Cultural snapshot- the Scottish highland games (Would you like to me crush him like a wurm?)

English: A Highland cow on Lewis Island, Scotland.

Welcome all to February 2013. This week, paying homage to my most recent international home, and some awesomely cool peeps, we grab our winter woolies and head to the north of Scotland and investigate the cultural phenomenon of the Scottish highland games. In a nutshell, those of you who’ve seen braveheart will have seen this in as natural a setting as you’ll get today, by that of course I mean someone is guaranteed to have red hair and someone will be called Hamish. Highland games are a celebration of Scottish culture/traditional sports and have been exported along with some delicious single malts around the world. For those of you wondering what people do at highland games other than wear kilts, and flash their bums, a list of activities is as follows:

Caber toss: A long tapered pine pole or log is stood upright and hoisted by the competitor who balances it vertically holding the smaller end in his hands (see photo). Then the competitor runs forward attempting to toss it in such a way that it turns end over end with the upper (larger) end striking the ground first. The smaller end that was originally held by the athlete then hits the ground in the 12 o’clock position measured relative to the direction of the run. If successful, the athlete is said to have turned the caber. Cabers vary greatly in length, weight, taper, and balance, all of which affect the degree of difficulty in making a successful toss. Competitors are judged on how closely their throws approximate the ideal 12 o’clock toss on an imaginary clock.

Stone put: This event is similar to the modern-day shot put as seen in the Olympic Games. Instead of a steel shot, a large stone of variable weight is often used. There are also some differences from the Olympic shot put in allowable techniques. There are two versions of the stone toss events, differing in allowable technique. The “Braemar Stone” uses a 20–26 lb stone for men (13–18 lb for women) and does not allow any run up to the toeboard or “trig” to deliver the stone, i.e., it is a standing put. In the “Open Stone” using a 16–22 lb stone for men (or 8–12 lb for women), the thrower is allowed to use any throwing style so long as the stone is put with one hand with the stone resting cradled in the neck until the moment of release. Most athletes in the open stone event use either the “glide” or the “spin” techniques.

Scottish hammer throw: This event is similar to the hammer throw as seen in modern-day track and field competitions, though with some differences. In the Scottish event, 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 and made out of wood, bamboo, rattan, or plastic. With the feet in a fixed position, the hammer is whirled about one’s head and thrown for distance over the shoulder. Hammer throwers sometimes employ specially designed footwear with flat blades to dig into the turf to maintain their balance and resist the centrifugal forces of the implement as it is whirled about the head. This substantially increases the distance attainable in the throw.

Weight throw, also known as the weight for distance event. 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 longest throw wins.

Weight over the bar, also known as weight for height. The athletes attempt to toss a 56 pound (4 stone) weight with an attached handle over a horizontal bar using only one hand. Each athlete is allowed three attempts at each height. Successful clearance of the height allows the athlete to advance into the next round at a greater height. The competition is determined by the highest successful toss with fewest misses being used to break tie scores.

Sheaf toss: A bundle of straw (the sheaf) weighing 20 pounds (9 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. There is significant debate among athletes as to whether the sheaf toss is in fact an authentic Highland event. Some argue it is actually a country fair event, but all agree that it is a great crowd pleaser.

Maide Leisg (Scots Gaelic meaning ‘Lazy Stick’): Trial of strength performed by two men sitting on the ground with the soles of their feet pressing against each other. Thus seated, they held a stick between their toes which they pulled against each other until one of them was raised from the ground. The oldest ‘Maide Leisg’ competition in the world takes place at the Carloway show and Highland Games on the Isle of Lewis.

English: Arran highland games 2007 There are t...

English: Arran highland games 2007 There are three pipe bands in this pic, I only know the ones with the big sporrans are the Maybole pipe band. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other than sports, competitions for Scottish highland dancing and pipe bands are the main events. What we have here is a traditional competition between clans, and a chance to socialise more widely, that has developed through an all too familiar pattern into a tourism spectacle.  Like many other traditions (and Johnny Cash) the highland games walk the line between preserving culture and comercialising it for tourism purposes. Locals (for the games actually in the Scottish highlands) seem to view the event more as an opportunity for entertainment rather than an authentic maintaining of  their cultural traditions. The novelty value of these events becomes even more obvious once transported across the Atlantic to all over the North American continent and further afield.

Moving onto cynicism of a different nature, these games are one of the few methods of preserving sports and other traditions of a potentially declining audience. Of course everyone will experience these events differently, which is part of the wonder of travel. So pick a clan, grab your glass of Glenfiddich, don your kilt, and prepare yourself for the fling of a lifetime.

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games - Dancer

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games – Dancer (Photo credit: AMWRanes)

Disclaimer: For anyone with allergies to copious dosages of cheesy one-liners, you have my sincere apologies, and thanks for reading anyway…