What Is Heavy Athletics?

Heavy Athletics is a term referring to the field (throwing) events in Highland Games.

Some believe the term “Heavy” came about due to the implements thrown or to the physical stature of the athletes who perform these events, but in reality “Heavy” was the term used at the start of the modern games through the mid-1900s that described sports that required strenuous effort (1).

Another interesting claim is that the events contested in Heavy Athletics grew out of the Celtic Warrior Traditions of testing fellow clansmen for strength and agility. However, the implements of the modern game have little to do with training for combat.  In fact, the implements thrown are those that were common everyday items found at the time, not implements of war.  These stories seem more designed to romance and entertain, than based on historical facts.

No matter the origins, Heavy Athletics is made up of six athletic endeavors, which test the strength and agility of the athlete, with some events emphasizing strength and others agility, but all require a blend of both.

Many of these events have evolved into events seen at the Olympics, NCAA Track meets, and World Strongest Man competitions.

Stone Puts

Stone puts come in two varieties Clachneart (Stone of Strength) & Braemar Stone.

Stones

These ancient events were done anywhere there were stones to be thrown.  However, the modern day shot-put evolved from Scottish Highland Games traditions.  Heavy Athletics pay respect to these tradition by still using stones rather than modern steel ball or shot.

Stones are throwing in a pushing motion otherwise known as a put,  which comes from the Scottish term “put”, meaning to push and thrust; Gaelic word “But” or butadh; and Middle English puten, push (2)

Clach neart Stone Put

A 16 to 20 pound stone is used for the Clach neart (Stone of Strength) which allows a seven-and-a-half foot run-up to a toe-board (called a trig). This event is also called the Open Stone. Women throw 8 to 11 pound stones.

Braemar Stone Put

The Braemar is a standing throw using a stone that is usually to big or heavy to easily move with. Stones from 22 to 30 pound are usually used in this event for men and 12 to 16 pounds for women..

The Braemar stone is named after the Braemar Gathering, which is considered the first modern Highland Games. The weight of the stone used in the standing throw at this games is 28 pounds.

Whether it be the Clach neart or the Braemar event, the contestants are judged on the longest of their three throws.

Weight Throws

The athlete uses a one-handed throw to propel a weight for distance in two implement weight category: heavy and light.  The different weights test the athletes blend of strength and skill with the lighter weight requiring more technique to generate longer distances.  

A nine-foot run up is allowed before the athlete heaves the weight from behind a toe board. Any style may be used, but the most popular and efficient is to spin similar to a discus thrower. This event was contested in the Olympics up through 1924 Games and is still contested in NCAA as an indoor event.

56lbweight2

Old 56 pound Weight

The weights are based on “stone” weights of the old imperial measuring system often used for agriculture. A “stone” weighs 14-pounds.  Men throw 2 and 4 stone weights (28 and 56 pounds) while women throw 1 and 2 stone weights (14 and 28 pounds).

Heavy Athletics in North America also spawned Masters (over 40) and Lightweight Divisions (under 190 lbs or Under 200lbs) allowing athletes of different age and size to competitively participate in this sport.  These Divisions are now spreading over the world.  The heavy weight for these divisions throw a lighter heavy weight at 3 stones (42lbs).

The original weights used in these events were most likely weights used on agricultural scales. When throwing weights became an athletic contest is not known but the implements or weights had no chain and where thrown from a standing position.

Myth: Some like to put a romantic twist on the origins by saying they were used in battle; perhaps because they look some what like a flail or perhaps because a ball and chain

Typical Modern 56lb (4 stone) Weight for Distance implement

Typical Modern 56lb (4 stone) Weight for Distance implement

weapon was used in the movie Braveheart.  Making the jump from a throwing weight to flail ignores and insults the known history of this event.

No matter whether it is the light or heavy weight thrown, the contestants are judged on the longest of the three legal throws.

Scottish Hammer

This event is the precursor to the Olympic wire hammer throw.  The Scottish hammer used in today’s heavy athletics is metal ball on a 50 inch long cane or PVC shaft rather than black smith hammers of old.

The Hammer is thrown for distance.

The hammer is thrown over the shoulder with the competitors back facing the field. The hammer is twirled in circles about the competitor’s body from over his head to down in front of his feet, each time picking up speed until the release. The competitor’s feet may move only upon the releases of the hammer over his shoulder; any other movement would be considered a foul.

The contestants are judged on the longest of the three throws.

