What are the Highland games? How did you get involved with them? Is this something where you have to be Scottish to participate?
Highland games are a celebration of Scottish culture and heritage, and they are most popular in countries/regions that were populated by immigrants of Scottish decent: the US (and in particular some southern states), Canada, Australia, etc. Competition or demonstration of Highland Athletics (aka Heavy Events) are a major part, but other activities are usually incorporated into a fair or festival atmosphere. Music, traditional food, and clan tents to learn about Scottish ancestry are most commonly involved. Depending on the location they may also include piping and dancing competitions, exhibition of Highland cattle, sheep dog demonstrations or competitions, vendors selling Scottish merchandise, SCA events, whiskey tastings, and anything else people think to squeeze in!
I attended a local highland games with my family in high school and college, I always thought the athletics looked like a ton of fun and wanted to try them. In 2009 I was living in Utah and feeling pretty adrift in an unfamiliar culture and looking for an active hobby, so I bought a kilt, emailed an Athletic Director, and showed up with no idea what I was doing.
I am mostly of Scottish decent but to participate in the games you just need to be willing to wear a kilt and to like to throw heavy things! The festivals are about celebrating a Scottish heritage so anyone is welcome to attend as long as they think Scottish stuff is cool.
To participate in the games you just need to be willing to wear a kilt and to like to throw heavy things!
What events do you participate in?
Heavy Events are similar to many track and field events, but deliberately anachronistic. There are nine events total: Braemar stone (like a shot put, but standing and with a rock), Open Stone (like shot put with a slightly smaller rock, but you can move your feet), Weight for Distance (a weight on a chain with a handle is thrown at two weights â€“ for ladies, they are 14 and 28 lbs) Weight over Bar (a 28 lb weight is thrown over a bar that is moved up in height as the event progresses) Sheaf (a pitch for is used to throw a 12-16 lb burlap sack filled with hay or twine over the same bar) hammer (similar to Olympic hammer, a standing throw for distance at two weights â€“ 12 and 16 lbs) and the iconic Caber, where a pole made of a felled tree is thrown for accuracy. You get three attempts at each event, and for height events you throw until you miss three attempts at the same height.
An Athletic Director can contest all or a subset of the events depending on space, equipment, etc. Six events are required for the games to count in the national ranking board (www.nasgaweb.com) and youâ€™re expected to compete in all the events that are contested.
How do you train for the games?
Ideally Iâ€™d have the equipment and a place to throw and practice the events a minimum of 1-2x a week. Some people throw up to 4x a week. But Iâ€™m an apartment dweller so I stick to pick up games and meeting up with others when possible. Otherwise its about being fit and strong: I run a little for basic endurance, I follow a powerlifting type training program for strength, and mix in ballistic or power building moves. Most of the power in throwing any track and field type event comes from the legs, so there are lots of deadlifts and squats, sometimes kettlebell work.
On a scale of 1-10, 10 being highest, how physically demanding do you find training and participating in the games?
You dedicate as much time to training as you want. Iâ€™d probably be better if I spent more time training but this is just a hobby for me. I usually train 2-4 days a week, but I my workouts are pretty intense in themselves so Iâ€™d say that gets me about a 7. Competitions are exhausting because you throw on and off all day long, in whatever weather condition you get: rain, hot temps, sun, humidity, whatever. A comp where all 9 events are contested is certainly a 10, one where the more strenuous events are skipped and the weather is cooler, maybe a 7 or 8.
What is your favorite event?
I do like the caber because itâ€™s so iconic and I like to tell people that I throw trees, but I think my favorite is the hammer because itâ€™s fun to wind up just as hard as you can and then let it all go.
Is this an annual event, or something you do multiple times in a year? What is a season like?
Scottish associations or towns generally hold only one event per year, around the same time of year. My hometown games in Scotland CT are always held the Sunday of Columbus day weekend, for example. But games are held around the country pretty much year round. States like Arizona and Florida often stick to cooler months (Jan-Mar). Where I live now in New England the â€œseasonâ€ runs mostly June-October. I do as many as I can depending on schedule and travel costs. My last year in Utah I did 8 (theyâ€™re a big deal in UT!). There are fewer games in New England but I aim to do one a month from April or May through October. I like to travel to other areas too, this year I am going to stay with friends and do the Savannah, GA games.
Events are not just about brute force.
How does your body affect your participation in these sports?
Well, being fat doesnâ€™t affect it. Men actually have a lightweight division for anyone weighing less than 190 lbs. Most of the guys who do it are very large and many are also into powerlifting or strongman stuff. Thereâ€™s a wide variety of body diversity among the women, Iâ€™ve thrown with women who are 125 lbs and Iâ€™ve thrown with women who top 300 lbs. Theyâ€™ve all kicked my ass! Itâ€™s a VERY technique heavy sport , and it requires endurance and some flexibility, but obviously being fat doesnâ€™t preclude those things. It helps that Iâ€™ve always been strong, but the events are not just about brute force. There is an advantage in all throwing sports that comes with being taller â€“ longer levers produce more force. Itâ€™s a physics thing. So I wish I was taller sometimes.
Is there a well-known athlete or figure you see as a role model?
Not really. This is a very esoteric sport so there arenâ€™t really any famous people in it. I have really appreciated how welcoming the other athletes are to newbies in general. Iâ€™ve thrown with several women who are ranked in the top 20 in North America and theyâ€™ve all been super supportive. Itâ€™s a very friendly competition and we all give each other feedback as we throw on whatâ€™s going wrong, little adjustments that need to be made, training tips, etc. Iâ€™ve learned everything I know about the sport by watching and throwing with others and attending a clinic where we were instructed by volunteers.
What would you like the world to know about yourself, about the Highland Games, and about being competitive?
I was a complete couch potato for the first 24 years of my life. I got into HG when I was 27. Most people who get into it did some sort of track and field event in high school or college, but not me. I had no idea what I was doing. My first year I did three games and I was so bad at it, I thought about quitting. But I ended up enjoying so many things about the sport: the kilt, listening to bag pipes outside on a sunny day, competing against myself and striving for improvement. Itâ€™s also very satisfying to go out and try to throw something heavy as far as possible. It can be really difficult to try new things, but very rewarding as well. I think that strength sports in general can be very intimidating to women. I sometimes do things just because they are intimidating, weird and different, and I would encourage others to do the same.
Highland Games isnâ€™t an easy sport to pick up if youâ€™re unfamiliar with throwing things. But itâ€™s so much fun! Telling people you throw trees is also very fun.
Highland Games isnâ€™t an easy sport to pick up if youâ€™re unfamiliar with throwing things. But itâ€™s so much fun! Telling people you throw trees is also very fun. If you want to give it a try, find an Athletic Director near you. They can tell you about practice events, if their event is newbie friendly, and what you need to do to register. Even if you arenâ€™t interested in trying your hand at it, think about coming out to an event. These are generally very family friendly events with lots of things to do and see, plus guys in kilts! I love having a crowd to cheer me on. The festivals rely on public attendance. Athletic Directors are all volunteers, and the festivals depend on a committee of volunteers from local Scottish or Town Associations. If they arenâ€™t well attended, people stop organizing them. So come check one out! There isnâ€™t an entirely comprehensive list out there, but most of them are listed on the mentioned website, and all the big festivals have informational websites you can Google up.