Celt Classic

These aren't your usual bunch of tossers.

No, the muscular men and women who'll descend on the Valley this weekend for the 40th Annual Highland Games won't be heaving heavy objects just for the hell of it -- they'll be doing it for Gaelic guts 'n' glory, and maybe some brews, too.

The games, presented by the Caledonian Society of Arizona, focus on lifting and throwing weighted objects either across a distance or over an obstacle. The contests challenge competitors' strength and accuracy -- sort of like the Strong Man competition, with culture. The lineage of these ancient games stretches back to the Old World, when rivalries festered among kings and clans.

Feats of strength include the hammer throw, where competitors fling both a 16- and 22-pound hammer; the weight toss for height, during which contestants lob a 56-pound stone over a pole vault bar; the Braemar stone put, which includes chucking a 25-pound rock; and, perhaps the most well-known, the caber toss.

Andrew Hobson, a 28-year-old Highland Games veteran and Tempe resident, says crowds go batty for the caber toss, which involves tumbling an 18-to-20-foot telephone pole weighing upward of 135 pounds. Spectators' enthusiasm, he says, helps fuel him with the adrenaline he needs to turn over the unwieldy pole. "The good throwers, they usually say it takes about a year or two just to get comfortable with picking it up in your hands and actually balancing it. Then it takes a lot longer to learn how to turn it."

It's also not uncommon, Hobson says, to see sexagenarians turn out to fling around the caber. And women compete in the same events (albeit in separate categories and with lighter gear), so Hobson's wife Denise gets some action alongside her husband.

Amateur competitors can win medals or plaques for faring well in the games, while pros nab cash prizes. This year, however, certain winners will walk away with a magnum of Arrogant Bastard Ale, provided by one of the festival's sponsors. An admitted teetotaler, Hobson says he's not into the spoils of victory -- just the camaraderie.

"Among the other throwers you get a little bit of bragging rights," says Hobson. "You're usually just competing against yourself."

In addition to the games, myriad piping and drumming competitions take place at the festival, as well as performances of traditional Scottish music and dancing. Although only seven bagpipe and drumming groups are on the schedule, what they lack in number they'll make up in volume.

Members of more than 50 Scottish clans are expected to attend the family event, which features activities for the wee ones (including that most ancient of Celtic novelties, the moon jump). Traditional Scottish food and drink will also be served, including the dreaded haggis. Guts 'n' glory, indeed.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.

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