Hammers like the weights come in light and Heavy variety and like the weights test the contestants blend of strength and technique.  The weights for men are based on traditional hammer weights of 16 and 22 pounds for all men’s divisions   The Women’s Division weights were set in the past when that division was considered a novelty and they throw 12 and 16 pound hammers in most events.

There is an effort to lower Women Hammer weights, not because the women can’t throw the heavier weights but to increase the contrast between heavy and light varieties in order to better test the women’s blend of strength and technique embedded in the Tradition of Scottish Heavy Athletics.

The exact origin of this event is lost but is generally believed to derive from neighboring blacksmiths testing their strengths by throwing their hammers.  

An amusing myth is that this event grew from medieval mace being throwing at mounted knights.

Sheaf Toss

The Sheaf Toss uses a hay fork to toss a simulated sheaf (burlap bag full of twine) for height over a bar. This event has its roots in agricultural games, not in heavy athletics. Grandfather Mountain Games in North Carolina has been credited for introducing this event to Highland Games community with this event spreading across North America Highland Games and beyond.  Top competitors can launch the sheaf more than 35 feet in the air

Each competitor received a maximum of three tries at each height, with the cross bar jumping at least 2 feet after each round.  Like high jump and pole vault, the sheaf toss is an elimination tournament with the highest toss winning the contest

10lb Sheaf

10lb Highland Games Sheaf

An unusual aspect of this event is that any competitor may use any other competitor’s sheaf fork.

 

3 Tine Hay Fork

3 Tine Hay Fork (a.k.a. Sheaf Fork)

Men’s sheaf weigh 16 to 20 pounds and Women’s sheaf weights 10 to 12 pounds.

It can be easily believed that this event comes from farmer tradition of launching sheaf bails up into the loft of a barn.

A most amusing myth states the origin of this event was from medieval sieges where the knights would use a hay fork loaded with animal droppings and bedding material which was lite on fire and thrown over the castle wall to set buildings on fire.

Weight Toss

This event is often called the Test of the Champion as it is usually the last contested.  It tests the athletes endurance and mental fortitude to dig down and find that little extra to toss a heavy weight over head and over a bar at the end of the day.

In this event, the 4-stone or 56 pound weight is tossed by men and a 2-stone 28 pound weight for women. Each competitor received a maximum of three tries at each height, with the one throwing the highest winning the event.

Two amusing claims of the origin of this event are:

  • Myth 1: Throwing weight over bar had its origin in wartime battle tactics, where legend holds it was used to take out enemy archers on castle walls.  The thrower would stand flat against the castle wall and wait until an archer or lookout peered over the wall.  At this point, the thrower would see the enemy’s position on the battlement and would hurl a weight upward, over the castle wall, and conk the enemy on the head. 
  • Myth 2: Throwing weight over bar was a training method for tossing grappling hooks over the battlements for scaling tall fortifications.

These myths are entertaining pub stories with out any factual evidence!

Caber Toss

The Caber Toss is the signature event of Heavy Athletics. This event requires raw strength, balance, and coordination to pick up a 16-20 foot long tapered pole weighing 90 to 140 pounds and flipping it end over end.

This event is done for accuracy not distance or height. The best turn of the caber is when the smaller end held by the competitor is propelled end over end and lands directly away from the competitor as if it was a clock hand pointing at noon.

Women’s Division cabers start out at 13′ and may run up to 16′ or longer, with weights starting at  30 and can exceed 70 pounds.

There are no shortage of myths surrounding this event but common sense eliminates all of them as the origins of the caber toss.

  • Myth 1: The caber toss grew out of the practice of flipping a pole up against a castle wall to breach its defenses. If this was true, the practice did not last long as there would be a high mortality rate from long bow men picking off lumbering invaders caring a tall pole across the field! 
  • Myth 2: The caber toss grew out of the practice of lumber jacks launching newly harvested logs into a stream to float down river. Usable lumbering logs are much thicker and longer than the size of the biggest cabers. In addition, the weight of freshly cut logs make it impossible for a single man to lift let alone lift it in the most awkward way to throw them into a river. 
  • Myth 3: The caber toss came from a military tradition where the logs where thrown to traverse a stream. This is why they are thrown for accuracy. If a military wanted to cross a stream, they would do it in a much less strenuous and more accurate manner such as standing the log on end and push it over. 
  • Myth 4: A group of strapping young men were drinking whiskey in a field by a lane when a fine young lass walks by. Nature took its course with boys trying to impress the fine lass. Next thing you know, the caber toss was invented. This is the only plausible explanation I have ever heard as to the origin of this event and no one knows whether the antics impressed the young lass or not.

