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Scottish athletic skills, culture, cuisine on display

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For the men and women of the Highland Games, athletic competition is all about strength.

Men and women in kilts will toss 56-pound weighted sacks into the air using a pitchfork. They’ll shot-put rocks to see who gets the greatest distance. Massive posts as thick as telephone poles will be hurled end over end.

“It’s like the original strongman competition,” said Bob Verbanac, one of the competitors.

The Indy Scottish Highland Games and Festival will bring together about 40 athletes specializing in the ancient games of the Celtic nations. Athletic competitions will be the centerpiece of the festival, which will be conducted on the southside for the first time.


Indianapolis Scottish Highland Games and Festival

When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: German Park, 8600 S. Meridian St., Indianapolis

What: A cultural celebration of Scottish culture organized by the Scottish Society of Indianapolis featuring music, food, beer, children’s games, scotch tasting and the Highland Games.

Admission: $12 in advance, $15 at the gate for adults; $6 in advance or $8 at the gate for children ages 7 to 12; active duty military with ID and children 6 and under free

To buy tickets or for more information: indyscotgames



Highland Games: 9 a.m. to noon, 12:45 to 5 p.m.

Rugby: 10 a.m. to noon, 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Parade and opening ceremonies: Noon to 12:45 p.m.

Youth area: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Scotch tastings: 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.

City Barbecue Stage

9:45 to 10:30 a.m. — Hogeye Havvy

10:30 to 11 a.m. — Celtic Motion

11:15 a.m. to noon — Drunk & Sailor

12:45 to 1:15 p.m. — H H Dancers

1:30 to 2:15 p.m. — Highland Reign

2:30 to 3 p.m. — Celtic Motion

3 to 4 p.m. — The Kells Band

4:15 to 5 p.m. — Seven Nations

5 p.m. — Awards

5:45 to 6:30 p.m. — Drunk & Sailor

6:30 p.m. — Boniest knees contest

7:15 to 8 p.m. — The Kells Band

8:15 to 9 p.m. — Seven Nations

Sahm’s Restaurant Stage

9:15 a.m. — Ken McGee

10:15 a.m. — Celtic Rain

11:15 a.m. — Highland Reign

12:45 p.m. — Hogeye Navvy

1:45 p.m. — Ken McGee

2:45 p.m. — Drunk & Sailor

3:45 p.m. — Celtic Rain

5:15 p.m. — Hogeye Navvy

6:15 p.m. — Highland Reign

7:15 p.m. — Celtic Rain

Celtic music, scotch tasting, rugby matches and a haggis toss all will be part of the celebration aimed at bringing attention to Scottish culture.

“We feel strongly about our mission to teach people about Scottish heritage and culture, and the contribution it has had to this country since it was founded,” said Matt Douglass, spokesman for the festival.

The event is the centerpiece activity for the Scottish Society of Indianapolis, which holds monthly entertainment, genealogical workshops and social dances to help people understand their heritage, Douglass said.

This is the third year for the festival and games, which was revived in 2010 after more than a decade’s absence from central Indiana. After two years at the Latvian Community Center on the near northside of Indianapolis, the festival had outgrown the space.

German Park, just north of Greenwood, will provide open fields for the Highland Games, additional space for rugby and other games, two stage areas for the bands and a banquet hall for food and drink.

The festival is meant to re-create a tradition in Scottish culture, when Mary Queen of Scots would travel into the Highland areas to thank her people for their loyalty, bravery and steadfastness in battle. Village-wide celebrations would feature food and music, as well as feats of strength meant to honor the queen.

Those feats are similar to the games that are played today at the Highland Games.

“We want to promote culture and education and history,” festival chairman Gary Davidson said. “Plus, this is an opportunity for world-class amateur athletes to compete against each other.”

On a cool and rainy afternoon fitting of the Scottish Highlands, a group of local athletes gathered to practice their ancient sports.

Southside resident Dawn Higgins threw the caber, an 18-foot-long wooden post, trying to make it land perfectly straight in front of her. Then she tossed a hammer — a weighted ball on the end of a wooden stick — as far as she could.

A weightlifter on her own, she was introduced to the games by her trainer. Many of the competitions in the Highland Games require skills similar to power-lifting, which she already was doing.

Once a week, she and her fellow competitors meet at Thompson Park on the southside to practice. They mark off a throwing grid, spray-painting footage from the throwing area.

