In the world of strength sports, Strongman tends to get all the glory. We know their names, we see them on ESPN, and it generally has a larger base of practitioners in the every day. Not to be overlooked though, is Highland Games, or the Scottish Heavy Events.
The history of the Highland Games is ancient, and not entirely clear. Historical texts like the Book of Leinster make reference to sporting events as early as 1829 B.C. that would include events such as stone throwing and other track and field type events. Much later in the timeline of history, into the 1300s A.D., the more modern representation of the games would appear. To celebrate victory of King Robert Bruce, games were held featuring the casting of stone, and throwing of a hammer, which was a club with a large iron head. As these sporting events became more standardized and regular, events were adopted into sporting leagues and events. Track and field would feature shot putting and hammer throws.
As track and field became more recognized and legitimized in the 1800s, thus began the parting of ways of the two sports. And by the late 1800s, the Highland Games as we know it today was taking shape. The modern Heavy Events that we see today are typically held in the spring and summer. You will often find them amidst Scottish, Celtic and other Highland festivals which celebrate all aspects of the culture. Dance contest, pipe and drums, and even dog shows abound, but the real crowd pleaser is the athletics.
The Caber Toss
The Caber Toss is the most notorious of the events, and often the biggest draw. The caber itself is a long, tapered log of a non-standard weight and length, though it will typically be 18-20 feet in length. The weight varies as well, typically north of 100 lbs, sometimes up to 175 lbs. The event is carried out by placing the log with the heavy side in the air. A competitor must pick up the log, balance it, and attempt to flip the log. While strength is important, finesse, balance and timing will make or break this event.
The event is scored by accuracy, using the face of a clock as a scoring template. A “perfect” toss will have the caber flip and land in a 12 o’clock position, i.e. perfectly straight. A flipped caber will be anywhere from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock. In the event that the athlete fails to fully flip the caber, the score is then given in degrees, based on the steepest angle that the caber achieves before falling back down.
Weight Over Bar
Sometimes casually as the “wob,” A 56 pound weight, typically an iron block or an iron ball with an iron ring handle, is tossed vertically over a bar. An athlete has 3 attempts to clear each height. A much simpler scoring method than the caber, this is simply whoever can clear the highest bar.
Weight For Distance (Light and Heavy)
For men, a heavy weight is 56 pounds, for women 28. A light weight is 28 pounds for men, and 14 for women. In both cases, an athlete aims to use one hand and achieve the longest distance throw.
Scottish Hammer Throw (Light and Heavy)
A heavy hammer for men is 22 pounds, for women 16 pounds. A light hammer is 16 and 12. Similar to a track and field hammer throw, a large weight is at the end of a 4 foot apparatus. In track and field, it is a cable or chain, but for highland games the hammer has a more solid handle sometimes made of wood, or even PVC. And also unlike its track and field cousin, there is no spin, and the athlete remains stationary while performing the event. To help maintain balance and counter the momentum of a rapidly spinning weight, athletes often wear special footwear with metal blades to anchor into the ground. But much like its track and field cousin, the aim is to make the longest throw.
Another event with strong ties to track and field, the Open Stone is very similar to a shot put. Instead of using a metal ball of standard weight, competitors will use a smooth stone, weighing 16-22 pounds for men, and 8-12 pounds for women. Athletes tend to approach this similarly to shot putting, with either a “spin” technique or a “glide” technique to help generate speed for the throw.
The Braemar Stone is a subset of stone putting. The key differences to note, are that the stone is heavier (23-26 pounds for men, 13-18 pounds for women) and that the feet must remain planted for the throw. There is no glide or spin allowed.
There is much debate on the authenticity of this event, whether it truly has origins in highland games or if it is an American invention from county fair type events. Some event organizers will feature this event, others not. But it is a fun event for all when it is done. The event is performed with a weighted bundle of straw inside of a burlap bag. The weight is 20 pounds for men, 10 for women. An athlete will use a pitch fork and attempt to clear progressively higher heights, much like the Weight Over Bar event.
Where to Begin
If you are a competitor within strongman, a former track and field thrower, or just someone looking for an excuse to throw really heavy stuff, its easy to get into. Get a kilt, register, and show up and throw! The culture surrounding the sport is encouraging and educational, even if its the first time throwing, everyone will help coach and give pointers.