On Saturday, June 24, 2017, the Alaska Fairgrounds in Palmer experienced warm temperatures, partly sunny skies and heavy flying objects. The site was host to the 2017 Alaska Scottish Highland Games.
Amid plaid kilts and skillfully played bagpipes, both male and female trained athletes threw – literally – sticks and stones for distance, height and accuracy to try to bring home top prizes.
While similar in structure to the throwing events at a track meet, Scottish Games competitors throw implements that are much heavier and roughly constructed than a sleek discus or javelin. Athletes register and compete in all events through the day, with optional events at the end of the competition.
Main events include the Scottish hammer, stone throw, weight for distance, weight for height, and caber toss. Optional events are the challenge stone, challenge caber, salmon toss and farmer’s walk. All main events involve throwing a stone of varying weights – alone or attached to a handle – except for the caber, which is a peeled and cured tree trunk. The challenge events are similar to their counterparts, except they are bigger and heavier. The salmon toss is unique to Alaska and includes throwing a 50 pound artificial salmon for distance and height. The farmer’s walk does not involve throwing, but carry incredibly heavy loads for distance.
One Alaskan competitor, and the only identified athlete from the Eagle River-Chugiak area, is Dr. Laura Elliott. Elliott is a physical therapist who practices at Healthwise Physical Therapy & Chiropractic in Eagle River.
As a long time fan of Scottish culture, getting started in the Games was a natural fit for Elliott. Her past history of using typical gym-type workouts as management for a chronic health condition left her bored and uninspired. Exercise felt like punishment. Volunteering with the Alaskan Scottish Club introduced her to the Games and she has never looked back.
“It has given me purpose,” she says.
In her second year of competition, Elliott is all smiles when she talks about her sport and passion. More even than the actual competition, she is most pleased with the support and sportsmanship she finds within the Highland Games community.
Training is intense, but Elliott enjoys the fun and goal-oriented workouts. A typical week sees three days of heavy weight lifting, including movements such as deadlifts and squats. She practices throwing twice a week. A throwing practice might include thirty hammer throws – which is a weight at the end of a PVC pipe, and twenty stone throws – a weight of 8 to 12 pounds. Additional workouts may include practice with 40-60 pound kettlebells.
Elliot utilizes Crossfit Iron Refined in Eagle River as her training ground and follows the instruction and guidance of out-of-state coaches for both workouts and nutrition. Her focus and dedication certainly paid off – she tied for first place in her division on Saturday.
The tie was shared with a good friend and Elliot could not have been happier about it. She is also grateful for the support she receives from her husband and says her success would not have been possible without him. With so much encouragement around her, Elliott is just at the beginning of her time as a Highland Games athlete.
“I know I have a lot to learn this early in the sport and I look forward to seeing where it takes me.”
While most certainly a fringe sport in the United States, the Alaska Scottish Highland Games draws impressively sized crowds.
Viewing the heavy events is not the sole attraction – spectators can listen to pipe and drum competitions and demonstrations, participate in a Kilted Mile, visit the beer garden and learn about tasting Scotch. The Games are as much a celebration of Scottish and Celtic culture as an athletic event.
One of the most iconic symbols of Scottish heritage – the bagpipe – has interesting ties to the Eagle River area. Ravenwood Elementary teacher Heather King is in her first year as a tenor drummer in the competitive San Diego-based pipe band The Cameron Highlanders. With a history of playing at the highest level, King also serves as an instructor for the band and leads practices via Skype, in addition to frequently flying to San Diego for events with the band.
Pipe bands are rated from Grade I (expert) to Grade V (beginner). The Cameron Highlanders are Grade II, which reflects their skill and expertise. They received a grant from the Atwood Foundation to travel to Alaska for the Highland Games to participate in a mock competition. This served as a demonstration and learning experience for the local lower grade bands. Community members who were able to witness The Cameron Highlanders during their short stay in Alaska were in for a rare treat.
Individuals interested in learning the pipes or drums can contact Crow Creek Pipes and Drums in Anchorage for lessons at crowcreekpd.com.
The Alaskan Scottish Highland Games may have concluded their 2017 competition, but there is still time to get a glimpse of the action. The Katchemak Bay Celtic Club will be hosting their own Highland Games, Saturday July 1, 2017, in Homer.
Sara Kennedy is a special education teacher in the Anchorage School District and a certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant. She likes to swim, bike and run around Alaska, and camp and fish with her family.