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Scottish Highland Games Heavy Athletics
By Heather Walker

From the quiet glens and groves of ancient Scotland comes one of the most physically demanding and technically challenging sports in existence today. Scottish Highland Heavy Athletics. It’s origins shrouded in mystery and obscured through the mists of time, the Highland Games Heavy athletic events remain one of the most popular of all athletic competitions in the world. Highland Games and Gatherings are held every year in hundreds of cities across the United States and in dozens of foreign countries. Over 900 athletes are ranked on the NASGA (North American Scottish Games Athletics) website.

The games make a perfect venue for family fun, whether you all compete or just come to watch Mom or Dad throw really heavy things!  For some it is the smells and taste of good Scottish cooking. Others are drawn to the games for the wonderful bands, the exemplary Highland Dancers, the costumed reinactors, a chance to wear the Kilt, the dog trials, or to search the Clan tents for their family’s origins and celebrate their culture.  There is something for every member of the family to enjoy through simply watching or in exciting participation in the celebrations of our ancestors. For the Walker family, it is all that and a chance to challenge themselves in this most difficult sport.

What started out as a casual trip to learn about their ancestors has led the entire Walker family to become staunch competitors on the modern field of battle. In an atmosphere of friendship and support they travel all over California in pursuit of Scottish athletic competition and the camaraderie of the field. Husband Jim was even blessed last year to compete in the Masters World Championships in Bught Park; Inverness Scotland The Walker family consists of husband Jim, wife Heather, and sons Brian and Blake (Nicholson). Six-month-old Audrey Rose enjoys the Games from the sidelines.

Why would a family spend several weekends each year traveling all over the state to compete in one of the toughest athletic competitions in the world you ask?  Certainly the personal challenges of the games is an irresistible draw. Throwing Highland weights requires incredible strength, balance, and skill. Each competition represents a new chance to test their inner and physical strengths to the maximum. But, it is the people they compete against and the wonderful people at the Games that keeps drawing them back.

Heather Walker states, “None of the other sports I have ever competed in comes close to matching the experience I get at the Highland Games. We dress in our ancestors’ kilts, compete against some of the best athletes in the world, and get to listen to the pipes play all day long!”

Jim and Heather have been competitive all their lives playing all manner of highly competitive sports. But they always felt pretty much alone in the fiercely competitive atmosphere. Heather comments: “when I have competed before it was always every man for themselves.”

Husband Jim adds, “ Heather and I have participated in competitive athletics in one form or another all our lives. Whether its softball, football, golf, basketball, tennis, you name it, we have enjoyed it. After 48 years of competing I can tell you with assurance that there is no more enjoyable or supportive athletic atmosphere than on the Highland Games Heavy Athletics field of competition. From the first time I threw the Braemar stone I knew this was a great place for a family to be. “

“I walked onto the field at my first competition as a complete novice. This was not a baseball field or a sport I had played since childhood. I did not even know most of the rules or regulations. The men surrounding me all looked like a master Greek marble carver sculpted their muscles. I half expected to see Hercules there in a kilt. And actually, some of the competitors are what we would expect the wild Scottish warriors of old to look like. Massive and strong.

After seeing the Pro athletes throw a 25-pound stone across the field like a football, I knew I was WAY out of my league. But this was not your typical competitive situation. I was not standing on the sidelines for more than 5 minutes when throwing legend ‘Wild” Billy Butler came and introduced himself to me. He welcomed me and offered to help me in any way he could. I thought to myself “ just whom are you trying to kid!”

My skepticism turned to joy as surprisingly help was offered by Billy and several other competitors at every single event. One particular incident sticks in my mind as an example of just how honorable and supportive these athletes are with everyone that comes out. I must have been quite the sight when my attempts to throw the Braemar stone landed me on my back on the ground two times in a row. Billy approached me chuckling with a grin from ear to ear. Now, if this were any other competition, that smile would have meant the athlete was on his way to ‘psych me out’ since his throws were only beating me by a few inches. To my surprise, Billy put his arm around my shoulder and told me exactly what I was doing wrong. Sure enough, I made the correction and went on to beat Wild Bill. Now, you tell me in any other sport where an athlete will, in the middle of a heated competition, tell ANYONE how to improve their performance in a way that would surly result in a loss for themselves! After three years of competing I continue to benefit from the guidance of almost every athlete on the field!”

The Pleasanton Highland Games in Pleasanton California, approximately 40 miles south of San Francisco, has been hosted by the Caledonian Club of San Francisco since 1866. 

