Each year, thousands of kilted lads and lasses descend upon Loon Mountain to attend the NH Highland Games. My family is proud of our Scottish heritage and we use the games as an opportunity for a family reunion.
There is so much going on during the Highland Games that it can feel a bit overwhelming. I will share with you all that we have learned over the years.
While there are three days worth of events, you have the option to join for a single day. We attend all three days and still don’t make it to everything we want to see.
You will receive a schedule of events or you can download it from the NH Scott website. Grab a highlighter and choose each activity you are interested in. You should plan your day well in advance so that you don’t miss anything. Keep in mind that the festival grounds are huge so add in walking time. The events will be color coded by categories such as athletics, pageantry, music or seminars.
Also just to point out- these events aren’t just done for entertainment. They are actual competitions that people train for all year and take very seriously.
The Best Events at the NH Highland Games
1. Sheep Dog Trials
The sheep dog trials happen on Friday so sadly many people miss them because they don’t come up until the weekend. It’s a shame because the trials are fascinating to watch. The herder communicates with the dog through whistles. The dogs have to drive the sheep between two white gates and eventually into a pen. I find that human-animal bond pretty amazing. The pair receive points based on how well they complete the course.
2. Listen to bagpipes at the Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony usually happens on Saturday around noon. Be there early, because this will be the most crowded event. If you only attend one day, let this be it because it shouldn’t be missed. The ceremony starts with the National Anthem for the UK, Canada and the United States, followed by the clan roll call and opening parade.
All of the different pipe and drum bands march in and once they have all assembled, they play together in unison. They play crowd favorites like Scotland the Brave and Amazing Grace. It gives me goosebumps every time.
3. Visit the Clan Tents
If you are of Scottish heritage, it is really fun to find your clan tent. Kilts are worn with pride and honor as it embodies the Scottish tradition. Tartan patterns represent particular clans, families and regions. Today there are 3,500 specific tartan family plaids. Obviously not all of them attend the games, but you can learn a lot about your family history.
4. Enjoy the music
There will be stages set up on each end of the grounds with bands playing throughout the day. Albannach is the big fan favorite. They usually play three different times. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers is another popular band. This year American Rogues was my favorite, especially when they played their rendition of The Gael. American Rogues has played alongside of the U.S. Airforce Symphony and perform for the troops around the world.
There is also more traditional Scottish music being played such as the fiddle or the harp. I will never forget when one year, all of the harpists gathered in the lobby of the Mountain Club and played together. My son was lying across my lap and slowly drifted to sleep. I can’t think of anything more soothing than a harp lulling you to sleep at the end of the day.
5. Watch the athletic events
The most famous athletic event at the Highland Games is the caber toss. Watch giant strongmen throw a telephone pole like it is a toothpick. It is so exciting to watch, because they don’t just throw it. The caber has to flip over to the 12:00 position for them to win.
There are many other events that go on in the athletic field all day. Some of the traditional events are the weight-over-bar which involves throwing a 56 pound weight over a bar that increases in height each time. The highest toss wins. There is a similar event called a sheath toss. For the stone put, a 20 pound stone is hurled across the field. The furthest distance wins. Each event, I am in awe of the power, strength and skill of the athletes.
Here is when we handed baby Harry over to Hafþór Björnsson, known for his role as The Mountain in Game of Thrones. It’s hard to recognize him when he isn’t covered in blood spatter.
6. Attend a traditional Highland Dance
Dating back to the 11th century, the Highland dances tended to be highly athletic male celebratory dances of triumph or joy. That fact just makes me chuckle because I have a hard time picturing men leaving a bloody battle so victorious that they break out into a ballet. In fact, old kings and clan chiefs used highland dancing as a means to select their best men at arms because it tested their strength, stamina, accuracy, and agility.
Now a competition between all ages and sexes, dancers are judged on timing, technique and spirit. Look out of the Highland Fling, which is the oldest of the traditional dances of Scotland.
7. Visit all of the vendors
Whenever you have time to kill between events, head to the vendor tents to do some browsing and shopping. There is a wide variety of Scottish home goods, food, jewelry and attire. You can have a kilt made, try traditional shortbread or visit my favorite tent called Celtic Revival. I always find a treasure there and just chatting with Joe is an experience in itself. There is all the tartan and tweet you could ever imagine.
8. Try traditional Scottish food
The Highland Games will serve up all the traditional Scottish dishes such as fish & chips, Scotch eggs and of course haggis.
Just so you know what you are getting yourself into, haggis is a savory pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and cooked while traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach. Now please excuse me while I hurl.
Andrew… not a fan.
9. Take a Whiskey Master Class
The whiskey master class requires a separate ticket that costs $30. This tasting and presentation on single malt whiskies always sells out, so be sure to book ahead of time. Must be at least 21 years of age to attend.
10. Ride the gondola
Loon Mountain has a gondola skyride that will scoot you right to the top of the mountain within minutes. There are beautiful views, especially during the foliage season.
11. Explore the caves
If you do take the gondola to the top of the mountain, be sure to check out the glacial caves. This is my kid’s favorite activity. They are small enough to squeeze through them all. If you are claustrophobic, you should probably skip this one. There are some tight spaces that are hard to fit through.
Where to stay for the Highland Games NH
The best place to stay for the Highland Games is at The Mountain Club on Loon. It will save you so much time and the convenience is priceless. By staying on the mountain, you can avoid having to park miles away and taking the shuttle in. You will receive a parking pass with your hotel reservation and can drive right up to the resort.
At the end of the day, the shuttle lines look like a ride at Disney World-
If you have children, staying on the mountain makes everything so much easier. Nap time… just head up to the room. Need to change a diaper… everything you need is right there.
The Mountain Club on Loon have suites with a kitchen so you can save lots of money by making your own meals. My mother brings a lasagna and a casserole for our dinners and we all meet at the room to eat sandwiches for lunch. A big breakfast buffet is included with your stay. If you don’t feel like cooking, head down to the pub.
There is an indoor pool as well as an outdoor pool which will make the kids happy. One of my favorite things to do there is sit in the hot tub in the morning and listen to the bagpipes as they practice. There is a nice spa that offers massages, facials and nail appointments.
Trust me, we have done it both ways, and nothing beats the convenience of staying on the mountain. The Mountain Club is so accommodating, they put all of our rooms together. The kids love running back and forth to Grammy’s for cookies.
If you can’t stay on the mountain, I have heard great things about the new RiverWalk Resort at Loon.
What to pack for the NH Highland Games
The Highland Games take place in September. In New England, that means that you can experience all four seasons in one weekend. You might have a freezing morning, a hot day and a thunder storm in the afternoon. The way to deal with it is layers. Lots and lots of layers that you will put on and take off all day long. You will do so much walking so comfortable shoes are a must. Bring water and snacks for the kids. You will be exposed to a lot of sun so think: sunscreen, sunglasses a hat. Bring a blanket or folding chair to sit on. Lots of hand sanitizer.
Are there kids activities at the NH Highland Games?
Yes! There are free “passports” kids can get at the information booth. It is like a scavenger hunt and kids will have fun collecting all of their stamps for a prize. Each clan tent has their own stamp, so they are fun to collect. It is such a great way to engage children.
While this year was different due to covid, there is usually a children’s craft room where they can make shields, a sporran, or a tartan sash. One year they were even able to try pint sized versions of the caber toss which was adorable. My kids look forward to the Highland Games all year long.
Here are some highlights-
The Highland Games in NH are a great way to learn about your Scottish heritage or simply a fun way to experience a new culture. NH Scot works tirelessly to pull this event together and it is sure to have you ready to board the next flight to Scotland.