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5 Things You Need To Know About the Highland Games

Michigan Highlanders practice for the highland games at Hughes Park in Hudsonville
Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

On Saturday athletes from all over Michigan will come to the Kalamazoo Scottish Festival to participate in the Highland Games. For seven West Michigan sportsmen, the event is a warm up for the Scottish Masters World Championship in September held in Inverness, Scotland.

And that championship takes place just a few days before Scotland plans to vote on a referendum to sever political ties with the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, uprisings against English rule may be why the Highland Games started in the first place.

“The English did not allow the Scots to have any weapons. They did allow them to have certain things that they actually farmed with like sledgehammers and other equipment that normally aren’t considered as weapons," says Jerry Bowersox, the president of the Michigan Highlanders.

Bowersox says on weekends Scots would train with that farm equipment until they could use real weapons against the British. Now, of course, there are specialized tools for the games.

Here's a few more facts about the highland games:

  1. The caber toss, where an athlete flips over a thin tree trunk, is actually scored for accuracy not distance. Imagine you have a clock between 9:00 and 3:00. The person who can get the closest to 12:00 is the champ.
  2. Speaking of scoring...during the games each athlete gets the highest score out of three tries per event. Then the athletes are ranked first, second, third, etc. The first place winner will be given the lowest point value. Just like golf, you want to have the least points at the end of the game.
  3. Kilts are mandatory: Unless you're in the audience, you better be wearing plaid. Bowersox says even the judges are required to wear kilts.
  4. The "sheaf toss," a sport meant to imitate throwing a bale of hay onto a cart, is not technically a Scottish event. Some say it originated in Ireland, some say the Midwest, but no one knows for sure. Athletes use a pitchfork to throw the sheaf - a burlap bag usually stuffed with straw or hemp - over a bar. The object is to throw the sheaf as high as you can without touching the bar.
  5. Amateurs can try their hand at the sport at some highland games. This is the only other instance where the kilt rule doesn't apply. Highland athlete Kate Boeve got started at the Kalamazoo Scottish Festival a few years ago. But she says after you decide to come back next year, you better be sporting a kilt!

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