The Caledonian Club of San Francisco believes that their Scottish gathering and games is the longest-running entertainment event or festival in California. Depending on the year they will host upwards of 60,000 people and draw athletes from all over the world. In years past it has been recognized as the largest games in the world.

Out of the ten or so games in Northern California each year, about a third of them will have athletic events for the kids. Besides the Caber toss, they often have egg and sack races and even a Haggis toss to test the little one’s skills!

 Seven-year-old Blake smiles when he sees the ribbon he won for 1st place in the egg race at the Fresno California games, and eleven year old Brian placed 2nd in the Caber toss. Even six-year-old grandson Skyler Haworth got into the spirit by helping Grandpa Jim win the 2007 Northern California Weight-Over-Bar championship in Campbell this June with his heartfelt cheering and support!

The Events and a little History

Unlike most individual sports today, Olympic caliber Scottish Highland Heavy Events athletes must participate in all eight events in order to compete. This requires Herculean strength and nearly year-round training in all the events as well as strength, speed, and agility work.  Competitions usually begin as the festivals open for spectators at around nine in the morning and often end well after three o’clock in the afternoon.

The eight events are: Open stone throw, Braemar stone throw, Light Hammer, Heavy Hammer, Light Weight

for distance, Heavy weight for distance, the Weight-Over-bar, and the Caber Toss. ( for an excellent explanation of each event including pictures, visit the Caledonian Club of San Francisco’s website at:

An example of the physical demands of this sport is the weight-over-bar event. The Master athlete picks up a round forty-two pound iron weight suspended from a six inch chain with one hand and facing away from a raised bar almost directly over his / her head, throws it up over the horizontal bar. Forty-two pounds may not sound like much until you realize it weighs the same as a five-gallon paint can filled with water! The current Masters (over 50) world record is over eighteen feet high set in Woodland California in 2005 by exemplary Masters athlete Jeff Loosle.

A common topic of conversation on the field, especially among the Masters is what techniques are used to heal the many different kinds of injuries that often accompany participation. Every part of the men and women’s bodies are stressed to the maximum every time athletes throw in every event. In three years of competing, Jim has suffered debilitating rotator cuff, back, leg, arm and hand injuries.

Two of the most difficult events are held at the end of the day to provide competitors with a true test to their athletic endurance and for the larger crowds at that time of day. The weight-over-bar (WOB) and Caber Toss come at the time of day when most of the athletes have used up much of their muscle strength and endurance. The WOB requires balance and total body strength to throw a 42-pound weight 14 feet almost straight up in the air. The Caber Toss requires exact timing and agility to flip the punishingly heavy 18 foot-long, one hundred pound wooden pole a full 360-degree turn with accuracy. In most competitions, only about ten percent of the competitors can turn the caber completely over.

History of the Scottish Highland Heavy Athletics and Highland Games

Scotland is historically well known for it’s superior battle warriors who were constantly involved in an existence filled with wars and battles for justice. The Scottish Warrior had to be prepared to battle from horseback, on the ground, and from behind castle walls. It is believed that at certain times in Scotland’s past potential soldiers had to prepare for battle and develop their strength using clandestine techniques in the same way that the Okinawans hid their martial arts battle training in dance forms. These Celtic warriors thus developed athletic events to build their strengths and skills for battle.

Some believe that a Clan chieftain needed to test and find the best warriors to be his personal guard and to identify his strongest men. It is thought that Malcolm II (1057-1093), also called Malcolm Ceann mor (Canmore) defended the area around Braemar against incursions from Moravia (Moray) and he probably instituted the Highland Games as a contest to select the strongest and fittest Clansmen for his armies. The tests (our current athletic events) simulated throwing stones from battlements, throwing ladders up castle walls, and swinging the long and heavy Claymore Scottish sword. Large stones were said to be left by clan chieftains outside a castle’s walls requiring any who might want to pass to lift and throw it. Those stones can be found in Scotland today.

Some historians suggest that about the time of the Roman invasions in Scotland around the second and third centuries Scottish warriors displayed their bravery and strength by exhibiting feats of skill and power in front of opposing armies.

Regardless of the origins of the games, they are now more popular than ever. With over 40 million people of Scottish decent across the world, and over 350 Scottish gatherings each year, it is no wonder.

Kind Regards,

Jim Walker

Jim & Heather Walker, baby Audrey, Brian and Blake Nicholson

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