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‘Athletics’ is Scottish for ‘Tossing Stuff’

The Scottish Games adhere to tradition in new location on a new weekend.

At one time, tossing telephone poles made sense. In the good old days, before Scotland acquired amenities like bridges, the men of the country simply tossed a log across whatever stream needed to be crossed.

But now, in Alexandria at least, building a bridge is not so simple, and logs — called “cabers” — are only tossed for the thrill of it.

“Say you have a really tough caber you flip over and the crowd goes crazy,” said former caber-flipper Lowell Murray, “It’s just a really great feeling.” Murray used to compete in the athletic competitions of Alexandria’s Scottish Games, which will held this year on Sept. 16 at Fort Ward Park.

For Scots, “athletics” has a meaning that is quite specific: throwing heavy stuff. Competitors in the traditional heptathlon throw multiple objects — none of them light — in seven different ways and directions. The caber — a pole that can be up to 20 feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds — is meant to be tossed up to do one perfect 270 degree flip so that its butt end lands on the other side of the hypothetical stream. Athletes will also throw stones, “blacksmith’s” hammers, weights, and a burlap sack. The world record for throwing a 56 pound weight straight into the air with one hand is about 20 feet. The “sheaf” or burlap sack, can weight up to 20 pounds and be thrown 30 feet into the air with a pitchfork.

Lowell Murray explained that the work-a-day origins of the events and items — like tossing hay into a hayloft — originate in the ban that Britain imposed on weapons after it conquered Scotland. To train for battle, the Scots had to improvise with everyday items.

Thirty-three years ago, David McKenzie’s father, a first-generation Scot, was one of the five original founders of the Alexandria event. McKenzie runs Mid-Atlantic Scottish Athletics, which promotes about 18 Scottish games each year. This is his biggest. “Alexandria’s the one that I’m involved in up to my belly button,” he said.

McKenzie said the caber was his favorite event because it was his best. But some events in the heptathlon require more than raw power. For this reason, McKenzie said he hated throwing the 56 pound weight for distance. “I’m strong, but I’m not horribly coordinated, and I hated that thing because you had to spin around.”

ALEXANDRA MURRAY, the games’ president and Lowell’s wife, had been involved in the games for ten years. She met her husband while judging athletics.

“He was one of the athletes,” she explained. “He was throwing stuff.”

But she said there will be plenty of entertainment available for people who have already found their caber-tosser. Scottish balladeer Alex Beaton and the Celtic fusion rock band Rathkeltair will be playing onstage, and there will be competitions in highland dancing, country dancing, fiddling, bagpipes and drums. Scottish clan organizations will be on-hand to research people’s clan affiliations. Scottish dogs will be able to compete in skill competitions. There will also be a British car show and Scottish craftsmen and vendors.

Karen Rubach helps her mother, Katherine Fisher, run the highland dancing, in which men and women compete against one another wearing wool kilts, high socks and velvet vests. Rubach and her sister are both former U.S. champions, and they now run a highland dancing school with their mother. She said the dances, like the athletics, have their roots in the wars of clan times. The highland fling was a victory dance performed without ambiguity by hopping up and down on the shield of the battle’s loser.

Modern dancers have ditched the shield, but they still leap and land on the same spot. Rubach said that despite its vigor, the dance is more graceful than the Irish step dancing popularized by “Riverdance.” “It has more ballet moves but it is not soft like ballet,” she said. “They hop up and down; they leap; they do something called shedding.”

RUBACH SAID “shedding” is a mid-air pantomime of the jubilant trouser-removal that occurred after Britain rescinded its ban on kilts. The dance is called “seann triuvhas,” which means “old trousers” in Gaelic.” In the sword dance, dancers leap in place while scissoring their feet. If they lived hundreds of years ago, they would be doing this before battle above a cross formed by swords. Kicking the swords meant they would lose the battle. Landing cleanly suggested some measure of good fortune. The highland reel has no militant origin. It is danced by four people moving in a figure-eight pattern.

Rubach’s favorite dance, she said, “is all the ones my daughter gets through without making a mistake.” Like the athletics, competitors from all over the eastern seaboard will come for the dance competitions.

But everyone involved in the Alexandria’s Scottish Games stressed that its appeal was less about competition and more about comradeship. “It’s a nice group of people to work with,” said Alexandra Murray. “They’re all good strong men, essentially good people. They enjoy throwing. They enjoy getting together. They help each other get better at throwing.” Murray added that the games have moved from Episcopal High School to Fort Ward and have been scaled down to fit their new location. They have moved back to later in the summer so that they won’t fall, as they inevitably seemed to in the past, “on the hottest week of the year.” The games “should be a lot cooler,” Murray said.