HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH HEAVY EVENTS


By Charles Black

NOTE: This article, as with my other historical articles, was compiled chiefly from secondary sources. Although I have necessarily used my judgment in determining what to include, I did not, in general, look up original sources, so I may have unwittingly passed on errors. My purpose is to give a brief historical summary and not to discover new information or advance new ideas. Readers interested in learning more about these subjects are encouraged to read the sources listed in the bibliography.

Part I - General history of the heavy events

Unfortunately, there is little written reference to the heavy events until comparatively recent times. Thus, the early history of these events is largely a matter of speculation. The hammer has the richest early history, and this was covered in a previous article; "History of the Hammer Throw" Many of the quotes in that article also referred to casting the bar and putting the stone (or weight) and these will not be repeated here.

The earliest date for the heavy events is contained in the Irish 'Book of Leinster", which was written in the twelfth century A.D. This book describes the Tailteann Games held at Telltown, County Meath from 1829 B.C. until at least 554 B.C., and in a revived version until 1166 A.D. Included in the events were stone throwing, pole vaulting, high jumping, the geal-ruith (triple jumping), the gaelbolga (throwing the dart), and the roth-cleas (the wheel feat, which consisted of spinning around and throwing either an axle with an attached wheel or a single spoke with the wheel hub attached).

Since the 'Book of Leinster' was written so long after the supposed origin of these games, the descriptions have to be accepted advisedly. Obviously, 16 centuries of oral tradition can distort facts to a great degree. The events are described in enough detail so as to lend an impression of authenticity, however. These games predated the ancient Greek Olympics and this fact argues against those who suggest that the Celtic events were borrowed from the Greeks via the Roman conquerors of Britain. Greek sport did include events similar to those listed above, but they appear to be an entirely separate tradition. The heavy evens were carried to Scotland with the migration of the Celtic tribes from Ireland.

The 'Book of Leinster' is the basis for the claim that the heavy events are the oldest continuing athletic tradition in the world, and indeed it seems that the Celtic sports are rivaled in this respect only by Japanese sumo wrestling, which is descended from Chinese wrestling traditions dating to at least 1000 B.C., though the first accurate reference to a Japanese sumo bout is dated to 52 B.C.

Most references to the heavy events since that time are English and refer to English festivals, since literacy was relatively uncommon in Scotland. These references are therefore rather lacking as to their ability to tell us what was happening in Scotland, though they do give us valuable information. It should be noted that by the time that written references started to appear, heavy events were commonplace throughout all of Britain. The Border Games from lowland Scotland and the Lakeland Games from northwest England were very similar to the Highland Games, and have continued at lest until the recent past, though they haven't maintained the popularity that the Scottish Games have. Heavy events also had a continuing tradition in Ireland that lasted into the present century. The Olympic hammer and two-handed weight throws were dominated by the "Irish Whales", brawny Irish immigrants to America, until the 1930's.

The Braemar games are supposedly derived from the contests introduced by King Malcolm Canmore in 1040 A.D. These events included a hill race, but it is uncertain whether heavy events were included. In twelfth century London, open spaces were provided so that the populace could practice "leaping, wrestling, casting of the stone, and playing with the ball".

The town of Ceres in the county of Fife held a games to commemorate King Robert Bruce's victory at Bannockburn in 1314. These games have been held regularly since. According to a German reference quoted in Redmond, at the games in 1332, "a heavy rock was fetched from the bed of a mountain stream, and the hammer was a huge club with an iron head."

All of the heavy events, along with many other sports such as tennis, football, and skittles (a precursor of bowling), were the object of periodic royal bans, such as those of Edward III (reigned from 1327 to 1377), who especially prohibited weight putting. These bans were either to encourage the practice of military skills, or due to Puritanism, whose proponents felt that sport was an immoral waste of time. It should be noted that several monarchs, such as Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) and Henry VIII (1509-1547), far from considering these events to be at the expense of military skill, promoted them as being essential training and engaged in sporting activities themselves.

James VI, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, became the king of Scotland in 1567 at the age of 1. He later wrote to his son in the 'Basilikon Doron'; "The exercises that I would have you use, although but moderately, not making a craft of them, are running, leaping, wrestling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch, or tennise, archerie, palle-malle (in which a wooden ball was hit by a mallet though an iron ring at the end of an alley), and such like other fair and pleasant field games." He discouraged hammer throwing, which he apparently considered dangerous to spectators (he must have heard of Alexander Gyfford accidentally killing his son in 1566, as reported in the 'History of the Hammer').

