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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Highland Games the heart of Scotland

Highland Games the heart of Scotland

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1 Highland Games the heart of Scotland on Wed Jul 30, 2014 12:56 am


For the Scots, the Highland Games are to kilt for

   July 30, 2014

Malcolm Knox

Highland Games the heart of Scotland

All eyes may be focused on the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, but out in St Andrews on Scotland's east coast, throwing a caber or winning the tug-of-war in the Highland Games is considered much more prestigious.
With athletes roaring from effort, achieving mighty feats while wearing kilts and vomiting in exhaustion before thousands of enthusiastic spectators, it was hard to believe this was not the biggest sporting event in Scotland.

And perhaps it was. The Highland Games, which visited St Andrews on Sunday, may have been far from Glasgow, but they were the centre of the sporting universe for everyone there, and got better weather.

The 33-event program (event one: Pipe Band Enters The Arena) continues a 700-year-old tradition, this year travelling to 60 venues around Scotland from May to September. Contestants vied for cash prizes in running and cycling around Station Park, behind the famous Old Course Hotel, but the stars of the show were the be-kilted heavies, a troupe of man-mountains from Scotland, Belgium and Poland, who competed in throwing the 22-pound (10 kilogram) Ball, the 28lb Weight for Distance, the 16lb and 22lb Hammer, the 56lb Weight Over Bar and Tossing the Caber.

The acknowledged master is Poland's Sebastian Wenta, a 198cm, 150kg professional strongman who was the only contestant to tip the caber over to the prized 12 o'clock angle. The Pole had clear mastery over his pole.

Wenta also easily cleared the high bar of some five metres with the cast-iron half-hundredweight, formerly an agricultural implement, tossed backwards overhead in the Weight Over Bar. The only hitch was when a stray cyclist rode across the grass in front of Wenta's caber toss.

A man of few words in English, Wenta said: ''I am from Poland. I come second in World's Strongest Man in 2007.'' He walks away from each Highland Games event with up to £900 ($1625) in prizemoney.

But it is not all serious professional sport. The Overseas Visitors' Race was open to all comers and this reporter felt bound to enter. The race, run over one lap of 350 metres, attracted a field from Belgium, Italy, Spain, the US, Denmark, France and Canada as well as New Zealand and Australia, a truly world-class event. The women's version was won by Ella, a 13-year-old Australian girl, running off a handicap, so there was national pride to live up to. The Herald was not offered the benefit of a handicap, despite obvious physical impairments, and narrowly beat the pipe band to the finish line.

Little seen in Glasgow has had the raw fury of the Tug o' War, which came to a climax just before the final event, the Devil Take The Hindmost cycle race. The Tug o' War pitted the 13-times Highland Games champions, Moffat Builders of East Lothian, against the new force in the event, the younger men of Strathardle in Perthshire. Teams of five - eventually four, as injured athletes pulled out - vied to pull the 50-metre rope a winning distance of four metres. The tuggers, wearing heavy boots and cut-up doormats for grip, with tree sap lathered on their hands, come from all walks: there are truck drivers, butchers, joiners, cable layers, farmers and even one, East Lothian's Jimmy Frizell, who said he works at a desk ''on my arse every day''. Jamie McCormack, publican of the Winton Arms in Pencaitland and chief of the East Lothian team, said: ''We train against a pulley system with big barrels every Thursday night. We hold up the barrels until we can't go any more.''

The event was drawn out, with some tugs lasting well past 10 minutes before one roaring team yielded to the other. Finally Moffats Builders prevailed. ''It's been a very tough day - Strathardle are the team of the future and we have a lot of veterans,'' said McCormack, 52, who was once in a tug that endured for 40 minutes.

As the sun fell over the East Fife hills, the 4000 spectators made for Granny Clark's Wynd, the road that crosses the golf course, and the town of St Andrews, and the Highland Games packed up to move to the next place on its circuit.

The organiser, Highland Games secretary Ian Grieve, professed ''not excitement as such, but certainly satisfaction''.

''A lot of Scots are proud to maintain this tradition and it's spread around the world,'' he said.

The Scottish contingent were as proud of their Highland Games competitors as their Commonwealth Games heroes in Glasgow. ''We've done well to win so many medals,'' said race caller Donald Macgregor, who came seventh in the Munich Olympic marathon in 1972 and sixth in the Christchurch Commonwealth Games marathon in 1974. He wondered if swimming could be brought into the Highland Games program. ''But where would you swim? There's only the North Sea, and it's too cold.''

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