In their original form many centuries ago, Highland games revolved around athletic and sports competitions. Though other activities were always a part of the festivities, many today still consider Highland athletics to be what the games are all about - in short, that the athletics are the Games, and all the other activities are just entertainment. Regardless, it remains true today that the athletic competitions are at least an integral part of the events and one - the caber toss - has come to almost symbolize the Highland games.
Although quite a range of events can be a part of the Highland athletics competition, a few have become standard.
Probably the oldest of the heavyweight sports and the easiest for young lads to take-up - all they needed was a smooth stone from the river bed.
Each different Gathering had its own such stone which might vary in weight between 13lbs (5.9kgs) as at Tomintoul, and 28lbs (12.7kgs) as at Glen Isla and Braemar.
This made comparison of distance records between the various Highland games, very difficult indeed.
Nowadays the old stones tend to have been replaced at most gatherings by a standardised iron sphere weighing either 16lbs (7.26kgs) or 22lbs (10kgs).
The weight or shot is thrown with one hand only from in front of the shoulders. A run not exceeding 7ft 6ins (2.3m) is allowed up to the trig which is a length of wood 4ft 6ins (1.37m) long and six inches ( 15cms) high.
Throwing the weight is divided into two different events: throwing it for distance and throwing it for height.
For Distance - Said to be one of the most graceful of heavyweight events. There are two standard weights - the commonest being 28lbs (12.7kgs). The weight consists of a 28lb ball, chain and handle, the overall length of which must not exceed 18 inches (0. 45m).
In simple terms the thrower grasps the weight in one hand, spins round and throws it as far as possible. More accurately, the thrower has a distance of nine feet (2.7m) between a peg and a trig. Grasping the weight and facing the trig, he stands beside that peg and swings the weight to the side and then round behind him. He's now ready to start his throw which consists of three waltzing turns, gathering momentum on each. On the third pirouette and at exactly the right moment, he heaves the weight as far as he can. A protective cage extends around the sides and rear of the thrower to safeguard the public!
In some amateur games, throwers will use both hands to hold the weight but that is the method used for the Olympic hammer and not the Scots 28lb weight.
For Height - For this event the commonest weight is a standard commercial 56Ib (24.5kgs) box weight with a ring attached. As in the high jump, a bar is raised between two posts and each contestant has up to three attempts at each height to which the bar is raised.
Many heavyweights seem to pride themselves in the apparently nonchalant way that they approach this event. Frequently the entrant will saunter up to the weight - which is lying underneath the bar - and without even a glance upwards will suddenly heave the weight up with one hand where it soars through the air and thuds back down into the ground only inches from the thrower.
The air of nonchalance is very deceptive however since the strength and skill needed are enormous. Past heavyweight competitor Charlie Allan compares the feat to that of throwing a seven-year old boy over a double-decker bus - with one hand!
The origins of throwing the hammer have never been in doubt. Wherever hammers were used - blacksmiths, quarries or farms - a diversionary pastime would be throwing the utilitarian wooden-shafted sledgehammer.
The sport's long history can be judged by the following extract quoted by author David Webster from an 1826 games poster:
Throwers used to gain great momentum - and distance - by turning the body rapidly to build up speed before releasing the hammer. Instances were very common of throwers losing their grip on the shaft or of releasing it a little too late with the hammer flying over or, even worse into the crowds. This soon brought about a ban on that method!
The old hammer has been replaced by an iron sphere on a rotan or male bamboo shaft, measuring 4ft 2ins (1.27m) and weighting either 16lbs (7.3kgs) or 22lbs ( 10kgs).
The thrower stands with his back to the trig (the throwing mark), swings the hammer round his head to gather momentum and then releases it over his shoulder.
The event certainly needs excellent timing and whilst the conventional image of a hammer thrower is of a Herculean figure, some past record breakers have been short and slight which proves that knack is very much a secret of success.
Tossing the caber is easily the most recognisable trademark of Scottish Highland games and is one of the most spectacular of the heavy events.
The origins of caber tossing are unknown although it has been suggested that it was developed by foresters for throwing tree trunks into the river. It would be difficult to devise a more physically demanding method of moving felled timber and the more likely explanation is that it was a sport amongst foresters that became part of the traditional Highland Gathering events.
The dimensions of a caber - or cabar in Gaelic - can vary enormously but the norm weighs about 150lbs (68kgs), is 18 feet (5.5m) long and about 9 inches (23cms) thick at one end, tapering to about 5 inches (l3cms) at the other.
The largest caber recorded in the Guinness Book of records is 25ft (7.62m) and 280lbs (127kg).
Contrary to popular belief, the caber is not thrown for distance but for style. The games officials will set the caber on its end with the thickest portion in the air. The athlete rests the caber against his shoulder and, clasping his arms around it, performs the difficult task of lifting it up off the ground whilst keeping it perfectly balanced. When he's achieved that, he will give it a quick flick up and move his hands under the narrow end. He's now ready to throw it.
The competition is judged with the aid of an imaginary clock-face on the ground spread out flat in front of the thrower with him facing the 12 o'clock position. That invisible clock-face keeps pace with him as he runs and when he has reached the desired speed he will stop abruptly at what becomes the 6 o' clock position and heave the caber up so that its heavy end lands in the middle of the clock and the whole caber turns right over, ending up with the narrow end pointing exactly towards the 12 o'clock position.
Quite frequently none of the competitors will achieve the exact 12 o'clock position and the prizes will be given for the throw that is nearest to the ideal.
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