In between jokes and ribbing of her training partners, Verbanac and Jimmy Reynolds Jr., she explains her technique.

“You can imagine the centripetal force. You get your feet and back going, and all the sudden you’re on your butt,” she said.

Higgins, Reynolds and Verbanac have been competing in the Highland Games for the past few years. All were looking for a different way to do their workouts and found the simplicity of these feats of strength appealing.

“It’s a good change. Some people get burned out on what they’re doing at the gym and want something different,” Verbanac said.

The entire competition has a medieval flair to it. The putting event requires the athletes to shot-put an actual rock as far as they can. In the sheaf toss, they heave a weighted sack with a pitchfork.

People wear traditional kilts in the games. Reynolds even has modified a pair of tennis shoes with a wicked looking spike and heal, to keep himself better planted when he throws the hammer.

They enthusiastically explain each implement, as the Highland equipment is called.

The Highland Games will be a major draw for the festival, as it will be the final opportunity for area competitors to earn points in the North American Scottish Games Athletics standings. Winners in all seven of the men’s and women’s divisions will receive $25, meager to the bragging rights that will come afterward.

“Everyone who does this, even the pros, we don’t make much money on it. We do it because we love it,” Reynolds said. “We’re serious about it, but we’re doing what we enjoy. At the end of the day, we’re passing a flask, smoking cigars. It’s more friendly.”

While a main focus of the festival, the games are only part of the experience at this year’s event, Douglass said.

Vendors will sell Scottish ales and other beers. Restaurants will serve haggis, meat pies and beef and onions in a pastry called bridie. Adults can sample some of the best Scotch whiskey available.

Organizers have tried to put together some of the best Celtic bands in the country. Headliners Seven Nations, a Florida-based band, mixes traditional sounds of the Irish and Scottish with modern rock.

Local favorites Highland Reign and Celtic Rain will perform folk tunes as well as their originals. Hogeye Navvy will focus specifically on strictly Scottish music.

Dancers and actors will perform throughout the day. For children, scaled-down versions of the Highland Games and a history-centric castle will teach some of the Scottish traditions, such as universal education and ideas that would become the Declaration of Independence.

“People need to learn about that these things, that they all came from Scotland,” Douglass said. “Scotland had the most advanced education system in the Middle Ages, and it trickled down to all of these other ideas and contributions.”


Caber toss

The caber is a wood pole measuring about 18 feet long and weighing 100 to 125 pounds. From a crouching position, an athlete lifts the caber by the narrower end, while its thicker, more unwieldy end points skyward, and then runs to build up momentum. He stops dead and heaves it end over end to achieve a “twelve o-clock turn,” so the caber lands pointing away from the thrower, as if at the 12 o’clock position on the face of a clock. The caber toss is scored on accuracy rather than the distance of the throw.

Putting the stone

This popular contest is derived from an ancient clan ritual. Each chieftain’s “stone of strength” was situated at the entrance of his castle. Before entry was granted, every visiting clansman was obligated to test his strength by throwing the stone for distance. The athlete must put a 19-pound stone (16 pounds for women) with one hand, from a stationary position.

Hammer throw

The Scots’ hammer has a wooden shaft made of cane, an overall length of 50 inches and comes in two weights: 16 and 22 pounds. Both are thrown standing-style, with the athlete swinging the hammer three times in a circle overhead before releasing it straight behind the thrower.

Weight for distance

This competition consists of two similar but separate events. Both are derived from ancient tests of military skills and are reminiscent of the ancient mace. The contest involves hurling a light weight 28 pounds and a heavy weight 56 pounds as far as possible.

Weight for height

An athlete tosses a 56-pound weight up and over a horizontal bar using only one hand. Each athlete is allowed three attempts to clear a marked height before the bar is raised. The victor is the thrower who can clear the highest bar.

Sheaf toss

This event originated with farming traditions in Scotland. It involves tossing a sheaf of hay weighing 16 pounds with a pitchfork over a horizontal bar suspended between two uprights. The sheaf of hay has been replaced with a burlap bag filled with bailing twine. Each athlete is allowed three attempts to clear the horizontal bar. If the sheaf fails to go over the horizontal bar, the contestant is eliminated. After each successful round of tosses, the bar is raised two feet.

SOURCE: Scottish Society of Indianapolis

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