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How To Understand Highland Game Events and Learn to Compete

Updated on April 7, 2017

During the spring and summer Highland Games and Celtic Festivals are held across Scotland as a way to celebrate Scottish music, dance and athletic events. If you can't make it to Scotland don't worry there many similar events held across the United States every year as well.

While the dancing, kilts, whiskey and music are always wonderful to hear, taste and see the athletic events grow in popularity every year. The events known as the heavy events are the focus here and include the caber toss, Scottish hammer throw, sheaf toss, stone put and weight over the bar. Some festivals or gatherings will also include stone carries, wrestling and tug of wars. These are really fun events to attend to watch the competitors, or practice and compete yourself, taste a little whiskey and enjoy amazing music and dance and don't miss the clan gathering events if they have them.

Caber Toss

The caber toss is probably the most recognizable of the Highland Games and while the rules of the event are pretty straight forward the execution is not so easy. A caber was traditionally a tree that was cut and trimmed, in Scotland it was traditional to use a Larch tree, and typically is between 16 and 22 feet in length and weighs between 100 and 160 pounds. One end of the caber is narrowed and rounded so it is easier for the athlete to cup in their hands.

Each competitor lifts and cups the narrowed end of the caber and balances it straight up then they take a short run, stop and throw, or toss, the caber end over end. The goal is to basically flip the caber so that it is actually at a 12:00 o'clock position as it flips and then lands straight facing the competitor to have a perfect score.

A perfect score is clearly difficult to achieve and the judge to the side and the judge behind the competitor will score the throw by how close it came to the throw perfection. This is an amazing thing to watch when executed well and even when it doesn't go as well you have to respect the competitor for the effort!

Both men and women will often compete in this event and the cabers will differ slightly in length and weight. Each event may have slightly different rules but the basics will remain the same. Watch these videos below to see what a champion toss looks like and how to learn to toss a caber.

Hammer Throw

This event is very similar to the modern track and field event of the same name but the primary difference is the Highland hammer throw uses a solid 4 foot handle. The round metal ball, weighing 16 to 22 pounds for men and 12 to 16 pounds for women, is attached to the end of the shaft. The competitor swings this hammer around their head and throws it as far as possible.

Again the basic rules are pretty straight forward but the execution requires technique and strength. Many competitors will wear special footwear to help them maintain their balance and not be pulled by the centrifugal force created by the swinging of the hammer. When executed well this is a thing of beauty to watch.

Sheaf Toss

The sheaf toss is a fun event to watch and involves a bundle of straw (the sheaf), that weighs 20 pounds for men and 10 pounds for women, and is wrapped in a burlap bag and then using a pitchfork is tossed over a bar.

The rules are easy enough, use a pitchfork to stab the sheaf and in a smooth motion throw it over a bar that is raised higher in each round to determine the winner with the highest height. The technique and execution is a little more difficult to create the smooth power needed to achieve those heights, especially after throwing 20 pounds over the lower heights first!

Stone Put or Stone Throw

This is another event that will feel similar with a modern track and field event, the shot put. The competitor places a stone in one hand and holds it in the crook of the neck until the moment of release and throws or puts the stone as far as possible.

The stone will range in weight between 13 and 22 pounds for men and 8 to 18 pounds for women depending on whether the event is using a Braemar or Open rules. The primary difference is whether the competitor is a allowed a run up to the throw and uses the heavier stone in the Braemar and the Open is typically the smaller stone and allows any style leading up to the throw.

Weight for Height

Not the most glamorous name for an event but it does make it clear what to expect! The weight for height requires competitors to swing and throw a weight over a bar. The weight is shaped similar to a kettlebell and weighs a whopping 56 pounds. The competitor has three attempts to throw the weight over the bar and if they succeed they move to the next round where the bar height is raised until a winner is determined.

Again, wonderful straight forward rules but not an easy task to complete!

If you have never been to a Highland Games or Celtic Fest event do yourself a favor and go! You will have a fun time enjoying the dancing, music, food, whiskey and athletic events. If you are inspired you can start to train to compete yourself and be a part of a wonderful tradition.

I have added a video of a really talented Scottish pipe and drum band that will get you in the mood for some Scottish games training!

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    • North Wind profile image

      North Wind 4 months ago from The World (for now)

      Wow. This is what they did for fun? Talk about intimidating! I would have hated to meet them in a battle. Fascinating to watch and I think it would be edge-of-the-seat entertaining in person.