The origin of Scotland's annual Highland Games goes back so far into the mists of time that no one knows exactly when the men of the Highlands first got together to wrestle, throw weights, toss cabers, and dance and play music.
The only clue we have is an ancient document that states that Malcolm Canmore , King of Scotland in the 11th century, was responsible for organizing the first Games to be held at Braemar, but whether or not this was the first of all Games has never been established.
The document tells us that when the King was staying at the royal hunting lodge - the remains of which can still be seen - he became very dissatisfied with the speed of his messengers and ordered that the young men should gather to hold contests of speed and endurance so that he could choose the best among them for his service.
The pioneers of those early Games little thought that centuries hence these displays of strength and skill would delight and thrill countless thousands of folk from countries far beyond the shores of Scotland every year. Maybe the glorious settings amid which many of the Games are held have something to do with it; or maybe it is the stirring sight of the arenas filled with brawny men in colorful kilts competing in the heavy field events; or the dancers and members of the pipe bands, resplendent in their traditional attire.
The Games are a reflection of the environment of the early Scots. Muscle power was their means of livelihood - they handled timber, lifted rocks to build houses, chased over moors for meat, vaulted across streams, and so on.
''Ye Casting of the Bar'' (tossing the caber) is thought to have originated among woodsmen who wanted to cast their logs into the deepest part of a river, or across a stream. As far back as the 16th century chroniclers were describing caber-tossing, and even King Henry VIII is known to have tried his hand at it.
The whole aim is to toss the caber in as straight a line as possible; it is not a question of who can throw it the greatest distance. For a perfect throw, the caber must land in the 12 o'clock position after being thrown in a vertical semicircle. The biggest of the cabers used at the Braemar Games is 20 feet long and weighs 120 pounds. Only three competitors have succeeded in tossing it satisfactorily!
Putting the stone was for centuries one of Scotland's most popular sports, practiced in villages and farmyards throughout the Highlands. Competitors have putted the 22-pound stone nearly 35 feet and covered more than 50 feet with the lighter 16-pounder - quite an achievement when it is remembered that competitors are not allowed to turn before putting.
Perhaps even more spectacular than the stone-putting is throwing the weight. Here, the competitor sends the 56-pound weight flying in an explosive burst of energy. This same heavy weight is also used in the competition in throwing for height - more than 15 feet has been achieved.
Another distance event is throwing the hammer, a sport that used to be played outside the local ''smiddy'' (blacksmith's forge) as a pastime. There have been throws of more than 129 feet with the 16-pound hammer and 103 feet with the 22 -pound hammer.
If these Highland gatherings were confined to feats of strength alone they would lose some of their appeal. Fortunately, other and lighter aspects of Highland life are not neglected. Games programs always include a good number of footraces and novelty items such as pillow fights, climbing the greasy pole, tilting the bucket, and so on.
And, of course, there is the dancing. A Highlander cannot hear the skirl of the pipes in a reel, a strathspey, or a fling without feeling an urge to dance. This is a pleasing feature of a pleasing race - the spontaneity of their folk dances. These Highland dances are not sponsored by this or that society. They do not have to be. The people dance them because they love them; they dance with their hearts as well as their feet, and what life, what verve, what joyousness there are in their dancing!
Three dances make up the main events - the ''Seann Truibhas,'' the ''Highland Fling,'' and the ''Ghillie Calum,'' or Sword Dance. The ''Seann Truibhas (which translated from the Gaelic means literally old tres, or old trousers) came into being after the Culloden disaster in 1748, when the English government banned the use of the kilt. Anyone caught wearing it was imprisoned for six months on the first offense and deported for seven years if caught again. So, willy-nilly, the Highlander had to wear the tres, and the actions of the dance represent his distaste for the garment.
Danced entirely on one spot, the ''Highland Fling'' is a lively and robust excercise, expressing wonderfully the joys of life.
The most picturesque of the three is the Sword Dance, this weapon not unnaturally being part of native dances, since Scottish history is full of bloodshed and dark deeds. The Romans were astounded to find the ancient Scots gaily dancing between the upturned blades of swords and spears, but Malcolm Canmore, the 11th-century Scottish King, is the traditional originator of the dance. After a fierce battle, he took the sword off his opponent, crossed it with his own weapon, and danced in triumph over them.
The passage of time brings change to all things, and the Highland Games or Gatherings are no exception. The modern presentation of these events is far removed from the days when the men of a district would foregather by the quiet waters of a loch or in some sheltered glen beneath the towering mountains to match their strength and skill. Today the Games are on a greater scale, more organized and spectacular. But the magic is the same - the pleasure, the color, and the friendliness of it all.
This year the Games take place at around 80 places in the Highlands and Islands. The most spectacular will be the Royal Highland Gathering at Braemar on Sept. 4.
It is perhaps as a spectacle that these Highland gatherings chiefly appeal to the tourist, and as such they are supremely satisfying. The competitors are clad in their tartans and, coming as they do from all parts of the Highlands, there is a medley of color.
Dominating all is the music of the bagpipes, an instrument designed for use out of doors and never heard to greater advantage than amid its native hills and glens. It is all, as it were, a cross section of Highland life, a peep into the inner life of a people and territory, as interesting, as mysterious and as romantic as any which, in these prosaic modern times, beckon to the traveler.
Practical details: To get a list of the dates and locations of Highland Games events, please write to the British Tourist Authority, 680 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.