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Come for the caber toss. Stay for the ceilidh.
The Scottish Highland Games are an annual favorite
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
You might expect a member of Fort Wayne’s Scottish Historical Society to bristle at being repeatedly asked about people in kilts hurtling tree trunks into the air. Not Mike Huth. He’s the athletic director of the Scottish Cultural Society’s 18th Annual Indiana Scottish Highland Games taking place in Fort Wayne on June 12th. He’s well-aware of the appeal that the caber toss — the famous tree-trunk flipping feat — and other contests in the Heavy Events has among the thousands of people who attend the Highland Games every year. “We try to put the caber toss somewhere right in the middle of the afternoon,” he says. “A lot of people come to see that.”
Of course, the caber toss is only one of many things happening at the Scottish Highland Games. It’s packed with dancing, music, athletics, great food and competitions. One of the biggest Highland Games in the US, the all-day festival attracts a tremendous crowd from all over the country. “In the last three or four years, we’ve had over 5,000 people, plus about another 1,000 people who participate — dancers, pipers, harpists, drummers, athletes,” says Linda Phillips, the director of the games.
There’s plenty of music, including sanctioned harp competitions, solo bagpipe and drumming competitions, and full pipe band competitions. Phillips says that bands come from all over the country and beyond to participate. The welcoming ceremonies feature all the bands gathered together for the clan parade. “Last year we probably had over 100 pipers, all playing together,” says Phillips. “Hearing all those pipers and drummers is something you’ll never forget.”
Sheep dog trials will be running all day, and for the first time the Highland Games is featuring a rugby tournament with the Fort Wayne rugby team. There’s also a Highland Dancing competition, Falconry demonstrations by Master Falconer Kitty Tolson Carroll, kids games, and, for the ladies, a Haggis toss (no, really. The winner gets to judge the “Bonniest Knees” contest).
The games used to be held in Zollner Stadium, but the enormous turnout lead the society to move the games to the Concordia Theological Seminary. The huge athletic fields also meant more room for expanding one of the festival’s biggest draws, the famous seven Heavy Events; tree trunks aren’t the only heavy things that get thrown. “Obviously, if you’re throwing a hammer, you’ll want to have lots of space,” says Phillips.
Especially if you’re throwing the hammer over your shoulder backwards. It’s not actually a hammer, either. “It’s a 22-pound ball at the end of a stick,” explains Mike Huth. “People can throw it up to 100 feet. The thing is not to get your feet yanked off the ground as you throw it.”
Huth’s grandmother, Jessie MacLennan, co-founded the Scottish Cultural Society in Fort Wayne and helped start the Highland Games. Huth no longer participates in the Heavy Events, but he’s an authority on their history. According to him, the Scottish kings way back when used the Highland Games to find the strongest, meanest warriors to lead their armies, and today’s Heavy Events approximate those feats of strength from centuries ago. Other Heavy Events include the 56-pound Weight Throw, which consists of slinging a block of steel attached to a chain (“in Scotland they call it the ‘widow maker’,” says Huth); the Sheaf Toss (throwing a 22-pound burlap bag of rope over a high jump with a pitchfork); and, of course, the Caber Toss, where athletes take a tree trunk 16 to 20-feet in length, weighing 100 to 140 lbs. pick it up, run with it, and flip it end-over-end. “Everyone thinks it’s how far they can flip it, but it has nothing to do with that,” Huth says. “It’s all on having it go up, come down on its top, and fall like a tree. They use a clock to judge how well you did it. A 12 o’clock throw is a perfect throw. That’s the hardest event.”
The Heavy Events aren’t just the providence of the big and burly. Quite a lot of people participate. “We have a women’s class, a light class (under 190 lbs.), a C Division for novices, a B Class for people with a few competitions under their belt, and the A Class, which is the best you can be. There’s also a Master’s Class, where the ages are 40 – 50 and 50 and up.”
The day ends with the ceilidh (Scottish for “a big party,” I’m told), with performances by competetion winners, the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir, the various music competitons winners perform, the Fort Wayne Children’s choir. Later on, Roger Dawdry and the Firestarters will entertain revelers with a more rockin’ take on Scottish music. The day wraps at 11 PM.
All that, and more men in kilts than you’d ever thought you’d see outside of Braveheart.
The reason for the Highland Games huge popularity the huge number of things to do. From bagpipes to falconry to athletics, it’s all right there, in one location. The sheer spectacle of the welcoming ceremonies and the athletics is reason enough to attend. “You go down that winding path, and all of a sudden you see the flags and the people and the tents,” says Phillips. “It’s quite a sight.”