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Scottish Athletics

Scottish athletics are different from most other athletics. This article describes the athletic events commonly held at Scottish Games.

Photos will be added to this article next week.


Scottish athletics are very different from most other athletics. First and foremost, they are individual competitions, not team. Second, they are pure shows of strength and skill. Some would have you believe that all the athletic events have origins in military use or farming but the reality is that big men have always liked to compete against each other in matters of strength. The Sheaf Toss is the only event that truly could have use on a farm (tossing a sheaf of hay up into a barn loft) but it is a recent addition to the Scottish athletics. The idea of a bare-shanked Highlander using the Caber Toss to make a bridge across a burn is patently ridiculous it would be much easier and safer to just hold the log upright on one bank and let the other end fall to the farther bank. An argument (albeit a weak one) could be made that the Weight for Distance or Weight for Height were useful war skills when protecting castle or laying siege to one.

Throw or Toss?

What is the difference between a throw and a toss? Normally the throw is for distance and the toss is for height or, in the case of the caber, accuracy.

Aside from the size of the athletes (big, huge, gigantic, awesome all these terms understate their size), the most notable feature of the athletes is that they are all wearing kilts. Some of the kilts are a wee bit small for the man (do you want to point that out to him?) and the rest of their apparel is rather non-Scottish. Most athletes will have on tee shirts with Games' logos and athletic socks (no garters or flashings). They are also not dressed "regimentally" due to the swirling motions that they must make (especially in the Hammer and Stone Throws); instead they wear shorts of various types and colors under their kilts. Queen Victoria would approve. Notice their shoes: in several events the athletes will be wearing shoes with spikes going forward (not down) from the tip of the shoe. These spikes assist the athletes in getting a firm grip to the earth during their exertions.

There is a wonderful camaraderie amongst the athletes. They will lend each other equipment, give advice, and joke freely. Sometimes it is almost more fun to watch the athletes at rest then when competing!

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Caber Toss

The Caber (kay-bur) Toss is the most spectacular of the Scottish heavy athletic events. The caber is traditionally a fairly large tree with all of its limbs and bark removed. It is normally from 18 to 24 feet in length and weighs from 80 to 120 pounds (obviously the longer the caber, the heavier it is). The narrow end of the caber is tapered and smoothed for that is where the athlete grips the caber.

The athlete will first squat down and grab the caber close to the narrow end. He then hoists the caber up to rest against his shoulder while shifting his grip to the tapered end, cupping his hands under the taper. Now he "walks" the caber, attempting to get some momentum. When he judges that it is the right time, he heaves the caber up and away with all his might. His goal is to have the end that was pointing up to hit the ground first and then to have the narrow end flip or "turn" so that it is pointed away from him. The ideal toss would result in the caber being at a "12:00 o'clock" position in relation to where the athlete was standing when he made the toss.

The official who judges the accuracy of the toss is also called "the spotter" for it is his job to keep close behind the athlete and "spot" the action of the caber. If it looks like the athlete may lose control of the caber, the spotter will help to push it in a safe direction (the toss is then no good). If the athlete successfully turns the caber, it is the spotter who judges how close to "12:00 o'clock" the toss was.

All the athletes are given three tries at turning the caber during a round. The winner is the first person in a round to have a perfect "12:00 o'clock" or at least as close as possible. Tosses that are between "3:00 o'clock" and "9:00 o'clock" do not count. If no one turns the caber then a piece is cut off the thick end (the length is determined by the spotter) and another round starts.

By its nature, there are no world records in caber tossing. Each caber is different in length, thichkness, weight, and even texture, all of which affect the athletes.

It is considered extreme bad form for spectators to distract either the spotter or the athlete. Several years ago a spectator loudly called out the name of the spotter and when the spotter turned his head, the caber fell back onto him. He was seriously injured with a broken collar, shoulder, and arm. He could have been killed.

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Hammer Throw

The Scottish Hammer throw is very different from the Olympic variety. The Scots use a round lead ball, weighing either 16 or 22 pound, attached to a shaft of wood or rattan, about 50 inches in length. The athlete grips the shaft with both hands, firmly plants his feet facing away from the field, and then twirls it mightily around his head before releasing it over his shoulder. Moving his feet before the release results in the athlete fouling the throw.

While some claim that the original hammer throw was the medieval mace, most believe that it began as a simple contest of strength between neighboring blacksmiths.

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Foot races are traditional Scottish athletic events but are rarely done in the United States. In Scotland (and elswhere in the Scottish diaspora) foot races are held either at regular oval tracks or as a point-to-point (what Americans call cross-country) race.

In oval track races the athletes compete in the same manner as track runners in schools or the Olympics. There are officials with starting guns and stop watches. Perhaps the fact that it is just like other foot races is why it is not popular in the United States.

Point-to-point races are normally run beginning and ending at the Grandstand and then all over the neighboring countryside. It is not unusual for the race to require running to the summit of a local hill or mountain, around a church or school, and through the High Street. Obviously the length of the races vary, with distances of two to ten miles being common.

Some Scottish Games have marathon runs of about 26 miles. Many of these marathon races are sanctioned by the racing authorities and count towards national championship scores. The Grandfather Mountain Games in North Carolina is perhaps the most famous and infamous of the Scottish marathons.

The Kilted Mile is an almost purely North American event. Quite simply the athletes run a one mile race, normally around a standard 440-yard school track, wearing kilts. What does make this event unusual within Scottish athletics is that is held with different age groups. Normally there will be junior, adult, and senior races with the age levels varying from Game to Game. This is also the only event where men and women commonly compete.

