Kendall treks to Iceland to compete in Scottish Highland games
Kathryn Kendall poses in her UB sweatshirt before the start of competition at the Scottish Masters Athletics Heavy Events World Championships last month in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland.
By MICHAEL ANDREI
Kathryn Kendall is not someone who enjoys getting on a
“I call it the dreadmill, which gives you an idea of how
well I handle it,” says Kendall, senior assistant dean for
enrollment and online programs in the School of Social Work.
Having played team sports in high school and college, she found
she missed the competition, along with being physically active.
“I was looking for a way to stay fit when I found out
about Highland games and heavy events,” she says. “I
started going to local Scottish festivals to watch. There are many
here in Western New York, and they take place in all regions of New
“I attended quite a few and liked what I saw.”
What Kendall saw was men and women engaging in an ancient Celtic
sport that some say may be the oldest continuing athletic games in
the world, pre-dating sumo wrestling and the Greek Olympics.
“The exact date for the beginning of Highland games and
heavy events is somewhat murky,” Kendall says. “The
first record of them was in 12th Century A.D. in the Irish Book of
“This book describes games held from 1829 B.C. until at
least 554 B.C., and in a revived version until 1166 A.D. It is
believed the games were developed to test agility and strength.
“The items used in heavy events competition today have
evolved from things available to the earliest Scotsman,” she
These include stones, iron weights, hammers (iron balls mounted
on flexible handles, such as rattan, although now PVC pipe has
become popular), sheaves (burlap-wrapped bales of grain or twine)
and cabers (18- to 20-foot-long wooden poles).
Highland games are generally composed of nine events:
Brush up on the various items used in heavy events
The weight of the item thrown in each event varies for
men’s and women’s competitions. There are also Masters
competitions for participants over 40.
“My first event was three years ago,” Kendall says.
“I probably compete in about six or eight events a year,
including last year’s Scottish Masters Athletics Heavy Events
World Championships, which were held in Buffalo.”
Kendall also recently participated in the 2017 world
championships, which were held June 23-25 in
This year’s event — the 17th annual competition,
with 123 athletes participating — was the third largest in
the history of the Scottish Masters World Championships.
“The experience was great,” Kendall says. “The
venue was south of the city of Reykjavik, along the southwest
coast. The weather was good for the competition — cool, in
the low 50s, a mix of windy and a little overcast, along with sunny
Kathryn Kendall (second from right) with some of her fellow participants at the 2017 Scottish Masters World Championships held in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland.
“There were excellent, very experienced judges — and
more women competitors, which was good to see,” she says.
“The popularity of Highland games among women has really
increased in the last five years. There were seven women in my
class at this competition, one of whom set a new world record in
light weight for distance and almost set another one in weight over
Kathryn Kendall competes in the light weight for distance toss at the world championships.
Her best events, she adds, were open stone, light weight for
distance and light hammer.
Kendall notes the caber is probably the most popular event among
patrons of the festival, along with the sheaf.
“The small end of the caber goes on the ground,” she
explains. “Usually another competitor helps you do this. You
then place your hands on either side of it, to get a grip, and lift
upward off of the ground.
“You lift the pole with the palms of your hands, fingers
laced around it, and in one motion you are lifting and bringing
your hands down underneath the pole. You pop it up and literally
move your hands underneath, all in one motion.”
Kendall says at that point it becomes basic physics: “You
start running and as you run, you gain momentum — if you
stop, the caber will fall forward.
“At that point, you throw your end of the pole in the air
as much as possible ... you want it to flip, end over end, which
constitutes the toss.”
Kathryn Kendall takes part in the caber toss. The caber may be the most popular event among patrons of the Scottish Highland games.
Kendall says caber is the only Highland games event that is done
for accuracy, rather than distance.
“So, the perfect throw would be for it to flip end over
end and land in a perfect 12 o’clock position in front of
you. Any angling to the left or right detracts from your
Kendall plans to continue competing and traveling to Highland
games and heavy events. She says next year’s Scottish Masters
Athletics Heavy Events World Championships will be held in
Stuttgart, Germany, in September.
“You have to do some work in the gym to be in shape to
compete,” she says, “lifting weights to be able to
throw the weights in the events. You also need to acquire the
implements themselves, so you can practice.
“By competing, you get to know the athletes and meet many
of them at the events. You can also buy stones, weights and hammers
from individuals within the heavy games communities who make
Over the remainder of the summer, there are Highland games
coming up in Syracuse, Jamestown and at the Buffalo Niagara
Scottish Festival, being held Aug. 19 and 20 at Buffalo Niagara
Heritage Village, 3755 Tonawanda Creek Road, Amherst.