Competing the Highland way

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Teenagers are being urged to toss the caber, putt the shot and reclaim Scotland's traditional games, reports Judy Mackie

You're 15 years old and not yet as tall or broad as you'd like to be. You're in the middle of a grassy compound on a warm summer Sunday afternoon, in the grounds of a majestic Scottish castle. The rousing sound of the bagpipes makes your heart swell. There's a stillness in the air and suddenly you're aware that all eyes are on you.

You turn, hunker down and carefully take the weight of the caber. As tall as a tree and perfectly balanced in your embrace, it's a joy to handle. Slowly you rise, retrace the ancient steps of the caber tosser and thrust the 14ft log to a respectable distance. The crowd cheers and applauds I This is the point when most young admirers of the heft and hurl of the Highland Games wake up, but for a group of teenage boys in Aberdeenshire, it is more than just a dream. This is when they dust themselves down and line up for the next challenge, louping a 32lb weight over a high bar in the weight-for-height event.

Youngsters of all sizes and abilities are participating in traditional Highland field sports now, thanks to an initiative sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland, Aberdeenshire Council's education department, Sportsmatch, the Scottish Games Association and food company Deans of Huntly.

The Junior Highland Games scheme, launched this year in secondary schools, offers young Scots a unique opportunity to appreciate their heritage first-hand and develop the techniques and skills used by heavyweights in the field.

After-school coaching by two SGA athletes is open to all, regardless of weight, height or brawn. Boys from Aboyne Academy and the Gordon Schools in Aberdeenshire, took part in their first showcase event in April at the Balmoral Road Races, and in July a team representing Aboyne and Inverurie Academies demonstrated their tossing, throwing and putting abilities at a National Trust family fun day at Castle Fraser, near Dunecht.

Highland games fever has also spread to primary schools, where 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls are queuing up to toss the plastic caber, throw the rubber weight and putt the stone.

Aberdeenshire Council's sports co-ordinator, Alistair Simpson, says: "It's good fun and the great thing is there are kids who have never been deemed as athletic who are extremely good at these events.

"It gives the older ones who have started competing a tremendous boost. You can see the change in personality when they're doing something really well and winning for the first time in their lives."

His colleague, sports development officer Andrew Miller, adds: "The initiative has really caught the imagination of young people and teachers. These are very social sports which can involve you in performing in front of an audience of thousands at an early stage. Not many sports can compete with that."

To people like writer and broadcaster Charlie Allan and SGA president Alan Sim - both former SGA heavyweights - the heritage of the games is as important as the physical pursuits.

Mr Allan says: "The games are rooted back in the mists of time, when clan chieftains used tests of speed and strength to select their bodyguards and messengers.

"Throwing the weight was always popular on farms, where the bothie loons would compete to see who was the strongest, and it's a widely held belief that tossing the caber began as a logger's skill. Throwing logs into the middle of the river prevented them from getting stuck beside the bank."

Mr Sim, who has competed in and judged Highland games events around the world, says other countries - particularly the United States - are happy to muscle in on the tradition. About half of the world's top 20 heavyweights now come from the USA.

"We've heard rumblings that they'd like the sizes of the weights to be changed, and that's just not on,"he says. "We need to take back ownership of our games and an initiative like this for youngsters will ensure fresh talent."

The NTS regional education officer for the north-east, Sandra Morrison, believes such traditions give Scotland the edge in the tourism stakes, but they need to be nurtured and revitalised. "How can we expect to be world class in these events if we're not encouraging and teaching our youngsters to participate?" she asks.

Coaches Bruce Shepherd and Neil Fyvie are doing just that, ensuring the techniques and traditions are passed on.

They have found that, although they are not events most youngsters would instantly consider when choosing a sport, working with the coaches and equipment - scaled-down versions of the adult games weights - brings them back week after week.

The Gordon Schools' principal of physical education, Graham Allardice, says there is no shortage of volunteers at his schools.

"Apart from the obvious physical and personal and social benefits, the sports open up a new world for those who are really interested. They'll have the opportunity to pursue it beyond school and, if they're good enough, to compete in events all over the world," he adds.

Mr Fyvie's sons at Aboyne Academy, have been training for months and put in a fine performance at Castle Fraser, with 17-year-old John winning both the caber and stone putt events. The overall points winner was Chris Field, of Inverurie Academy, whose weight-for-height skills were capped in the final by Aboyne Academy's Sean Fraser, a wiry, but talented thrower who managed to send the 32lb weight over a 17ft high bar.

Tommy Fyvie, aged 15, says the secret lies not in brawn but in technique and he is keen to continue training for the next major NTS event - the re-enactment of the Battle of Fyvie - next summer.

"A lot of my mates think it looks too much like hard work, but it's not when you know how. Ilike it."

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