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The Highland Games in one form or another, have been around for over a thousand years.
According to oral tradition, similar gatherings have been taking place amongst Celtic tribes since before the dawn of Christianity, and in these times were designed to select the Clan’s best and strongest warriors. The first Highland Games in Scotland to be designated as an official sporting event are recorded as having taken place in the 11th century, during the reign of King Malcolm III. He staged a royal contest to find the fastest and strongest who could act as his messengers.
The first free games were held at Ceres in Fire in 1314, when a charter was granted to Robert the Bruce after the villagers supported him during the Battle of Bannockburn – these Highland Games still take place in Ceres today.
Games continued to be held throughout Scotland over the following centuries until 1746, when the English enforced the Act of Proscription by which practicing several Scottish traditions, which included the Highland Games as well as playing the bagpipes and wearing kilts, became punishable by death.
The Act of Proscription was repealed a few decades later and Highland societies began to form, giving birth to the
Highland Games as we know them today. In the United States, they are a mix of sports, culture, and community and consist of nine events. All athletes compete in all nine events.
As the “signature” event, the Caber Toss exemplifies The Highland Games. When a
Highland Games athlete talks to someone about the sport, a very common reply is
“oh, you throw the tree looking thing”. “Yes, we throw the trees…”
To be specific, the caber is a log that is somewhere between fifteen and twenty feet long and can weigh anywhere between 65 and 165 pounds. Each class of athletes chooses the caber that they want to use in their competition.
To throw a caber, the athlete holds the caber against their shoulder and squats
down, picking the caber up from under the bottom with both hands. The athlete then runs forward, building momentum and establishing a “path” that the judge standing behind them is carefully watching. The athlete will then toss the caber into the air so that it turns end over end.
If the athlete is successful in turning the caber end over end, the judge will give them a score based on a clock face with the best score being 12:00. Each athlete will attempt to “turn” the caber three times to achieve the best score possible.
Braemar is like a shot put but unlike the standard shot-put throw, it is a
significantly heavier stone and the athlete throws from a fixed standing
The Braemar stone can weigh anywhere between twenty and twenty-six
pounds and athletes attempt to throw the stone as far as they can.
The open stone event is much like the shot put, but instead of a lead ball, the
Highland Games athlete throws a stone (probably from a river) that weighs around sixteen pounds.
The athlete stands behind a board known as a trig and has three attempts to
throw the stone as far as they can. The athlete that throws it the farthest wins the
Weight for distance is a weighted ball and chain measuring no
more than 18” from handle to the ball.
The athlete holds onto the weight with one hand and with a
spinning motion, throws the weight as far at they can. Each
athlete throws a light weight for distance and a heavy weight for
Sometimes referred to as 'weight for height', with one hand, the
athletes hold on to a handle attached to the weight and throw it over a
Depending on the class of athlete, the weight thrown is between 16 and
56 pounds. With each successful attempt, the bar is raised higher and
higher, eliminating the contestants one by one.
While this event appears to be a real test of brute strength, there is
more technique than strength involved in launching the weight over
The hammer consists of a metal ball, which can weigh up to 22
pounds, connected to a wooden or plastic handle.
In the United States, each athlete throws a light hammer and a
heavy hammer. The athlete stands with their back facing the
field and swings the hammer over their head several times
before letting it fly as far as they can.
Some athletes wear special boots, with long blades affixed to the
bottom which allow them to anchor into the ground to give them
more leverage in their throw.
In the sheaf toss, a pitchfork is used to hurl a burlap
bag stuffed with twine over a horizontal bar above the
Each athlete has three chances to clear the bar, the bar
is then raised to the next height and all the athletes who
cleared the previous height throw at the new height
until all but one athlete is eliminated.
There’s much debate about the Sheaf and was it ever an event in the original and ancient Highland Games?
While the history isn’t clear, some believe that it’s been mostly an American addition to the games. One article theorizes that the North American farm boys could “really chuck a bale of hay” and wanted to get the upper hand on the Scots in an event they were unfamiliar with. That’s why you typically don’t see the Sheaf Toss in the European games or those games in the US where the Athletic Director is particularly staunch in keeping with tradition. Other sources indicate that while not technically a heavy athletic event, it has been incorporated into many Highland Games. It is a traditional agricultural event that was originally contested at county fairs in Scotland and France. Either way, it’s a ton of fun to watch!!!
All that aside, exactly what is a Sheaf?
According to the Bible, it’s a bundle of stalks of grain that have been cut and bound together and often used as a symbol of abundance and prosperity. I like that definition and I like that we as athletes are throwing them high, like our abundance! So the next time you’re watching your favorite Highland Games athlete compete in the Sheaf toss, consider that they are reaching for the heavens and keep cheering them on!!!
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