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Not Just Scots

Scottish Highland games draw the curious


Jokes about what a Scotsman wears under his kilt abound, but it's really not the time to crack one when said Scotsman is chucking a 150-pound tree around.

Nope, that's the time to step back, get out of the way and hope no one asks you to try to pick up one of the massive weights the kilt-wearing athletes toss across the field with a single hand.

"Real men wear kilts," said Tim Smith, a giant grin spreading across his bearded face as he explained the intricacies of the Scottish heavy athletics during one of his group's weekly practice sessions in Meridian--this one during a Renaissance Fair fundraiser.

Smith discussed the nine events included in the Scottish games regiment as he stepped over a couple of cabers--the aforementioned trees--and lifted one of the 42-pound weights competitors throw over a bar mounted at least 8 feet high. The weight landed with a dull thud as Smith released it, creating a small divot in the wet grass as he moved on to the next event.

The display of Scottish culture is a weekly occurrence for Smith and the rest of the Scottish American Athletic Association Idaho Chapter, which has recently ramped up its efforts to recruit new members, as well as increase the number of opportunities for athletes to compete around the area.

Their efforts have garnered a lot of attention, too. But then it's hard to ignore a group of beefy men in kilts using a two-pronged pitchfork to toss a stuffed burlap bag over a pole next to busy Eagle Road.

In the past, the Highland athletes were rarely seen, coming out once a year in September for the annual Treasure Valley Highland Games held on the fields at Expo Idaho. Four years ago, Smith said between six and 20 people turned out to compete in the athletic competitions. Last year, there were 51.

In part, it comes down to increased presence in the community and word-of-mouth advertising. But even more important is the charismatic nature of the events.

The actual origin of Highland games is a little fuzzy, with various accounts of grand clan gatherings in days of yore, formalized into events by British kings who loved the romanticized versions of Scottish culture. While the roots are unclear, one thing everyone agrees on is the fact that the individual contests are based on activities from either agriculture or warfare.

From the agrarian side, there are two stone-throwing competitions harkening to days of clearing fields of rocks by hand. The first of the two is the open stone in which athletes can spin to throw a 16- to 22-pound stone for distance. The second is the Braemar Stone throw, in which competitors stand in one place and heave a 22- to 28-pound stone.

Throwing weights plays a prominent role in Scottish games. Highland athletes throw 28-, 42- or 56-pound weights for distance, and a 28- or 42-pound weight for height over a bar that starts at 8 feet and is raised 1 foot after each round.

Sometimes they even attach the weight to the end of a rod to create a 16- or 22-pound hammer, which is spun around the thrower's head and tossed for distance. To shake things up, they pack a burlap sack with 16 or 20 pounds worth of material, which is then skewered by a pitchfork and heaved over the bar.

Finally, in the showcase event, the caber toss, competitors pick up a 16- to 22-foot-long log, weighing between 100 and 180 pounds, and attempt to toss it end over end so it lands straight in front of them.

And while it might seem that all it takes to compete in Scottish athletics is a lot of muscle, those who compete say it's a lot harder than it looks.

"For a [sport that requires] brute force, strength, there's actually a lot of grace involved," said Tom Janzen, Idaho state chapter chief.

Developing the finer points of that technique is what the weekly Saturday practice session is all about. There, veterans help the newcomers learn the proper techniques of how to throw without ending up in the emergency room.

Wearing kilts in tartans that represent their family ties--or the actual Scottish members of the group--or solid-color utility kilts for everyday wear, the athletes offer coaching tips to each other in preparation for a series of upcoming games.

Already, the athletes have competed in the West Valley Heavy Events in Caldwell and have plans to participate in the McCall Highland Games on Saturday, June 27, and the Eastern Oregon Celtic Festival on Aug. 22 in Baker City, Ore. And of course, there's the Treasure Valley Highland Games and Celtic Festival on Sept. 26 in Boise, which also serves as the state championship.

Organizers are hoping that the increased activity and participation will draw more competitors from neighboring states.

In the meantime, though, there are new athletes to train.

Smith only started participating in Scottish sports four years ago when he saw the competition at the annual Highland Games. It all seemed a natural fit, considering that he is not only Scottish, but also makes replicas of historic weapons as his pastime.

Soon, Smith found himself the official equipment keeper, hauling around the assorted weights, stones, pitchforks and bars in a trailer to each gathering.

Over the years, Smith has seen a lot of people try the Highland games, but it's not as simple as it would seem even for the athletes who turn out. Smith said many are surprised by the difficulty of the technique required.

"It requires a lot of physical discipline," Janzen said, describing the hours in the gym during the off-season.

It's a true labor of love for Janzen, who married into the sport. German by ancestry, Janzen married a Scot, who brought him into to the culture and everything that comes with it. Now in his third year of competition, Janzen laughs at his prior attempts to get involved, saying he wasn't coordinated enough to play the bagpipes, but friends told him, "he's dumb enough to flip a log."

Still, the historic and cultural ties that come with Highland sports are a major attraction for Janzen, who seems to revel in his adopted culture. "You're expected to assimilate," he said with a laugh. "It's riddled with tradition, and you have to respect that."

The camaraderie is also a draw, he said, describing the close-knit group as a "brotherhood" whose members live by a code of honor.

That brotherhood is made up of people from all backgrounds; the only requirement is that they love Scottish culture and are willing to work hard.

Thanks to the diversity of events, Smith and Janzen said there's something that every athlete, regardless of size, can excel at, even the "tiny guys," meaning the ones who weigh less than 200 pounds.

Still, the Highland games are far from a day in the park.

"To get through the day [of competition], you're going to be tired and pretty sore for about a week," Janzen said.

Check out Treasure Valley Scottish athletes competing on Saturday, June 27, at the McCall Highland Games at the Hotel McCall. Competition starts at 9 a.m.