Scottish Athletes – Highland Games

‘Tis The Season for Scottish Athletes

[All images in this article are from the Digital Stamping Celtic Collection Image Library, artwork by Kim Victoria]


As we head into the summer months, it’s peak season for Highland Games. Because of the Scottish diaspora, we’re fortunate that they’re found not only in Scotland, but all over the world where Scottish settlers brought their culture and heritage, especially the U.S. and Canada.

The earliest form of Highland Games in Scotland no doubt predates recorded history. These gatherings revolved around athletic and sports competitions. It is thought by some that the heavy athletics we see today were created by Highland warriors who needed to keep in shape between battles. They developed competitions using items found in everyday life: round stones from riverbeds, a blacksmith’s hammer, and a Scots pine tree trunk (caber) became tools for building strength and stamina.

Another theory as to the origin of the heavy events and sports competitions was that they were ways for the clan chieftains to select the best bodyguards and fittest fighters, or that they were competitions between clans. To me, it is likely that games and competitions like these were used in a variety of situations, or “all of the above.”

Although other activities were always part of the gatherings, and are important attractions today, many still consider Highland athletics the heart and soul of the games.

There’s a variety of events that can be included in Highland heavy athletics competitions, however, the events below are among those considered standard. One benefit of this is that Scottish heavy athletes can complete in the same events with the same rules across different venues.

Caber Toss image from Celtic Collection Clip ArtCaber Toss:

The caber toss is the signature event of the Highland Games. The word caber is thought to come either from the Scottish Gaelic word for “rafter” or “pole,” or perhaps was an English contraction of “casting the bar.” The caber is a tree that has been cut and trimmed down so one end is slightly wider than the other. It can vary in length from 16 to 22 feet and between 100 and 180 pounds. The smaller end is rounded off so it will be easy to cup in the thrower’s hands. The caber is stood up for the thrower with the large end up. The thrower hoists the caber up and cups the small end in his hands. He then takes a short run with the caber and then stops and pulls the caber so that the large end hits the ground and the small end flips over and faces away from the thrower. The caber is scored for accuracy as though the thrower is facing the 12:00 position on a clock face. A judge behind the thrower calls how close to the 12:00 position the small end of the caber lands, 12:00 being a perfect toss. If the caber is not turned, a side judge calls the degrees of the angle the caber makes with the ground.

Stone Throw image from Celtic Collection Clip ArtStone Put or Stone Throw:

This event is similar to the modern-day shot put as seen in the Olympic Games. Instead of a steel shot, a large stone of variable weight is often used. There are also some differences from the Olympic shot put in allowable techniques. There are two versions of the stone toss events, differing in allowable technique. The “Braemar Stone” uses a 20–26 lb. stone for men (13–18 lb. for women) and does not allow any run-up to the toeboard or “trig” to deliver the stone, i.e., it is a standing put. In the “Open Stone” using a 16–22 lb. stone for men (or 8–12 lb. for women), the thrower is allowed to use any throwing style so long as the stone is put with one hand with the stone resting cradled in the neck until the moment of release. Most athletes in the open stone event use either the “glide” or the “spin” techniques.

Hammer Throw image from Celtic Collection Clip ArtHammer Throw:

This event is similar to the hammer throw as seen in modern-day track and field competitions, though with some differences. In the Scottish event, a round metal ball (weighing 16 or 22 lb. for men or 12 or 16 lb. for women) is attached to the end of a shaft about 4 feet in length and made out of wood, bamboo, rattan, or plastic. With the feet in a fixed position, the hammer is whirled about one’s head and thrown for distance over the shoulder. Hammer throwers sometimes employ specially designed footwear with flat blades to dig into the turf to maintain their balance and resist the centrifugal forces of the implement as it is whirled about the head. This substantially increases the distance attainable in the throw.

Weight for Distance image from Celtic Collection Clip ArtWeight for Distance or Weight Throw Event:

There are actually two separate events, one using a light (28 lb. for men and 14 lb. for women) and the other a heavy (56 lb. for men, 42 lb. for masters men, and 28 lb. for women) weight. The weights are made of metal and have a handle attached by means of a chain. The implement is thrown with one hand using any technique. Usually a spinning technique is employed. The longest throw wins.

Weight for Height image from Celtic Collection Clip ArtWeight for Height:

The athletes attempt to toss a 56 pound (4 stone) weight with an attached handle over a horizontal bar using only one hand. Each athlete is allowed three attempts at each height. Successful clearance of the height allows the athlete to advance into the next round at a greater height. The competition is determined by the highest successful toss with fewest misses being used to break tie scores.





For those of you heading to one or more Games this year, I hope the information about the origins of the heavy events and the descriptions will enrich your experience of watching them!

– Kathi Hennesey

Source cited for description of events:

Wikipedia, Highland Games Wikipedia, 2012

Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 License

Measure the distance image from Celtic Collection Clip Art




Extra resource:
Read this fun article and see the wonderful illustrations:
From “Frank Leslie’s Monthly Magazine,” 1882