In 1603 James VI became James I of England and Scotland upon the Act of Union. In 1617, James issued a 'Book of Sports' which permitted certain sports after church. James' son Charles I ruled from 1625 until 1649, when he was beheaded after the puritan Oliver Cromwell led a successful civil war. Charles I had republished the 'Book of Sports' in 1633 and this was a chief count brought against him at his trial. In 1660, Charles II, son of Charles I was restored to the throne and sportsmen could breath a sigh of relief.

Scotland maintained its independence from English rule between 1314 and 1603, so English sporting bans would have been unenforceable north of the border. Scotland had by this time felt the influence of John Know, the Calvinistic religious reformer, who died in 1572. From his time onward, sports and games were considered somewhat disreputable in Scotland, a legacy which has not entirely disappeared, though in the words of Shearman, these statues "appear to have been more honored in the breach than in the observance." 'The Scots Lawes and Acts' of 1572 banned many sports, which were said o interfere with church attendance and archery practice.

The precursors of the heavy events came to be commonplace at all sorts of rural fairs and gatherings. Burton in his 'Anatomy of Melancholy', written between 1620 and 1640, described country recreations that took place at may-games, feasts, fairs and wakes. Amongst many other pastimes, he includes pitching of bars and hurling as "common recreations of the country folks".

The London 'Spectator' described such a 'country wake' in the September 4, 1711 edition. This festival appears to have taken place in Bath, England. The village green was " covered with a promiscuous multitude of all ages and both sexes, divided into several parties, all of them endeavoring to show themselves in those exercises wherein they excelled."

The author described games of cudgel-playing, football and wrestling, and went on to say that, "the young maids who were not lookers on at these exercises, were themselves engaged in some diversion; and upon my asking a farmer's son of my own parish what he was gazing at with so much attention. he told me that he was seeing Betty Welch1, whom I knew to be his sweetheart, pitch a bar."

The prizes were hats for the men and smocks for the women, and the prize "is always hung up by the person who gets it in one of the most .conspicuous parts of the house, and looked upon by the whole family as something redounding much more to their honor than a coat-of-arms" One young fellow carried "an air of importance in his looks. for he and his a ancestors had won so many hats that his parlor looked like a haberdasher's shop". As for the women, the author said that "nothing is more usual than for a nimble-footed wench to get a husband at the same time she wins a smock."

The editor went on to defend these festivals as a worthy way for the stoutest and healthiest men and women to meet and wed. thus improving the constitution of the nation's populace.

The foregoing reference establishes the early participation of women in the heavy events. a tradition which is only lately being reestablished in the western United States. Nor is this reference a mere curiosity. Though women of the wealthy classes were restricted in their sporting ambitions, Guttmann cites many references to common women competing in all sports, such as football, running and field events alongside of men. Ht also describes women's competitions at the Cotswold Olimpick Games, which were held between 1612 and 1852. Shearman also cites many instances of women running and competing "for shifts or she-shirts".

The games in Scotland grew in number and popularity throughout the centuries, but received a mortal blow with the Act of Proscription in 1746 which followed the unsuccessful rebellion of 1745. This act outlawed Scottish customs, dress and gatherings. The act was appealed in 1782, whereupon Highland games began to be revived. The revival was greatly accelerated in 1822 by the appearance of King George IV in Edinburgh dressed in Scottish garb. This event started a fad for all things Scottish, and many of the things regarded as "traditional' at the Scottish games date from this period, including the vast majority of tartan patterns.

The first Highland games in the United States occurred when the Highland Society of New York held its 'first sportive meeting' in 1836. Many 'Caledonian Clubs' were formed in subsequent years, and one of the first actions of most of these clubs was to hold a Highland games. The Caledonian Club of San Francisco held its first games in 1866, and this is the oldest continuously running annual games in the United States, with the 125th jubilee being celebrated in 1990.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, track and field was becoming an organized sport in England. The first meets were held at universities. The Royal Military Academy in Woolwich held athletic meets '' from 1849 until 1853. Events were started at Oxford in 1850 and Cambridge in 1857 and continue to this day. The first intercollegiate meet took place at Oxford in 1864. The first non scholastic track club was the Mincing Athletic Club of London which was organized in 1863, and the first true international meet took place at Travers Island, New York in 1895 between the London and New York athletic clubs.

These early English meets generally had no field events until the 1860's. The hammer throw was introduced into the Oxford and Cambridge programs in 1866, but as late as 1887, Shearman says that it, along with weight putting, "has never taken root at any other athletic centre in England':, but "the sport is very popular in Scotland, and has also taken firm root in Ireland." He also mentioned that caber "is very popular in Scotland. but has never found favour in England." In contrast, the first track meet in the United States, at the Olympic Athletic Club of San Francisco on May 5, 1860, had only field events.

