August 2, 2011 By Kristin Laing
You’re at a Scottish festival and you spot a REALLY LARGE guy in a kilt, crouching at the bottom of what looks like a telephone pole (fortunately, he’s wearing bike shorts underneath). He lifts the pole from the bottom, runs across the field with it and throws it into the air, where it lands on its end, then falls over. The crowd cheers. What the heck?! This is the Caber Toss, andit’s one of nine events that Highland athletes compete in across the country and aroundthe world.
Before you head to the Virginia Scottish Games & Festival this Labor Day weekend at Great Meadow in The Plains, VA, we decided to chat with Highland athletes Kearney Smith, Harrison Bailey III, Eric Frasure and Allison Daniel about what Highland Athletics are.
Scots have gathered to test their strength since the 11th Century to improve their military’s abilities. Later, kings and chieftains used Games to choose the best men for their ranks. Pre-industrial implements, like weights to measure grain, quarry hammers, stones and logs also measured strength and power. The Games were much like modern day track and field. No longer military proving grounds, Highland Games remain much as they were a thousand years ago.
Throwing implements are basic, often handmade (the NFL wouldn’t know what to do with this stuff), but here’s what you’ll see at the Virginia Scottish Games:
Weight for Distance is thrown from a 4’6” x 7’6” chalk box that athletes cannot leave when throwing, or else they foul the throw. A judge measures the distance thrown with one end of a measuring tape at the edge of the box. The other end is held by a marker who stands on the field and measures where the implement first lands.
Braemar Stone Toss: 19-28 pounds, named for an ancient festival, thrown from a standing position, no running-up or spinning allowed. Stone Toss, or ‘clachneart”: 16-18 pounds, similar to shotput. Athletes can run up or spin to throw, but must keep at least one foot from the sidelines of the box.
Light and Heavy Weight for Distance: 28 and 56 pounds. Square weights, originally used for measuring grain. Run-up or spin approach.
Heavy Hammer: 22 pounds, it’s a metal ball on a wooden dowel thrown from a standing position. Many athletes use metal spikes mounted to their boots that are driven into the ground for stability while they wind and throw the hammer. Adjustable height standards like those used in pole vaulting are used in Weight for Height. Each athlete gets three attempts to clear each height.
Sheaf Toss: 16 or 20 pounds. A burlap sack is thrown over the bar using a three-tined pitchfork. Serious athletes have their own pitchforks.
Weight Over Bar: 28, 42 or 56-pound square weights are thrown over the bar. Athletes will stand directly under or just in front of the bar to achieve the proper trajectory, having to jump out of the way before it lands.
The Caber Toss is the signature event and does not involve height or distance. A Caber (Gaelic for “Tree”) is a tree trunk 18-21 feet long, weighing 90-150 pounds. The object is to flip the caber end over end, landing as if pointing to 12:00 from the athlete on an
imaginary clock. The caber is stood on its narrow end. The athlete picks it up from the bottom, runs with it to gain momentum and throws it high enough to achieve a flip. Points are awarded from 9:00 – 3:00 on the imaginary clock, or from the angle degree of
the athlete if it doesn’t flip, but falls back.
Now armed with what Highland Athletics are, let’s take a look at WHO does this crazy stuff.
US Highland athletes represent many cultures including Norwegian, Polish, Italian, Cherokee Indian, Mexican, African American and German, in addition to Scots and Irish. They also represent many professions off the field: Eric is a state investigator, Harrison is a high school principal, Kearney owns a wellness center and Allison is a violinist and stay-at-home mom. There are also teachers, nurses, aestheticians, IT professionals and personal trainers, as well as law enforcement and members of every military branch.
Where did they get their Highland Athletics start? It depends. Eric literally grew up at the Games, throwing his first implement at just 14. Harrison’s college track and field coach, Paul Ferency, was an athlete and agreed to train him after college. Kearney was a
spectator who enjoyed watching so much he decided to give it a try. Allison started because her doctor recommended losing weight or facing diabetes. Some Highland athletes are world-class, particularly among the pros. Training includes substantial strength and plyometric training as well as event technique practice: workouts that lend themselves to explosive movements needed for releasing the throw. Eric spends up to four hours a week conditioning and three hours practicing technique. Some athletes work with trainers.
