone.Scottish hammer throw: A round metal ball attached to a hammer is whirled and then thrown over the shoulder.Weight throw: A combination of two events where light and heavy weights with a chain attached to a handle are thrown.Weight over the bar: The athlete has to throw a weight with a handle over their head and over a bar.Sheaf toss: Where a bundle of straw (the sheaf) wrapped in a burlap bag is tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar.

Phewww! I’m just exhausted thinking of the strength required to compete in these events. I’ll just let the next few photos do the talking.

And aside from all of these competitions, there’s actually quite a bit more to do at the games! There was also a Ceilidh tent showcasing some homegrown talent, food trucks where you could tuck into local cuisine, numerous games and workshops for children, as well as other events taking place across town like the street parade and fireworks display, a classic cars showcase, and numerous races.

All in all, plenty to keep busy!

A scenic drive back to Glasgow

We had to leave Dunoon in the late afternoon to go back to Glasgow and catch our flight, so we didn’t get to watch the closing ceremony for the Cowal Highland Gathering, but we did have a beautiful drive back.

Since we had improved weather this time, we actually managed to make a few stops, first at Benmore after we spotted a field full of sheep (yes, we are those tourists!), and then at the Rest And Be Thankful lookout point because with a name like that, you can’t help but obey!

A few tips for the Cowal Games

Now a few tips to keep in mind in case you find yourself attending the Highland Games next year:

The Cowal Highland Gathering is held annually in the town of Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula in Argyll and Bute on the last weekend in August.You’re going to be spending the whole day outdoors, so it’s a good idea to dress for unpredictable Scottish weather. Keep in mind that the grounds get very muddy by the end of the day. I wore rain boots, a rain jacket, a scarf and toque (it was surprisingly chilly for August!), and I also kept my umbrella handy and had to pull it out a few times.Locals bring their own tents and lawn chairs (a clever move!) so something to consider if you’re planning on sticking around all day.The Cowal Games are a popular event so it’s a good idea to book your accommodations well in advance. If you want to snag a good parking spot near the grounds, it’s also a good idea to arrive early before the games begin!Tickets for the Cowal Games can be purchased at the ticketing booth just outside the grounds, or you can just get them online to avoid the long lines.

Have you ever attended the Highland Games?

Where and what was it like?