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Sheaf Toss

The Sheaf Toss uses a horizontal bar similar to a pole vault bar only much higher. Now days the standard holding the bar is made of aluminum extension ladders. The bar will start at a height of 16 feet or greater. The sheaf is a bag made of burlap or woven plastic stuffed with either baling twine or straw; it weighs between 15 and 20 pounds.

The athlete uses a three-tined pitch fork with tines sharpened and sanded to toss the sheaf over the bar. He will stand under the bar with his back to it and stab the pitch fork into the bag several times (to get a good grip and balance on it). Then he will lift the sheaf slightly off the ground and swing it back and forth between his legs several times, building momentum. Suddenly he will pitch the sheaf upwards and, hopefully, over the bar. If the sheaf knocks the bar off the standard then the toss is a failure. Each athlete is given three tries at each height to get the sheaf over the bar before being disqualified. After each round the bar is raised an additional 1 to 3 feet. Points are awarded for the highest bar height and fewest tosses. Competition goes on, with the bar being raised, until there is only one competitor, the winner, left.

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Stone Carry

The Stone Carry is an event of pure strength and little finese. A large weight, 100 pounds and up, is carried by a handle on a small chain. The athlete must walk a specified distance and the fastest is the winner. There is much variation in this event at the Games: some require two weights (one in each hand), the weight and distance vary, and some even have a big weight that the athlete "hugs" and carries.

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Stone Throw

The major difference between Olympic shot putting and Scottish Stone Throw is the Scots use of a rounded stone weighing 16 pounds instead of a metal ball. The athlete is allowed a "run up" to the toe-board (or "trig") of 7' 6" but touching or stepping beyond the trig constitutes a foul. The stone is thrown with one hand from in front of the shoulder; baseball overhand and softball underhand tosses are not allowed.

The Braemar style of Stone Throw is slightly different in that the athlete must keep one foot against the trig at all times. The Braemar style is named after the Royal Games at Braemar in Scotland.

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Tug of War

The Tug of War is another event which is not as popular in North America as in Scotland. This is the only Scottish athletic event which is not an individual sport but is rather a team sport. The teams will range from six to twenty people a side. A team is placed at each end of the rope (normally a very heavy nautical line). Between the two teams there is either a mark on the ground (e.g., chalk) or a mud pit (much more exciting). At the official's command the teams struggle to pull the opposing team over the mark or into the mud.

The only requirement of a team's composition is that there be the same number of people on each side in a Tug of War. Teams can be composed friends, pub regulars, members of a clan society, employees of a company, etc. In Scotland it is very common to have teams from the different branches of the military or even Regiments.

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Weight for Distance

This is called by many the most graceful of the Scottish athletic events which is slightly puzzling considering that the athletes are throwing 28 and 56 pound weights. But there is definitely a certain grace and almost delicacy about the athletes as they swirl around and around before releasing the weight on its journey.

The weights are large pieces of metal in a rough cubical shape with a steel ring attached by a short chain. There are two weights used, one weighing in at 28 pounds and the other at 56 pounds. Why 28 and 56 pounds? Quite simply, they are multiples of the ancient weight measurement "stone" which translates to 14 pounds (conversely, they are also a quarter and a half long hundredweight, respectively).

The athlete is allowed a nine foot "run up" but cannot cross the toe-board. The athletes grip the steel ring with one hand and swirl around, to gain momentum, as they move towards the tow-board. When they release the weight it goes flying off into the field where it is measured for the distance traveled.

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Weight for Height

In this event the athlete tosses a 56 pound weight backwards over a bar. The bar is attached to a standard, similar if not identical to the one used for the sheaf toss, and is parallel to the ground. The weight is a large block of metal with a ring handle. The athlete, standing backwards to the bar and just in front of it, grabs the weight with one hand, swings it several times between his legs, and then tosses it over the bar. Each athlete is given three tries at tossing the weight over the bar, failure to cross the bar disqualifies the athlete from further rounds. At the end of each round the bar is raised.

There is a bit of machismo at work in the weight toss. After tossing 56 ponds of metal over his head, the athlete will calmly take a single step to the side and watch the weight crash to the ground just about where he was just standing! It reminds one of a matador's casual attitude as the bull rushes by. This is an event that Ernest Hemingway would have loved.

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Wrestling at Scottish Games is Cumberland-style wrestling which is very different than either Greco-Roman ("Olympic") or WWF ("Hulk Hogan"). The wrestlers stand facing each other with one hand resting on the other's shoulder. At the official's command the wrestlers grapple with each other until one forces the other to touch the ground with any part of the body other than the feet. If either athlete steps outside the ring the offiicla will halt the match and reposition the wrestlers back in the center. Traditional the wrestlers will wear colorful shorts over white long-johns but it is more common in North Amewrica for the wrestlers to either be kilted or to wear athletic trunks.

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Childrens' Games

Many Scottish Games in North America have an area set aside for the Childrens' Games. Theses Games have children-sized versions of the athletic events. Their caber will be a carpet roll. They will toss a pillow over the bar and throw balls or foam blocks. Every child is, of course, a winner and given a ribbon in at least one event.

The Childrens Games are staffed by volunteers who love kids and really look out for them. The events are fun and safe. Many adults will leave their kids there will they go off to other events (like the pub tent!).

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Copyright © 2000 by Jeffrey E Kelso. All Rights Reserved.
Last Modified: 7/12/2014 1:20:39 AM EST