In both England an the Eastern United States, professional running. including six day races, had become very popular. Gambling was rife at these events, as it was at boxing and rowing events. This ultimately led to the demise of these events as "ropers" blatantly threw races in order to win bets for their backers.

This and other moral issues led to the rise of amateur sport. The organizers of the Scottish Games, on the other hand. saw no immorality in the awarding of prize money. Although the Highland Games were no more professional than was track and field, in the sense that there has never been enough prize money to constitute a living wage, the two viewpoints were seen as incompatiblt so the two sports went their separate ways from the late nineteenth onward. This may in retrospect be seen as a boon to our sport, as it has allowed the traditional flavor of the Scottish heavy events to last to this day.

Amateur classes at the Highland Games were not seen until well into this century. when they were instituted to enable those athletes on university and international teams to maintain their eligibility. Amateur divisions started to be introduced to American games in the early 1980's2 , in order to encourage newcomers as well as for eligibility reasons. Now that track and field athletes in this country can openly receive prize and endorsement money. amateur classes are chiefly regarded as ability groupings, rather than being based on monetary considerations.

In the years following the Civil War (1865 to about 1880), the Caledonian Games in the United States were in their heyday, with large crowds coming to watch the events and substantial profits being made.

About this same time, improved transportation led to the establishment of a 'circuit' for athletes in Scotland. For the' first time. athletes attended games far from their own homes.' This led to the first true professional athletes who derived a substantial part of their income from the games. These men established new standards of excellence in the heavy events, and a number of them, such as Donald Dinnie and A.A. Cameron. traveled the world to compete. earning great sums of money by doing so.

As track and field became established as a sport in this country. it took much of the interest away from the games, which went into a decline for nearly a century. Though a number of games continued to be held. the athletics became a smaller and smaller portion of the program. In the Highlands of Scotland, track and field has always remained in the shadow of the games, which still include the running and jumping events that have long ago passed from the games in the United States.

The number of games in Scotland has decreased in this century, as small local games have declined in the face of the public's ability to travel to larger regional ones, but the popularity of the gatherings continues, despite hard times during the World Wars and interwar years.

After World War II. there was a revival in Scottish games in this country. with a number of new games being formed and some old games being revived. The emphasis was on piping and dancing. however. with the heavy events either being absent, or being relegated to a small demonstration.

In the 1970's, the heavy events saw a return towards their former prominence in the United States which led to the appearance of such great athletes as Brian Oldfield, Ed McComas, Fred Vaughn, and Keith Tice. The 1980's saw continued growth and strengthening of the heavy events with the introduction of many new games, most with IS full program of heavy events. For the first time, an American athlete, Jim McGoldrick, established himself as being able to consistently beat the best that Scotland could produce.

At the beginning of the 1970's, we may be seeing a peaking of this growth, as increased overhead expenses have seen jumps in gate prices and slimmer dollar returns for many games. Though there are new games every year, just as many seem to fold for financial reasons. On the other hand, the number of athletes continues to grow, and this indicates a healthy state of affairs; 1991 has seen the introduction of women's heavy events at most of the California games, including those of the Caledonian Club of San Francisco in Santa Rosa, which has opened the doors to even more participants. A number of games in recent years have also included a master's competition (usually for age 40 and over in the East and 50 and over in the West), with the Santa Rosa games also introducing this category in 1991.

Incidentally, it is worth adding that the modern Olympic Games are directly descended from the Scottish games and English track meets (which :.1 were themselves inspired by the Highland Games and other folk sports), and not from the ancient Greek tradition as is commonly supposed. In the years before he founded the modern Olympics in 1896. Baron de Couberlin visited the "Much Wenlock Olympic Games" in Scotland and the "Cotswold Olimpick Games" in England. Not only were these festivals already using the Olympic name, the program of events was borrowed from these festivals for the track and field portion of the Athens Olympics, with discus throwing the only ancient Greek event revived for the occasion (Greek style javelin throwing was added in 1908).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR- Charles Black is a graduate student in the Department of Physical Education at the University of California in Davis. California, where he is studying biomechanics and neuromuscular control of movement. He is currently engaged in research of feedback in javelin training. He is the shot and discus coach at Dixon High School, where he was named as Coach of the Year in 1491. He has competed in over 90 Highland Games since 1981, most recently winning the Western States Amateur Athletic Championship in Denver, Colorado an August 9, 1991. He coaches several Scottish Games athletes and is a board member of the Scottish American Athletic Association. He was instrumental in getting the women's and master's categories introduced into the Caledonian Club of San Francisco games for 1991.

1- The women's aggregate trophy at the U.S. Heavy Events Championship is named in honor of this same Betty Welch.

2- The Caledonian Club of San Francisco first split into professional and amateur classes in 1976.

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