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From Utah Heavy Athletics:
According to oral tradition, some version of the Celtic/Gaelic Highland Games predates Christianity. These gatherings were basically war games held with the intent to select the best warriors in each family tribe or clan.
The first Games in Scotland were organized in the 11th Century and specifically designated as a sporting event. During the reign of King Malcom III (1058-1093), the Brae O'Mar, a fairly flat meadowland along the river Dee, was used for a royal contest to find the swiftest and strongest in the kingdom. The winners needed to be fast and have the necessary stamina to carry King Malcom's messages across the land.
Games were held throughout Scotland until the Battle of Culloden in 1746. After Bonnie Prince Charlie's defeat by the English, the Act of Proscription banned playing of the bagpipe, wearing of the kilt, gathering together of the people, and the carrying of arms under the penalty of deportation or death. That effectively squelched a good part of the Highland culture and literally destroyed the old clan structure.
After the repeal of the Proscription in the latter part of the 18th Century, Highland Societies began forming, and in 1781 the first society Gathering was held at Falkirk. The success of this event led to the Gathering of the Clans and the Highland Games as we know them today. By the end of the 1820’s Games were once again being held throughout Scotland. In the United States the first Highland Games were organized by the Highland Society of New York in the mid 1800’s. The first games on the West Coast were held in San Francisco in 1865.
Today, Scottish Festivals and Highland Games are increasing in popularity especially in the United States and Canada. This has lead to the introduction of additional classes including Lightweight, Masters and Women's classes.