Tossing cabers is a risky activity but one Ross-shire school is all for it. Jean McLeish reports
FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Zoe Lockhart is glowing with pride at her success. She's also genuinely astonished and can't quite take it in. "I think I've won, I think I have," she says, still slightly uncertain of her victory.
Zoe is wearing slightly more make-up than is usual in sportswomen. But she is no athlete, as her mum proudly points out. And with her long dark hair and stylish T-shirt, she must be the most glamorous Scot ever to take the trophy for tossing the caber.
A more typical champion of traditional Highland Games heavy events is supervising the competition. Looking as if he has stepped off a commercial for porridge oats, kilted Malcolm Cleghorn is one of Scotland's "heavies" and heaves a 60-kilo caber with precision.
Extraordinarily, all Zoe's first-time efforts with a more modest 12 kilos have landed in the right place too. "I got three perfect shots and no one else has," she says.
Her mum, Max, is equally bemused: "I got a shock when I saw her involved in anything to do with sport," she laughs.
This is the first time Alness Academy has run a Highland Games and it has been organised to mark the Highland Year of Culture 2007. It seems the whole town has come to join in, despite the dark clouds heralding what is defiantly described as midsummer in Scotland. But the evening stays dry and everyone is in good spirits. The mood is celebratory as the end of term looms. Alness in Ross-shire is half-an-hour north east of Inverness and the people here are no party-poopers.
A pantomime cow stumbles through the crowds. Inside, looking sheepish and hot, are fifth-year pupils James MacDonald and David Mackay. "Mr MacLennan has hundreds of costumes. He organises the pantomime," the hindquarters explains.
Neil MacLennan is the supremo who has masterminded this extravaganza. His day job is teaching religious and moral education and his prayers have been answered. Everything is running like clockwork. Should he ever feel like abandoning the religious and moral welfare of the young people of Alness, there is a bright future for him in events management.
School receptionist Jacqueline McJimpsey is running the coconut shy wearing an inflatable Heidi costume. The spirit of Heidi seems to have deserted her for now and she appears less than comfortable with her yellow plaits and ballooning dirndl skirt.
And she's not the only one who has sacrificed her vanity for the sake of school funds. Nearby, Gypsy Candy Floss is gazing into her crystal ball, desperate for inspiration. Flossie Sutherland is the auxiliary at Alness Academy and has applied so much make-up for the role, even her own grandchildren don't recognise her.
Every event you could think of seems to be represented here. Where else could you find Highland dancing, rock, pipe and ceilidh bands, a parachute team, a dog show, a police dogs display, a bonnie baby competition, beat the goalie and haggis hurling?
And that's not all. There's a craft tent, a steam engine, paintball, a bouncy castle, a children's floral art competition, an army assault course and a raffle.
Even the health police have taken a night off. English teacher Shona Davidson, a founder member of the School Nutrition Action Group, is in the tearoom selling what looks suspiciously like homemade fudge.
She is off to teach in Cairo next term with husband Andy. They love the place so much they gave their first son the name. And in August, Cairo, 7, and his brother Lucas, 4, start at the New Cairo British International School. "We're looking forward to it," says Mrs Davidson. "It's a big challenge for all of us."
School cook Diana Mackay is selling organic burgers by the games arena. She was invited to Downing Street in 2005 in recognition of her efforts to promote healthy eating and she hasn't relented tonight not a chip in sight.
The event also has an international flavour, with guest of honour Per-Eric Magnusson invited to be Chieftain of the Games. He is chief executive of Lycksele in Sweden, a town that is twinned with Alness, and his wife has the unenviable task of judging the bonnie baby competition.
But Mrs Magnusson acquits herself well. The crowds are six-deep around the parade of proud parents and four-month-old Lucy MacLennan is the winner. She's the daughter of former pupil Lindsay Small, 24 another win for the home team.
Back in the events arena, some pupils are testing their muscles on the heavy throwing events, under the watchful eye of Mr Cleghorn, who has been coaching them in preparation for today's competitions. He competes internationally on the Highland Games circuit and has already travelled to New Zealand and Indonesia this year.
He works in ICT support in schools for Highland Council and tries to compete in about 30 games a year. In recent times, concern has been expressed about the lack of young people coming into these traditional heavy events and Mr Cleghorn has been working in schools to revive youthful interest in Highland Games activities.
"I do a lot of mini Highland Games in primary schools, although they've got active sports co-ordinators now, so there's even more going on," he explains.
"They do pretty similar events to this, but there's a lot of fun involved as well, like wellie-chucking and haggis-hurling. Safety is always going to be a concern, but we do our best and we warn the kids as much as we can," he adds.
Young women don't take part in heavy events in Scottish Highland Games, but across the Atlantic it's a different story.
"It's big in America. It was a new thing over there when they introduced Highland Games 40 or 50 years ago. It's much bigger now and they have a women's division."
At some games the prize money can be around pound;2,000, but this is not always the case. "The games in Scotland are only from May to September, so it's very hard to make a living from it," he says.
"We're losing heavies in the Highland Games. We've only got 30 left in Scotland and it's really struggling. In America they've got 600 to 700 athletes competing.
"So I think starting in primary and secondary schools is helping the longevity of the games and getting new heavies involved, and also increasing awareness.
"I speak to people in my home town and they ask if I do the heavy events. I say 'Yes, have you not been to see me?' And they say 'No, I went to the Highland Games 20 years ago', and they don't go again. So it's about awareness for the kids, getting them to come to the games young and develop an interest in it."
Jill Sharp, head of the faculty of physical education, health education and ethos at Alness, reckons safety is the major consideration for throwing the hammer or tossing the caber. "The hammer is like a big sledgehammer and a lot of schools don't have enclosed throwing areas, so I would say that's the main reason these things have stopped," she says.
That's what would discourage her from including them in school. But with 3:1 supervision here, pupils are getting a chance to try the events and in Zoe's case discover an unknown talent.
Ms Sharp has tried out all the events and found it an enlightening experience: "I thought, with the caber, that all you had to do was get it head over heels. But it's the angle it lands at that's important. If it's lying at 12 o'clock, that's a winner, but not if it's off-centre."
Ken McIver, the headteacher, has entered into the spirit of things today by wearing Highland dress. One reason for staging the games, he says, was to remind children of their roots. "They're having fun and it's something different for them to do I think they're enjoying the novelty of it. We can build on that and hopefully some of them will take it on if there's something they find they can do well.
"It's always been part of the thinking that, with Highland 2007, we wanted legacy events. The other part of the thinking was that Alness hasn't had Highland Games before and we thought it might just hit the mark with the community. So I think we may well do it again, I think folk will be saying 'we want another one'."
But will there be anyone here next year to wear the costumes and wipe the dribble off the bonnie babies? Gypsy Floss has told everyone they are going to win the lottery, so perhaps not. It's no wonder they all look so cheerful.