Nontraditional Events

Stone nontraditional events often seen in Heavy Athletic contests are:

Irish Super Heavy Two Handed Stone Throw (a.k.a. Stupid Stone)

An event with strong Irish Heritage but is practiced across Europe, the Super Heavy Stone Throw is a true challenge. For men, the stone must weigh over 112 pounds or 8 stone and for women, a “mere” 56 pound stone is needed.

After the stone is hoisted up to chest height or over the head for the more adventurous throwers, a short run is made and the massive stone is heaved forward landing with a ground-shaking thud.

Distances are not great, but seeing the contestants lift this boulder off the ground can often be amusing. This event has earned the nickname “Stupid Stone Throw” for a variety of reasons.

Field Record for Men’s Open Division using the 118lb Stone is 13′-11″
Field Record for Master Men’s Division using the 96# Stone is 10′- 5″
Field Record for Women’s Division using 56# Stone is 10′-10″

Keg Toss

The keg toss is often seen challenge event at the end of the day. It is sometimes opened up to the public so they can test their skills against the Athletes. 

Usually an empty 1/4 Barrel is used and each contestant will get a two or three tries at each height. The one to throw the highest wins.

The Field record is 26′ for men

KegPaintedSmall

Keg Trow

Rather than throwing an empty 1/4 or 1/2 Barrel for height, it is thrown for distance. The farthest throw wins. 

Farmer’s Walk

A test of endurance, grip strength, and mental toughness, the farmers walk can be a timed event in FarmersWalkwhich the contestant carries a heavy implement in each hand over a course that is down and back.

The contestant cannot set or drop the implement. The fastest time wins.  It also can be for distance, where the contestant goes back and forth until he quits or drops an implement.  The farthest distances wins.

Clach cuid fir or “Manhood Stones”

This is a test of brute strength and grip.

Clach cuid fir is the lifting of a large stone, two hundred pounds or more, from the ground and placing it on the top of another about four feet high. A youth that can do this is forthwith reckoned a man, whence the name of the amusement, and may then wear a bonnet.(3)

The before mentioned Clach neart is Gaelic for stone of strength also refers to lifting stones more than putting stones.  Whether they be Clach cuid fir or Clach neart, stones were lifted all over the Highlands and Islands for various reasons.  Some were lifted onto high stone plinths such as the Puterach at Balquhidder, some were lifted by both men and women as a form of marriage ritual such as the Clach a’ Bhoisgean in Cowal, and some were lifted by young males between twelve and fourteen years to prove manhood.

Scottish stone lifting has evolved into modern day Atlas stone as seen in strongman contests.

Hibernia (Irish) Throwing Events

  • Irish Hammer Throw – Like the Olympic Wire hammer throw, this event requires a great deal of room to be performed safely and perhaps should be performed out of a proper Hammer Cage as this event, like the Olympic Wire Hammer Throw allows spinning using the same implement that is used in the Scottish hammer throw
  • 56lb Shot Put (28lb for Women) – This is a normal shot put event but with a much heavier weight. When doing this event, the athlete feels as if he is being pushed back as much as he is pushing the shot put forward.
  • Irish Sling – Similar to the Weight Toss for Height but this time it is done for distance. The athlete, from a standing position, swings the 56 pound weight between his legs then launches it forward. The difficult thing is no foot movement is allowed.
  • Two handed Light Weight Throw off the Grass – This event is contested in Ireland and many Scottish Highland Games also allow the Light weight to be thrown using the two handed track and field manner.

 

(1) This sport is called heavy athletics because traditional highland games had “light athletics” including cross country races, jumping events (Long Jump and High Jump), bicycle races,

“Heavy Athletics” is a term used around the turn of the century to refer to competitive rowing, track, basketball, wrestling, prize fighting, and other activities that require strenuous effort. “Heavy” had nothing to do with the weight of implements used in the exercise, even when they were heavy! Things not listed as Heavy Athletics at this time were tennis, “regular gymnasium work”, handball, Indian clubs, gymnasium clubs, and the like.

(2) An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, MacBain, Alexander, Gairm Publications, 1982 http://www.ceantar.org/Dicts/MB2/mb30.html#put

(3) The Scotish Gaël: or, Celtic manners, as preserved among the Highlanders…, S. Andrus and son, 1851

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