It's a bonnie time to revel in Scottish sport and fun

Games: An annual festival in Anne Arundel gives participants a chance to test their fortitude with throwing contests, haggis puffs and kilt-wearing.

October 10, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

With a plaid kilt wrapped around his waist and a primal scream on his lips, Tim Ross sent a 16 1/2 -pound stone sailing through the air. Later came a hammer, and then a 16-foot log that weighed more than 100 pounds.

Watching on the grassy field, several burly men clapped appreciatively.

"I don't know what it is about throwing," said Ross, an environmental biologist from Federalsburg. "It just feels good."

Ross and about 30 other men spent yesterday grunting and heaving at the Anne Arundel Scottish Highland Games. The annual festival included sheepherding, fiddling, bagpiping, dancing and plenty of haggis puffs - Scottish pastries stuffed with sheep innards. But the main attraction was watching the assorted flying objects land in the grass with a dull thud.

The annual games are a celebration of Scottish culture and a perennial crowd-pleaser, but in some ways the competition is, at its heart, a search for manhood.

"It's an instant measuring stick of where you stand among men," said throwing judge Jim Cawley of Westminster. "It's very visual. Someone throws one thing, it goes 30 feet. You throw the same thing, it goes 40 feet."

Manhood was not hard to find at the Scottish festival. It greeted you at the gate in the form of a 32-foot statue.

Billed yesterday as the "largest Scotsman in the world," the statue - known as Paul Bunyan the rest of the year - has been around almost as long as the festival, which marked its thirteenth year at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds.

Big Mac, as the statue is affectionately called, used to advertise an auto service center across from an Annapolis mall. When the service center closed, the statue was moved onto the fairgrounds and organizers couldn't resist dressing it up a bit.

"If he's just going to stand there, we're going to put a kilt on him," said John Dodds, 66, of Annapolis, president of the games.

Birth of the games

Dodds, a native of Dundee, Scotland, founded the games in 1991 after finding a dearth of Scottish festivals in Maryland.

"I don't know why because we have an awful lot of Scots here," he said. "Many came over as fisherman and then became farmers."

And with them came the tests of strength. On the athletic field yesterday, the smell of sweat was almost as strong as that of the haggis puffs being sold at nearby stands.

About 30 competitors had shown up, eager to start throwing things. To win, they needed the best score overall in seven events: hammer throw, stone put, two weight throws (for distance), weight toss (for height), sheaf toss and the caber toss - which often is described, to the annoyance of organizers, as throwing telephone poles.

Why Scotsmen started throwing things around is mired in history and explaining it requires guesswork.

"It started when the chieftains from each clan had their meetings," Dodds said. "All their bodyguards would stand around with nothing to do, so they just started challenging each other."

The athletic games organizer, David McKenzie of Arlington, Va., told it differently. "Back in feudal times, before a war, they held a contests to see who was the biggest, meanest, strongest guy, and the winner would lead the army."

Assistant judge Robert McQuary of Powhatan, Va., put it most succinctly: "It was boredom.

"You had one guy in a blacksmith shop who said, `I've had enough of this. I'm throwing my hammer into the lake.' And the guy he's working with says, `Bet you you can't.' And boom, a competition was born."

Whatever the origin, the games' modern-day warriors insist their sports require more than brute force.

"It's not about gutting it out with your arms and strength," said James Gifford, 36, an Air Force fighter pilot stationed in Virginia. "In the stone put, you have to spin and use centrifugal force to impart all your energy into the throw. There's fulcrum points, leveraging strategies and the physics. It's not a dumb man's sport."

An international field

It's also not just a Scotman's sport anymore.

Yesterday's competition included a retired New York City policewoman and men of Irish, Polish and Italian descent.

"I'm actually German, but I guess I belong to the Davidson clan," said Mike Rhodes, a butcher from Scottdale, Pa., pointing to a Harley-Davidson patch on his kilt.

The kilt nowadays is required for the games, as is spandex underneath.

"No one goes `regimental' anymore," McQuary said. "It's actually pretty comfortable. No weird breezes or anything."

"A lot of people are hesitant to put a kilt on," said Rhodes, who sports a thick beard and whose arms are tattooed with flames.

Manliness among the Scots does not preclude wearing something that looks like a skirt, nor for that matter, pouches that look like a purses. But call them kilts and sporrans, he said, and try to refrain from telling any jokes - especially to the brawny men weighing more than 200 pounds.

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