Why the Highland Games
It has been no secret that I have been prepping and training for the Highland Games in Scotland. Why does a strongman want to do a Highland Games? The answer to that is pretty obvious. The origins of strongman dates back to the Norse and Scottish culture dating back more than seven centuries. Where feats of strength are the norm in day to day life and at times survival.
The Highland Games itself especially the Heavy Events are probably or most likely the origins of the modern day contemporary strongman competitions. Now individuals who have not seen or tried any of the events in the Highland Games may come to a quick conclusion that “Hey, that looks pretty easy”. I can assure you that it is not. It was an eye-opening experience and definitely each throw, attempt or failure is a learning experience on how much I need to grow as an athlete.
The Highland Games in a Nutshell
Whether spectating or participating, The Highland Games are a unifying rite of passage for any Scots. Amidst the vast ocean of tartan, bagpipes and clans, sits a cultural event steeped in skill, tradition and community.
From the months of May through to September, society and communities across Scotland and other countries partakes in these games, which include the heavy events like the caber toss, stone put, throwing weights for distance or height and the Scottish hammer throw. Dancers of immense talent of various ages and genders move gracefully under the hypnotic tunes of the bagpipes. The pipe bands and march past is a cultural fixture at all Highland Games that summon harmonious and almost hypnotic melodies throughout the games.
It turns out that the Highland Games, like many moments in Scottish history, are laced with a healthy dose of ambiguity. Multiple sources mention King Malcolm III of Scotland. During the 11th century, proposed a foot race at the majestic summit of Craig Choinnich, which overlooks Braemar. The story goes that his motive was to uncover the fastest runner of the bunch, so that he could have a swift royal messenger!
Many adhere to the thought that the Games originated as a type of war game or as a means of sifting through the ranks as a means of finding the best candidates in their field to serve the clan chieftains, both of which focus on strength, agility, and to some degree, entertainment. To stress the enduring nature of the Highland Games, rewind back to 1314 in Fife, where the Ceres Highland Games, the oldest free games out there started by Robert The Bruce, were conceived to commemorate and celebrate the victorious return to Ceres of the men who fought at Bannockburn in 1314.
At the end of the day, when it comes to the history of the Highland Games. The most important thing is the sporting element. For it is the sporting portion that has always been the star of this Scottish show.
Prepping for the Highland Games Events
My sole focus will be on the Heavy Events because I’m definitely not graceful enough to be part of the dancing bit of the Games.
There are a few events which are fixtures at most Highland Games like below.
Caber Toss – The caber is a large, tapered, wooden pole (like a telegraph pole) between 15 and 23 feet (5-7 metres) long and weighing between 5 and 11 stone (30-70kg). One of the most fearsome cabers of all is the 20ft (6m), 9.5 stone (60kg) Braemar caber, first tossed in 1951. The origins of this event is from woodsmen who were used to hauling trees.
Shot Put/Stone Put – Similar to the modern-day Olympic shot put, but normally featuring a smooth stone (or sometimes not). There are versions of the stone toss events, one that allows a run-up and more variation in technique, the other a standing put. Large smooth stones from a riverbed are used for putting.
Scottish Hammer Throw – Similar to the hammer throw as seen in modern-day track and field competitions. A round metal ball (weighing 16 or 22 lb. for men or 12 or 16 lb. for women) is attached to the end of a shaft about 4 feet in length. The throwing motion involves about two to three swings from stationary position. The hammer throw originated using a blacksmith’s hammer.
Weight for Distance – The weights are made of metal and have a handle attached either directly or by means of a chain. The implement is thrown using one hand only, but otherwise using any technique. Usually, a spinning technique is employed.
Weight over Bar – Athletes toss a 56-pound (4-stone) weight with an attached handle over a horizontal bar using only one hand.
Drumtocthy Highland Games
The Drumtocthy Games takes place in the grounds of Drumtochty Castle in Drumtochty Glen just two miles outside the picturesque village of Auchenblae. It’s known as the friendliest games in all of Scotland. And all You have to do is just turn and approach any of the grounds staff or officials and they will direct you where to go.
I selected this games because it was within my schedule of my stay while in Scotland. But what I did not know was that the Drumtocthy Highland Games was a sheer international display at the highest of levels of competition with athletes from Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland, US and Scotland. It escalated quickly turning out to be an international affair with world class Highland Games athletes whom have years of experience and numerous Highland games under their belt. It was very clear that I was a fish out of water especially after the first event which was the Hammer Throw.
But I have always adopted the philosophy of just competing and do my own thing while enjoying myself. With every throw the crowd cheered and clapped, you may not be the best thrower but one thing that I really appreciated was the crowd cheered and clapped for every single one who genuinely gave their best in every throw, every event and attempt.