There are several skill classes in Highland Athletics and everyone starts as an amateur. Many work their way up to A or Super A. There is also a Master’s amateur class for 40+ athletes. Top amateurs can turn pro if they work with event organizers to build up their schedules. Professionals travel around the country and even the world, competing for cash prizes, trophies and championships. Women’s classes are very similar to Men’s. As the sport grows so do the delineations, such as the recently added Elite Women’s class.
Wait. There are female Highland athletes?!
You bet! Women have all the same events as Men, using slightly smaller weights. There are also female pros. They are mothers, daughters, wives and girlfriends when the Games are over, but these women are tough out on the field. Allison is a perfect example.
“I am stronger than all of my friends – except the ones that compete! You definitely don’t fit the typical ‘soccer mom’ mold. Some may believe that a strength and power-based sport is a males-only thing, but the fact is that women can train for strength and power
and not give up their femininity. I have two young daughters, and I hope to show them that it is ok to be a strong female, and in being one they can achieve whatever they want. They just have to believe and fight for it.”
There is nothing like being in Highland Athletics. It’s not just a sport: it’s a family of athletes, judges, administrators and other families who spend long days together on the field. They become a part of each others lives, welcoming babies, celebrating
engagements and mourning losses. The competition is fierce, but athletes support each other, cheer each other on when they succeed and offer constructive criticism when they fail.
Harrison described it as “a huge brotherhood, unlike many other competitive sports. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to do the things we do.”
Allison said, “I remember how I felt my first game – completely terrified as I had never done anything like this before. The girls were so nice and welcoming that what could have easily been a very embarrassing experience turned out to be one of the best.”
Kearney appreciates the friendships he has developed because of the games. “Even though the Highland games are a very obscure sport, it takes really well-trained athletes to do well at it. Even after all these years I still think like an athlete, and train hard like an
athlete. I think the games have kept me young.”
Eric’s take is simple: “It’s a great time out on the field and if you choose to take a chance training for a fringe strength sport, you will not regret it. There are life long friends to be made and good memories too.”
Is a kilt required? Yes. Unlike other modern sports, the kilt “uniform” is as deeply rooted in Scottish history and pride as the sport. Considered a symbol of Jacobite rebellion, the English outlawed kilts in 1746. When the ban was lifted 35 years later, the kilt became a symbol of Scottish pride and wearing a kilt honors that. The tartan (plaid is the piece of cloth, tartan is the cloth’s interwoven pattern) you wear is up to you. There are hundreds of patterns and it’s not just about Scottish heritage anymore. The Commonwealth of Virginia has its own tartan as do other countries and causes like breast cancer awareness. If stripes make you look fat, companies like Utilikilts and Sport Kilts have been popularizing kilt wearing making machine washable, solid colored fabrics. Don’t let the thought of wearing a kilt (it’s not a skirt!) scare you off. Kearney or any athlete will tell you, “Chicks dig kilts!”
The Virginia Scottish Games & Festival is September 3-4 at Great Meadow in The Plains, VA. Tickets and festival information is available at vascottishgames.org. Come to the field and cheer Kearney, Harrison, Eric and Allison on!
The athletes would like to clear up a few misunderstandings about what Highland Athletics is:
Kearney – “Every time I mention that I do highland games, the response is ‘Oh yeah, I saw that on TV, where they’re using chainsaws.’ Highland Games have nothing to do with lumberjack competitions and are much more like a cross between strongman events and track and field.”
Harrison – “Unlike many other strength sports, we a very ‘clean’ sport when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. Not that it doesn’t exist, but there is a very high expectation that everyone is clean.”
Allison – “That it’s a boy’s-only sport. That you have to be a former track and field athlete to compete and do well. That you can be too old to start competing. That it’s easy to throw what is basically a tree! That any of the events are easy.”
Originally published in On Tap magazine.