Celebration of Celtic heritage draws talent from near and far

Question: When do men in skirts command absolute respect?

Answer: When they're imposing athletes capable of heaving a 16-pound steel ball 135 feet without worrying that their slip is showing.

Witness this impressive sight and more at the 51st annual Portland Highland Games on Saturday at Mt. Hood Community College.

A celebration of Scottish culture, the all-day event, produced by the Portland Highland Games Association, draws hundreds of competitors vying for titles in Highland dance, music and athletics. Vendors will offer traditional Scottish food, drink and authentic Celtic wares including kilts. And because the Scots' pride in their heritage is renowned, clan experts will be on hand to trace genealogies.

Sticks and stones

At the games, professional athletes from across the nation will compete in the third All American Championship of Scottish Heavy Athletics. Sturdy-limbed athletes will attempt to strong-arm the competition in six ancient events, including the caber toss, the stone throw and the oddly named 'weight for height.'

The last event is enjoying notoriety because of a controversial new spinning technique used by many athletes as they attempt to get the 56-pound weight over an overhead bar, which can reach the jaw-dropping height of 17-plus feet.

A signature event at Scottish heavy athletics competitions, the caber toss involves throwing a 20-foot, 120-pound wooden pole end over end after lifting said pole into the vertical position, jogging a short distance with it and tossing it skyward.

Stuart Ramsay, Portland's premier whiskey expert and a native Scot, says the caber toss, like all Scottish heavy athletics, sprang from pragmatic origins.

'The caber toss goes back to the day when Scottish loggers would toss the logs into the river instead of rolling them,' Ramsay says. 'In these events, it all comes down to strength. The Celts are a warrior people, and the contests were about finding the strongest warrior, who would then protect the clan chieftain.'

Amateur heavy athletes, including women, also will contend for titles in the heavy-duty events. Once they've proved their mettle in the individual challenges, they are eligible to go pro.

Not all of the Highland games are inherently Scottish. Distinctly nontraditional events include the Kilted Mile, a race in which running shorts are not allowed, and a tug of war that calls for eight-man teams in a double-elimination process.

The chosen people

The brainchild of then-British consul Sir James MacDonald, the Portland Highland Games were first held in 1952, an attempt by local Scots to sustain their ancestral traditions. Ramsay says the rituals are sustained with ferocious pride for a reason.

'Scots are the chosen people, you know,' he deadpans. 'Thank God for scotch without it, we would have taken over the world.'

The celebrated liquid will be served at the Highland Games, along with lots of MacTarnahan's beer, an event sponsor.

Highland music provides a thread throughout the day, including performances by the Prince Charles Pipe Band from San Francisco and the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band from Vancouver, B.C., considered two of the world's best pipe bands.

A ceilidh, or Celtic party, will cap off the day's events. Headliners include the Wicked Tinkers, makers of powerfully rousing bagpipe music, and fiddler Laura Risk. Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has called Risk's fiddling 'an achingly beautiful revelation.'

In the midst of all this Gaelic gaiety, don't overlook what Ramsay says is one of his favorite events of the day: the sheepdog trials.

He is, however, quick to add a caveat about the trials:

'What a lot of people don't know is that these dogs are innocent.'

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