I walked away from this games with some personal best of a really smooth hammer, heavy hammer and weight for distance throw in terms of technique. It also seems that I am the breaker of all equipment by damaging the equipment for weight over bar with the weight dropping on the equipment stand causing it to collapse to the bewilderment, laughter and cheers of the crowd. I was utterly embarrassed and I probably got the death stares from Bruce the Head Judge for the Heavies.
In the final event the Caber toss… It is still sad to say that I have not mastered or gotten this event yet. And I still have to work harder to get the technique down.
Ceres Highland Games
Being one of the oldest Highland Games since 1314 sanctioned by Robert the Bruce to commemorate and celebrate the victorious return to Ceres of the men who fought at Bannockburn in 1314. The only times that the Ceres Games didn’t happen was during the Act of Proconscription (1746-1782) and the years during World War I and II. The Ceres Games is one of the very few free games that you don’t have to pay an entrance fee to compete or to watch. All you have to do is show up walk up to any of the officials and they will direct you where you need to go.
The Ceres Highland Games featured different events from Drumtocthy. They don’t have a hammer because of the competition area is rather small when compared to Drumtocthy. Ceres Heavy Events featured Shot Put, Heavy Weight for Distance, Ceres Stane, Weight over Bar, Sheaf Toss, Caber for Distance and Caber for Accuracy. Some of the events that were different and rather interesting was the Ceres Stane, Sheaf Toss and Weight over Bar.
The Ceres Stane is a 100-110lbs (45-50kg) stone attached to a ring that only fitted three of my fingers and you have to throw is over a distance anyway or whatever way that you can. Each athlete is only given two throw. I chose to do a run up and throw. But I can definitely do better at this event.
The Sheaf Toss is a rather interesting because as my Scottish friends were telling me, this was a really traditional event that farm boys have to heave a 15kg to 20kg sheaf onto a cart which is about 10 feet high. And on the cart will be another farm hand to stack and arrange the sheaf. If the sheaf fell in a wrong position he would be the butt of the joke for the whole day. Of course this story is entirely anecdotal but it could probably be true. This was a pretty fun event though. You get three tries for each height and we started at 14 feet. I managed to chuck it over the bar on the third attempt to the cheers of the crowd.
The Weight over Bar is generally a crowd favourite, athletes will have to throw a 56lbs (25kg) weight over a height, three tries per height and then the bar rises again. Until you fail all three attempts on a set height. Then you are eliminated from the event. To put this event in perspective, it’s like throwing a 7-8 year old child over a double decker bus. But of course no children were harmed in this event. I managed to do personal best on this event with 13”, failed on the 14” height but I was pretty close. This event was not to my advantage because I don’t have the physical leverages but it just means that I have to train and work harder.
My Overall Thoughts on my Highland Games Adventure
Flying 18 hours, 3 flight changes, 1 week of acclimatisation and loads of driving later. I finished my first proper Highland Games adventure in Scotland. Was it worth it spending money, flying and travelling all this way to get beaten and get an education? I think equating money and time to this whole adventure is pointless. Because I’ve been wanting to do a proper Highland Games in Scotland and be part of the history! I am after all probably the only Singaporean or Asian crazy enough to compete in the Highland Games in Scotland.
I was truly humbled to be able to compete in both the most challenging games in Drumtochty with the best of the athletes from all over the world. And the most historical games Highland Games at Ceres. Brett Nicol (Dinnie Stones Judge) spoke to me that “You got a real proper education at the Drumtochty Games because of the calibre of the athletes and you did yourself proud! No shame in doing your best”.
I already knew that I know I’m not going to place well in a
field of world class athletes like Kyle Randall, Lukas Wenta and Vladimir just to
name a few. But I was pleased to learn and compete with the best! Because if
you want to be up there, you got to compete with the best. If the opportunity
is not given to you, you got to create your own chances. Take your licks, keep
your head down, show up and do your best.
The highlight for me for this trip was having my name in the book of the Dinnie Stones which I would share in my next article when I actually get down to writing it. In the meantime train hard, train safe and always be brave to chase the impossible
Highland Games in a nutshell
All around the world people participate or are spectators at Scottish Highland Games. Seen as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture it is one of Scotland’s biggest cultural exports. Features of the Games include competitions in piping and drumming, dancing, heavy athletics, as well all kinds entertainment and exhibits related to many aspects of Scottish and Gaelic culture.
They were also thought to have originally been events where the strongest and bravest soldiers in Scotland would be tested. These gatherings were not only about trials of strength. Musicians and dancers were encouraged to reveal their skill and talents and so be a great credit to the clan that they represented.
