Published July 7, 2017
Kathryn Kendall is not someone who enjoys getting on a treadmill.
“I call it the dreadmill, which gives you an idea of how well I handle it,” says Kendall, senior assistant dean for enrollment and online programs in the School of Social Work.
Having played team sports in high school and college, she found she missed the competition, along with being physically active.
“I was looking for a way to stay fit when I found out about Highland games and heavy events,” she says. “I started going to local Scottish festivals to watch. There are many here in Western New York, and they take place in all regions of New York State.
“I attended quite a few and liked what I saw.”
What Kendall saw was men and women engaging in an ancient Celtic sport that some say may be the oldest continuing athletic games in the world, pre-dating sumo wrestling and the Greek Olympics.
“The exact date for the beginning of Highland games and heavy events is somewhat murky,” Kendall says. “The first record of them was in 12th Century A.D. in the Irish Book of Leinster.
“This book describes games held from 1829 B.C. until at least 554 B.C., and in a revived version until 1166 A.D. It is believed the games were developed to test agility and strength.
“The items used in heavy events competition today have evolved from things available to the earliest Scotsman,” she says.
These include stones, iron weights, hammers (iron balls mounted on flexible handles, such as rattan, although now PVC pipe has become popular), sheaves (burlap-wrapped bales of grain or twine) and cabers (18- to 20-foot-long wooden poles).
Highland games are generally composed of nine events:
The weight of the item thrown in each event varies for men’s and women’s competitions. There are also Masters competitions for participants over 40.
“My first event was three years ago,” Kendall says. “I probably compete in about six or eight events a year, including last year’s Scottish Masters Athletics Heavy Events World Championships, which were held in Buffalo.”
Kendall also recently participated in the 2017 world championships, which were held June 23-25 in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland.
This year’s event — the 17th annual competition, with 123 athletes participating — was the third largest in the history of the Scottish Masters World Championships.
“The experience was great,” Kendall says. “The venue was south of the city of Reykjavik, along the southwest coast. The weather was good for the competition — cool, in the low 50s, a mix of windy and a little overcast, along with sunny and pleasant.
“There were excellent, very experienced judges — and more women competitors, which was good to see,” she says.
“The popularity of Highland games among women has really increased in the last five years. There were seven women in my class at this competition, one of whom set a new world record in light weight for distance and almost set another one in weight over bar.”
Her best events, she adds, were open stone, light weight for distance and light hammer.
Kendall notes the caber is probably the most popular event among patrons of the festival, along with the sheaf.
“The small end of the caber goes on the ground,” she explains. “Usually another competitor helps you do this. You then place your hands on either side of it, to get a grip, and lift upward off of the ground.
“You lift the pole with the palms of your hands, fingers laced around it, and in one motion you are lifting and bringing your hands down underneath the pole. You pop it up and literally move your hands underneath, all in one motion.”
Kendall says at that point it becomes basic physics: “You start running and as you run, you gain momentum — if you stop, the caber will fall forward.
“At that point, you throw your end of the pole in the air as much as possible ... you want it to flip, end over end, which constitutes the toss.”
Kendall says caber is the only Highland games event that is done for accuracy, rather than distance.
“So, the perfect throw would be for it to flip end over end and land in a perfect 12 o’clock position in front of you. Any angling to the left or right detracts from your score.”
Kendall plans to continue competing and traveling to Highland games and heavy events. She says next year’s Scottish Masters Athletics Heavy Events World Championships will be held in Stuttgart, Germany, in September.
“You have to do some work in the gym to be in shape to compete,” she says, “lifting weights to be able to throw the weights in the events. You also need to acquire the implements themselves, so you can practice.
“By competing, you get to know the athletes and meet many of them at the events. You can also buy stones, weights and hammers from individuals within the heavy games communities who make them.”
Over the remainder of the summer, there are Highland games coming up in Syracuse, Jamestown and at the Buffalo Niagara Scottish Festival, being held Aug. 19 and 20 at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, 3755 Tonawanda Creek Road, Amherst.