Tossing tree trunks for miles, launching bundles of straw over your head, and fighting to fling the equivalent of your body weight as far as possible. There is no denying that the Highland Games are not for the faint-hearted.
For many years, the Games have been the sole preserve and domain of men, particularly for the heavy lifting aspect of the competition.
The sheer exertion and physical strength required for successful participation, combined with the weight of hundreds of years of tradition, means that for many women, the chance to participate – let alone win – was not an option.
As with many traditions, however, evolution is crucial for long-term survival. The sporting world has undergone considerable changes in recent years, with women taking a more active role in a range of challenges and events: including the Highland Games.
Female participation in the Highland Games has been a growing trend in Canada and the US, with the first all-female Games taking place in Idaho in 2014. It seems as though the original hosts have caught up with Scotland finally following suit and allowing women to enter in 2019.
Many players from these former regions are finding spaces opening up in Scotland. Slowly but surely, the focus of the game is returning to a challenge of strength, rather than sex.
Which Games Are Included?
There are a range of Highland Games to choose from, all covered in the ‘Heavy Athletics’ category. Some of the most popular activities include:
- Caber Toss
As one of the oldest activities, this event often acts as a symbol for the overall Games. The caber toss is an intense physical challenge, testing both skill and strength, and saw its roots in the logging industry, which saw trees launched into rivers. Participants pick up the caber by the tapered end, run forwards, and toss the caber so that it turns on end.
The upper end must hit the ground first, and success is gauged by how closely the thrown caber falls to the 12’oclock position when it lands after the turn. To advance to the next caber, the athletes must turn the current caber, and this continues until all athletes fail on one caber. Cabers can be over 19ft tall and 150lbs, making this a tough physical endurance.
- Sheaf Toss
A sheaf toss features a burlap bag full of mulch or straw. Competitors use a pitchfork to toss the bundle behind them, and over the crossbar. The package weighs 12-13lbs for women and 16-20lbs for men, and there are three chances to clear the bar at each height.
- Braemar Stone
The Braemar Stone is similar to the Olympic shot put, with a large stone in place of a steel ball. It is thrown with one arm from standing, and weighs 20-26lbs for men, and 13-18lbs for women.
- Scottish Hammer Throw
Traced back to the Irish Tailteann games, the Scottish Hammer throw echoes the Olympic field hammer throw, with two categories: light and heavy. Light hammers weigh 16lbs for men and 12lbs for women, while heavy options weigh 22lbs for men, 16lbs for women. Each participant gets three throws, and the furthest distance wins.
- Weight Throw
This event sees athletes throw a weight, using one hand, from the throwing area with a 9ft approach, to the ‘trigger’ or ‘toe board.’ Again, the most considerable distance wins, and there are two categories: heavy, with 56lbs for men and 20-28lbs for women, and light, with 28lbs for men and 14lbs for women.
Equality, not Uniformity
The very fact that the Scottish games now make distinctions between men and women is a significant breakthrough and allows inclusion and participation to co-exist side by side.
Women do not compete directly against men, using the same instruments and weights, but instead, have the option to compete fairly against peers in their dedicated category – a real leap forward for equality.
This fact was not always the case; however, the significant change only occurred in 2019, following a heated consultation between officials at the Scottish Highland Games Association (SHGA) and Scottish Athletics.
Previously, the SHGA had dismissed the notion of female participation, stating that there was not enough prize money, or the time, to run more women’s events.
They also claimed that tourists visited the region to see ‘traditional’ Highland Games – namely, male-only competitions.
Discussions with the team at Scottish Athletics, however – an organization often considered the world leaders when it comes to inclusivity in sports – changed this viewpoint. Following their arguments, they opened the door for women in Scotland, with the introduction of new categories and weight allowances.
To The Future!
The future of the Highland Games looks promising, especially as female participation in the sport is increasing across Canada and the US. Many top female competitors have been vocal about their desire to see women take charge in Scotland, and are keen to see more participants.
Key advocates include big names Celine Freeman-Gibb and Heather Boundy, who enjoys holding the world record for the caber throw. Celine does note one of the significant obstacles to full equality: access to networking. She describes her journey, saying that;
“Breaking into the Heavy events community can be difficult, especially if you don’t know anyone involved. I was fortunate enough to have someone who was already throwing who could vouch for me and my abilities. At times it can seem like an ‘old boys club,’ and the older men get very fixated in their ways of how games should be run like women shouldn’t be a part of that because ‘no one wants to watch that.'”
Fortunately, it seems that the Old Boys Club is losing its grip following the 2019 ruling, and we can expect to see women far more evenly represented in the 2020 tournaments.
One of the appeals of the traditional Highland Games is their longevity. They have been a core feature of the Scottish landscape for as long as anyone can remember. As a result, many are reluctant to change a formula that appears to work. As with anything, however, a refusal to evolve can result in extinction. Without change, there is a risk that old-fashioned, stuck in the past, and sexist views of the Games will emerge.
Regardless of adaptations, inclusivity, and progressive attitudes, one thing is sure never to change: the core requirement of the event. Forget training, skill level, and natural talent, there is just one thing participants truly need for success. Athletes must wear a kilt for the duration of these fantastic physical feats – and this is a tradition we can safely assume will never die.