Now there are Highland Games held in many places throughout the world. Traditionally some events have become standard in these games such as the caber toss, stone put, Scottish hammer throw, weight throw, weight over the bar and sheaf toss. However, these gathering now have a whole variety of events, stalls, entertainments, pipes, dancing and all kinds of competitions
First Highland Games experience in Kuala Lumpur
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to compete the Highland Games in Kuala Lumpur, the hosts of the event invited me along to be part of the festivities. The Highland Games is definitely a gentlemen’s event with a high value placed on ethics, sport-manlike behaviour and camaraderie with your fellow Highland Games athletes.
Like for one… After you finished your throw, you are expected to place the implement at the starting point. After tossing the Caber, you are expected to bring back the Caber for the next athlete and raise it up for him. This was pretty amazing because it just solidifies the concept of camaraderie.
I didn’t expect to do well at the Highland Games in Kuala Lumpur. It was pretty much a learn as you go. I’ve only thrown the shot put. I’ve never thrown the hammer, weight over bar, weight for distance or tossed a Caber. But I was pleasantly surprised that with every throw or event, I got better and better. Of course technique wise I was pretty terrible but I did hold my own with seasoned Highland Games athletes.
Highland Games Events
Perhaps the signature event of the Highland Games is the caber toss, where competitors toss a 20-foot-long caber (a large log), which normally weighs around 150lb, as far as possible. The caber toss is also a good test of balance, as the athlete has to balance the caber in their hands and perform a run-up before they toss it. Athletes’ throws are also judged on their straightness; a perfect toss sees the small end of the caber facing away from the thrower, at a “12 o’clock” angle.
The hammer throw is also an Olympic event, although the hammer thrown in the Highland Games is quite different. It consists of a metal ball, which can weigh up to 22lbs, connected to a wooden handle. Also unlike in the Olympic Games, athletes are not allowed to spin while throwing the hammer. Instead, they stand with their back facing the field, and swing the hammer over their heads before they twist 180 degrees and launch it as far as they can. The athletes also wear special boots, with long blades fixed to the bottom, in order to make sure they stay fixed into that spot in the ground.
The stone put event is much like shotput, however, the athletes instead throw a stone, weighing around 18lb, picked from a nearby river. Competitors throw the stone from behind a board known as a trig, and have three attempts to launch it as far as possible.
Weight for Height
This event is a real test of brute strength and tests how high the athletes can throw a 56lb weight over a cross bar. The catch is that they may only throw it with one hand, from a standing position, with three attempts to throw the weight over the bar at that height. The bar continues to be raised, with the athletes having to launch the weight higher and higher, until it’s the last man standing. To put this event into perspective is the same thing as launching a 7 year old up and over a double decker bus!
Weight for Distance
There are actually two separate events, one using a light (28 lb for men and 14 lb for women) and the other a heavy (56 lb for men, 42 lb for masters men, and 28 lb for women) weight. The weights are made of metal and have a handle attached either directly or by means of a chain. The implement is thrown using one hand only, but otherwise using any technique. Usually a spinning technique is employed. The furthest throw wins.
A bundle of straw (the sheaf) weighing 20 pounds (9.1 kg) for the men and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) for the women and wrapped in a burlap bag is tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar much like that used in pole vaulting. The progression and scoring of this event is similar to the Weight Over The Bar. This event scares me because I have no idea how to do this. Worst case scenario, I stab myself in the while tossing the sheaf. Maybe I should wear safety goggles for this event.
How do I prep for something that I’ve never done before?
The truth is… Its almost impossible. Throwing to me came pretty naturally because my background as an athlete was Track and Field. I used to throw in my younger years representing my school and country. So some events came naturally to me like the shot put or stone throw because the movements were rather similar.
Basically the Highland Games in Kuala Lumpur was a warm up and I needed it make sure I knew what I getting myself into. As a result of that, I’ve fabricated my own throwing hammer, weight over bar and weight for distance. Just slowly building up my own arsenal of Highland Games equipment of course with the help and input from the guys I’ve competed with at the Highland Games in Kuala Lumpur. Now I do event training at least twice a week when my schedule allows it. I’ve even got my blades fabricated and I’ve attached them to my throwing boots already! #achievementunlocked
You just got to throw caution to the wind and just learn as you go. It’s my dream to actually compete in one of the most traditional feats of strengths that is the Highland Games. I’ve always adopted a philosophy that you either win or you learn. I’m definitely not able to be pushing for a top three finish but I’m definitely going to do my best and make every throw count. And I’m going to learn from the best in Scotland which is also my ancestral home.
I will be competing at the Drumtochty Highland Games on the 22nd June 2019. The following week at the Ceres Highland Games on the 29th June 2019. And of course I had to choose the games that is oldest and most historical games. Questionable Life Decisions right there!
In the meantime stay injury free, stay strong and have a good month of fasting for my Muslim friends!