Back in the far reaches of Scottish history, qualities such as strength, determination and fierce competitiveness were not only desirable, they were essential if one were to fight off invaders, overcome warring clans and survive daily life in general.
Those traditions have come down through the ages, manifest today in Highland Games competitions, which are held not only in Scotland but also in other parts of the world.
Kilted competitors get together to test their strength and skill in contests that involve throwing various weights for distance, height and accuracy. Most familiar is probably the caber toss, in which athletes heft a "telephone pole" around the field. Other events include shot-put-like tosses of stones and weights, and the tossing of various weights over a bar.
Most of the games involve a skill that would have been useful in battle, said Jeff Loosle, a Utah Highland gamer, who holds the world record in the master's class (over age 40) weight-over-bar event. "These are among the oldest games in the world."
Some legends trace the origins back to the period of Roman invasion in the second and third centuries, when Scottish warriors were said to have displayed their bravery and strength by performing feats of skill in front of the opposing army. Others say they were informal athletic tests that enabled clan chiefs and kings to examine the skills of their clansmen.
"Some say the first official Highland Games were held after Robert the Bruce returned from fighting the English. The games were a victory celebration," said Loosle, who enjoys the historic aspect of the games and sees how these skills would have been useful. Take the sheath toss, for example, which involves using a pitchfork to toss a bag of hay over a pole. Light that bag on fire and toss it over a castle wall, and you could do some serious damage, notes Loosle.
And there's the caber (caber is Gaelic for pole) toss. "They say foresters used to throw cabers across creeks they had to cross," he explained. "If they threw it accurately, one side would land on the other side of the creek, and they could walk over with dry feet. If you were a lousy thrower, you got wet feet."
As fun as the history is, however, the competition and the camaraderie among the athletes is equally exciting, said Loosle, and it's very easy to get hooked on it. "It starts as fun. Then it becomes a passion," he joked. "And then you become obsessed. That's like me."
On a recent Saturday, Loosle and several of his fellow gamers held a minigames practice session for the upcoming Highland Games that will be part of the Scottish Festival, which will be held at Thanksgiving Point Thursday through June 11.
At the festival, a Strong Man demonstration will be held on June 10, beginning at 5 p.m. The games will be held on June 11, beginning at 9 a.m. "We'll have about 75 participants in 10 different classes, which will make them the largest games ever held in Utah," said Loosle.
Those games will attract athletes from all over the country, including both amateur and professional competitors ("yes, there are a few people who actually make a living doing this," said Loosle).
In Scotland, "they say the games are so popular that you could leave one competition and drive to another and never run out," but surprising numbers of games are held in this country. "A lot of people consider Utah one of the best places in the country for the games," said Loosle. The annual Scottish Festival is the biggest event of the year, but "we have about 18 competitions a year."
There are about 60 "hard-core" athletes in Utah, he said, and new ones that come out each time. And they also travel to games in other states.
Loosle's world record, for example, was set at a competition in Sacramento in April. "That was pretty exciting," he admitted. "The top seven pros in the world were there and those guys are my heroes. So, to do it with them there was almost as fun as breaking the record." His record stands at 18-feet, 3-inches. "I'd been trying to hit 17 feet, and finally made it on my third attempt. So I decided to go for it, and cleared it on my second attempt at 18-3."
Loosle has been competing for "nine or 10 years now." He was introduced to the games in Richfield. "My mom and dad are very Scottish (with connections to the Stewart, Campbell and McDonald clans), and Richfield was holding a Scottish Festival, and they wanted me to come. I went to see the bagpipers, and they were cool. I saw the dancers, and they were fun. And then I saw the guys throwing, and it was like I found my home. I've been doing it ever since."
That's how a lot of people get involved in the games. "I was an EMT on standby at last summer's games," said Brian MacNeil. "I watched the athletes and thought it looked fun." At the minigames, MacNeil was participating in his first competition, "and it is fun," he said. "This is not something you do every day. It's a complete step out of the ordinary."
Robert Stewart was also attending his first games. "I think of myself as a big guy, until I get out here. This is hard work. But it's a lot of fun."
Brian Dixon has been competing for a couple of years. "I was doing some family history. I knew we had Scottish blood and began checking into associations and found these guys. I got hooked." What he especially likes is that "it's one of the few sports where the guys you compete against will coach you and give you tips. It's competition, but you're really competing against yourself, trying for personal bests."
"The friendship is the best part," said John Springer, who has been competing for four years. "I've done lots of sports, but this is the best group I've been with. Everyone helps each other. It's a noncompetitive competition."
Springer, who is stationed at Hill Field, also got hooked by watching the games. "I saw these guys playing, and I kept bugging them until they let me sign up and play, too." In his first competition, he took second place in the novice division "and they moved me right up to the masters."
Springer has even started an annual competition at Hill Field. "I think it's the only Highland Games that are held on a military installation." (The third-annual Hill AFB Highland Games will be held June 25).
Daniel Hamilton got into the games while he was stationed at Hill. "I saw a flier, and thought I'd go hang out." He has since been transferred to Colorado but still comes back to Utah for the games. The games require strength, but "there's a lot of finesse involved. I like that."
Many of the athletes have a track-and-field background, notes Springer, so a lot of the events are not entirely new except the caber toss. "There's nothing from track-and-field that translates to that."
The athletes compete in each of the events, "so you have to learn to like them all," said Loosle. "If you have one bad event, it can bring you down."
And, while you don't have to have a Scottish background, you do have to wear a kilt. Many of the athletes do have Scottish connections, and choose lightweight sport kilts in their clan tartans. But some also wear what are called "Utili-kilts," which are lightweight, plain-colored garments. "You don't wear a dress kilt out here," said Loosle. And here, at least, there's no mystery about what goes under the kilt. "With all the spinning, you'd better have on a pair of shorts."
But kilts are an important part of the tradition, and at every games, there's a "kirkin' of the tartan," a ceremony that blesses the kilts.Comment on this story It all adds up to a very appealing endeavor, said Loosle. The tradition is longstanding; the challenge is very real. And the camaraderie can't be beat. "You meet one day on the field, and it seems like you're friends for life."
If you go
What: Utah Scottish Festival
Where: Thanksgiving Point, Electric Park
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Tickets: Festival pass $15 for adults, $8 for children (3-12); Saturday only $10, adults, $5 for children; Friday or Saturday evening, $5 for adults, $3 for children.Information: www.utahscots.org