Friday, March 21, 2008


As many of you know, I am firmly and inextricably involved with the Scottish Community and have been an active participant in Scottish Festivals and Highland Games around the country for many, many years. Something caught my eye a couple of months back that begs comment.

The centerpiece of the modern septathalon Scottish Highland Games held around the world is the Caber Toss. The Caber is a tapered log (tree trunk) that is generally from 19 feet long usually weighing anywhere from 100-130 pounds or more depending on the level of competition. Cabers are not all the same, after all, they’re trees.

The caber competition is ancient and like the rest of the Scottish athletic events, requires strength, balance and timing. The athlete folds and links his hands under the small, tapered end and while cradling it against his shoulder and neck, hoists the caber generally to near or at waist height. Gaining the balance of the upright caber, the competitor runs briefly with the caber to gather momentum for the toss. Followed by the back judge and side judge, the competitor plants his feet, stops suddenly and heaves (pulls) the caber up and over to ground its heavy end and lets the caber fall forward.

If the caber is "turned," the back judge ascribes a "score" to the toss based on the caber's final position relative to the face of a giant clock. For example, if the grounded caber falls straight forward away from the moving athlete, it will land in the twelve-o'clock position and the judge will award a perfect score of 12:00. If it falls slightly to the right or left, it may receive a score of 2:00 or 11:30, etc. A caber that is not "turned" (fails to fall forward between 9:00 and 3:00) and falls back is ascribed a score by the side judge for the degree angle it rose from the ground i.e. 40 degrees.

The caber competition as an integral part of Scottish Highland Heavy athletics is legendary and iconic among the Scottish Community. Enter now some native Scots with good intentions.

The Bullwood Project, a Glasgow, Scotland charity, came up with a novel use for the Christmas tree which stood in the city's George Square over the 2007 Christmas season. The charity, which helps the disadvantaged transition into the workplace by learning woodworking skills and then selling their offerings, has with the blessings of the Glasgow City Council taken the 60 foot high tree and turned it into a caber for the most spectacular of the Scottish Heavy athletic events.

The caber which measures nearly 25 feet is probably the longest in the world, if not the most prodigious caber ever, weighing in at a whopping 280 pounds! They were bragging that it would be the largest caber in the world by three inches? I say, so what!

The Bullwood Project intended to present this big stick to the State of New York for use in Highland Games there. That idea was not especially well thought out as New York State really has no purview over such events and there are few, if any Highland Games in New York state of any consequence. The nearby states of New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and others have Highland Games of note that might want such a novelty. The original idea had been to donate it to New York City - but they haven’t held such an event in the Big Apple for many years.

This whole scenario will, no doubt, go down in the annals of history as yet another example of a Burnsian “best laid plans o’ mice and men” and good intentions as the big question remains that if and when they can transport it to any Highland event, who will turn it?

You see, I judged both amateur and professional athletes (the Heavies) at Scottish Highland Games events around the country for twenty-five years and can verify that I never saw a 25 foot caber in my travels. This whole deal appears to be totally out of sync with accepted competitive norms and, frankly, the reality of Highland Scottish Athletics.

I telephoned good Friend and Mentor, Ross Morrison, President of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina for his perspective on this caber. Ross is the highly regarded and probably best caber back judge ever. Ross immediately questioned the integrity of such a stick and its appropriateness in any Scottish Highland Games.

Let it be known that the Championship caber at Grandfather Mountain was a cedar log of around 22 feet long and 160+ pounds depending on the weather. Like the legendary weather rock, when it rained, it got wet! No athlete ever successfully turned that caber and that included some of the best Scottish athletes in the world in select annual competitions. In fact, that caber, undaunted, was eventually retired many years ago.

The North American Scottish Games Association (NASGA) rates cabers on the basis of their weight, length and taper. The most competent of the Heavies (the pros) might be expected to compete at the very highest level with a caber that would be a maximum 22 feet long and 155 pounds. NSAGA has a great rating system that catalogues cabers and their ultimate suitability for various levels of competition.

The critical factor here appears to be the length of the Glasgow Christmas Caber, notwithstanding its incredible 280 pounds. Everything being equal, turnability of a caber really revolves around the overall length of the caber. My knowledge of physics reflects that this will be a wonderful specimen to look at, but doubtful that it will ever be turned. That would appear to be contrary to the reality of selecting a caber that would be within the competency of the field. As a former Scottish Games Athletic Director I always chose a caber that would motivate and push the realistic limits of the Scottish Athletes present.

I'm sure that it's going to be pretty to look at but probably not good for much more save a novelty from the auld sod. While we appreciate the sentiment, in this case, bigger is not necessarily better.

Perhaps our Glasgow Christmas Caber will be remembered much like the Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia or occupy the dizzying heights with the likes of the Big Lobster in Kingston, South Australia or Babe the Blue Ox at Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd, Minnesota. Maybe our caber will share the spotlight with the World's Largest Peanut Monument in Ashburn, Georgia or perhaps just end up as a toothpick for the iconic Big Tex - the mascot for the Texas State Fair in Dallas since 1952. Yea…


Ned Buxton

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