By Anthony Masterson
If you are on a search for unusual sports, look no further than the Highland Games. These celebrations take place not only in Scotland but all over the world, anywhere there are people interested in celebrating Scottish and Celtic heritage and specifically that of the Scottish Highlands. Anyone who has been to a Highland Games knows that good times await you no matter your interests: Whether you are an athlete, a musician, or just there for the beer and carnival food, there is something for everyone.
Growing up, my grandpa used to take me to free bagpiping lessons with our city’s pipe band every Saturday. After a year or two I became skilled enough to attend my first piping contest, which took place at our local Highland Games. When we weren’t rehearsing or performing, there was time to see what else the games had to offer. I remember being particularly intrigued by the athletic events. These competitions were surely not for the faint of heart. “How far do you think you can hurl this enormous thing?” is a common theme in the games. Or, if you’re not one for hurling, “How far can you carry this other enormous thing?” is a close runner up. The raw simplicity of these contests made them all the easier to admire.
Take the caber toss for instance. The caber toss consists of flinging a gigantic tree trunk called a caber, which is normally 19 feet long, 9 inches thick on one end and tapering to about 6 inches on the other, and about 175 pounds. The thrower balances the caber vertically against his body with the narrow end of the trunk in his hands. The objective is for the thrower to toss the caber in such a way that the fat end of the pole lands first, and the narrow end falls away from the thrower. The straighter the pole lands in the 12 o’clock position relative to the thrower, the higher the score. The lowest score results from the log falling back toward the thrower. Supposedly, this event originated from the need of Scottish lumberjacks to get logs over narrow chasms.
Many of the other athletic contests of Highland Games resemble more primitive versions of contemporary track and field events. The stone put, for example, is basically the shot put, but instead of throwing a finely smoothed and spherical iron weight, the thrower uses an actual stone, with no standard size or weight. The weight toss is exactly what it sounds like and comes in two forms — the toss for height and the toss for distance. I remember seeing another event once in which a kilted competitor was carrying a huge weight in each hand around a circuit as many times as he could before he had to drop the weights from exhaustion.
Probably the greatest thing about Highland Games is the weirdness factor. Where else will you see average everyday people who may or may not be Scottish dressing up in Scottish garb to either play bagpipes, participate in antiquated athletic event and highland dance or sit in a tent and talk about their clan name? And how weird do you have to be to want to witness this? I can say from personal experience: It is completely and totally worth it.