History of the Highland Games Athletic Events
Scottish men have tested their strength against each other at Highland gatherings for centuries. King Malcolm Ceanmore, who began his reign in 1057, is credited with initiating crude forms of today’s Scottish Highland Games’ athletic competitions as a means of improving the abilities of his military. While the games had become festive occasions by the sixteenth century, they were still seen as a way for kings and chiefs to choose the best men for their retinues.
The equipment currently used for the Highland Games has evolved from items locally available to the early Scotsman. A blacksmith’s hammer or a mell for driving fence posts, has become the 22 pound hammer. Woodsmen produced the caber (gaelic for “tree”) for their own event. Thrown for height and distance were 56 pound and 28 pound – weights (4-stone & 2-stone weights). Tossing a sheaf with a pitchfork likely emerged from the agricultural regions. A rounded riverbed stone made the ideal “clachneart” and still does today.
Today’s Scottish Highland Games athlete combines strength, skill and endurance to compete in these time-honored events. The athletes typically compete in all 7 Heavy events in one day. In the spirit of the affable Scot, these competitors combine the attributes of the athlete with the fellowship of clansmen to promote and perpetuate the heart of the Scottish festival, The Highland Games.
The Caber Toss
A centerpiece of the modern Highland Games, the caber toss requires strength, balance and timing. The caber is a tapered log approximately 16 to 20 feet long and weighing 60 to 140 pounds for men. (These weights and measures vary at different games depending on the field of athletes and the terrain.) The athlete hoists the caber and folds his or her hands under the end while cradling it against the shoulder. Gaining the balance of the upright caber, s/he will run briefly with it to gain momentum for the toss. Followed by field judges, the competitor heaves the caber up and over to ground its heavy end and let it fall forward. The field judge will ascribe a “score” to the toss. If the caber is “turned” it will be scored with its landing position relative to the face of a giant clock. 12:00 being a perfect score. If the caber doesn’t tum over, it is scored by the degree it rose from the ground.
The Clachneart or “Stone”
This ancient event is similar to the modern-day shotput, using a stone approximately 16 to 28 pounds instead of a steel ball. The stone must be put from the front of the shoulder using one hand only. Each competitor is allowed a seven-and-a-half foot run-up to the toe-board, or trig, for the Open Stone. The Braemar style of stone puts allows no approach. The contestants are judged on the longest of the three tosses. If the athlete touches the top of the trig or the ground in front of it during an attempt, the toss is not counted.
The 28 and 56 Pound Throw
Using metal weights with a chain or handle attached, the athletes are throwing for distance. The weight is thrown one-handed from behind the trig (toe-board) with a nine-foot run-up allowed. Any style may be used but the most popular and efficient is to spin like a discus thrower. The contestants are judged on the longest of three tosses. If the athlete touches the top of the trig or the ground in front of it during an attempt, the throw is not counted.
The 56 Pound Weight Toss
The objective of this strength event is to toss the 56 pound weight with attached handle over a horizontal bar. The starting height of competition is the lowest agreed upon by the competitors. Using only one hand, each athlete is allowed three attempts to clear the bar. If the weight touches the bar on its way over but doesn’t dislodge the bar, it remains a successful toss. All measurements are made from the ground to the top of the bar midway between the uprights. As the bar is raised, the field of athletes is reduced. This event continues until all competitors but one are eliminated.
The Scottish hammer, a round metal hammer-head weighing 16 to 22 pounds with a cane or PVC shaft, is thrown for distance. The athletes throw the hammer with their back to the trig (toe-board) and the throwing area. The competitor’s feet may not move until after the hammer is released. Each athlete gets three throws with the hammer and is judged by the best distance. Touching the top of the trig or the ground in front of it is a foul.
The Sheaf Toss
Using a pitchfork, the athletes hurl a 20# burlap bag stuffed with straw over a horizontal bar raised between two standards. Each competitor is given three chances to clear the bar. After all attempts, the bar is raised in one to two foot increments. The continually rising bar reduces the field as competition continues until all but one athlete are eliminated.
Classes can include Men’s Professional, Men’s amateur classes “A” (top amateur), “B”, and “C” (novice), Men’s Masters (over 40), Men’s lightweight (under 190#) plus a Women’s class. Women typically use weights about half the weight of the Men’s weights.
About the Hank Bradshaw Memorial Caber Award
Hank Bradshaw, also known as “Mr. Caber,” was born in Manitoba, Canada, in 1913. Growing up as a hockey-playing youth, he was introduced to Scottish athletics in his 20s while working for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Vancouver, BC.
A few decades later, he found himself raising his family of four boys and two girls in Denver, where he became a member of the St. Andrews Society of Colorado. The family always attended the Society’s annual picnic, an event usually held in one of Denver’s mountain parks. There were always some pipers and dancers present, and over the years competitions were organized with medals given to winners. Hank introduced athletics, especially the caber toss, to the annual picnic, and the Society real had the final piece of the competition puzzle.
Soon afterward the games were opened to the public, and Hank was able to bring the heavy events to the public’s attention. He provided technical guidance and made most of the athletic equipment. But his most important contribution was modeling the role of the gentleman athlete who competed with grace, humility and poise. In addition, from the very first he included women’s heavy events in the games, a very first in the world.
Over the next six or seven years, there was a steady growth of interest in Scottish athletics, with Hank promoting and publicizing the games. As more and more athletes became interested in the early and mid-1970s, competition grew stiffer, and fewer and fewer medals came back to the Bradshaw household. But for Hank, watching this gentleman’s sport grow was immensely more rewarding than bringing home medals.
Sadly, Hank passed away from cancer in 1977 at the age of 64. But the movement he fathered here in Denver was very much alive and healthy, and has continued to grow. By 1978, the Bradshaw Trophy was awarded to the top caber tosser, and the following year a challenge caber was established and named the Bradshaw Caber. The Bradshaw Trophy is still awarded at these games in honor of this founding father of the Colorado Scottish Festival and Rocky Mountain Scottish Games.
In 1980, the Rocky Mountain Scottish Athletes was formed as a way to foster the growing interest in the heavy events begun by Hank almost two decades earlier.
Hank was also involved with master track and field (holder of many age group records), masters’ hockey (in which Hank won a national championship) and was a founder of the Denver Curling Club.