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Highland games an unusual blend of athletic skills

Staff writer

Peabody residents Laynne Burnett and his sons Isaac, 19, and Aaron, 22, participated in the Highland games competition Sunday at the McPherson Scottish festival. Laynne helped judge the nine throwing events while Isaac and Aaron competed.

Highland games are traditional Scottish sporting events that mostly have origins in martial arts.

“The British wouldn’t let the Scots train with weapons,” Laynne said.

The three men, wearing kilts — the traditional garb for the competition — said the aspect of the games they like best is its uniqueness.

“It’s different than any other sport,” Aaron said.

Aaron and Isaac spent Sunday morning performing in the most original throwing events. While Isaac was slinging a 40-pound bell-shaped metal weight high over his head in the weight-over-bar event, Aaron was flipping a wooden pole, weighing more than 100 pounds, in the caber toss.

Even though he was perhaps the lightest competitor in his group at 165 pounds, Isaac placed third in the weight-over-bar event, clearing 13 feet.

“Technique is everything,” Laynne said.

“Sometimes big guys don’t do as well,” their mother Elizabeth Burnett added.

“Once the big guys have the technique,” Isaac countered. “It’s important to be big too.”

Aaron, who weighs a bit more than his younger brother, did not fare as well in the caber toss. In three tries, Aaron could not accomplish the goal of the event: vault the pole over with both hands, have the pole land on its head, and then flip over. The caber toss is the only event in the competition that is not measured for height or distance, but it requires immense strength to deliver the caber accurately. Its origins are said to date back to tossing logs into a river.

Aaron’s first caber splintered on impact because he could not rotate the heavy piece all the way onto its top. The announcer called him the “destroyer” as he carted off two shanks of wood in both hands.

However, Aaron bounced back in an event that required more precision. He won the sheaf toss, clearing 25 feet.

“He’s only practiced about two years,” Isaac said. “His technique is improving too.”

Some of the events at the Highland games can be compared to track and field events.

There is a hammer throw where the motion is relatively similar to the Olympic competition of the same name. However, the difference is the Highland hammer weighs 16 pounds instead of 12 and the weight is connected with a long, thin, metal pole. Competitors are more apt to swing the apparatus around their head than spin with the implement before the throw.

The braemar and open stones are thrown like a shot put. The technique is the same, but the weight is not. Laynne, who is the Peabody-Burns High School throws coach, said a high school shot put weighs 12 pounds and a discus is 2 pounds.

The braemar stone weighs 22 pounds; the open stone weighs 16.

“It throws me around,” Isaac said of the braemar stone.

Complicating the normal motion is that the competitors are throwing a rock, not a round ball. Each stone is uniquely shaped and flies differently; Laynne said every competition requires the thrower to make adjustments to his implement.

“That’s part of the challenge,” Laynne said.

However, events like the caber and sheaf toss have no sports equivalent. The sheaf toss is an event in which the competitor uses a pitchfork and stabs a 16-pound bag to sling it up and over a high bar.

“It probably started over a bottle of beer,” Lane said. “I bet I can do that.”

The event also requires a defined throwing motion with an abrupt stop in momentum to release the bag. There is not a natural follow through like a baseball swing or hockey shot. With the soft bag being stabbed repeatedly another hitch is that that the sheaf can fly off before the thrower intends.

After five events Friday, Isaac and Aaron were both third in their groups. Neither athlete was the largest man in either class. For the Burnetts, practice has refined their throwing technique. The Burnetts have all the throwing weights at their home in rural Peabody. Isaac started throwing at home when he was 14. He’s been competing in events like the McPherson Highland Games for the past four years.

He said he has wanted to compete after watching his dad for the past 11 years.

Laynne was actually surprised how well his sons were doing because they had not practiced as much as usual. Isaac started school at Barclay College this fall.

Three of Isaac’s friends at school came to see him compete, including his roommate Brian O’Neal. Also, Ryan Cochran from Peabody was there to support Isaac. O’Neal said he was not interested in trying the events himself.

“He’s legit,” O’Neal said of Isaac.

Aaron works a full-time job as a machinist for Grassland mowers in Moundridge. When he told his fellow employees, he said they joked about him wearing a “skirt.”

“You can come out here and tell these guys that,” Aaron said to his coworkers.

“A man in a kilt is a man and a half,” fellow competitor Shaun Satterfield added.

Because of the uniqueness of the sport, Highland games create a tight bond among competitors. Laynne, Aaron, and Isaac said the aspect of the games that they like most is that participants are rooting for each other.

“Everybody here is out to help everyone else,” Aaron said.

“It’s not dog eat dog,” Laynne said. “Guys that have been here for years, they’ll jump right in and help a new guy learn.”

Laynne said competitors see each other about three or four times a year. Along with the McPherson Scottish Festibal, they may compete at competitions in Wichita, Kansas City, Tulsa, or Oklahoma City. Satterfield was looking at a five-hour drive to get back home to Omaha Sunday night.

Even though Isaac said he was going to be sore all over Monday (especially his hips, where the thrower derives his power) the Burnett’s all agreed that the sport is addictive.

Aaron is planning to procure weights so he can practice in his own back yard.

Laynne was a judge on Sunday but he said he could hardly wait to compete again.

“It’s just being different,” Laynne said of what draws him to the competition. “Everybody plays basketball; why not throw something heavy?”

Last modified Sept. 28, 2011

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