Ryan Woodard builds momentum Tuesday on the grounds of the Starkville Sportsplex as he practices for the Scottish hammer throw. The throw is one of seven athletic contests featured in the upcoming Central Mississippi Highland Games March 28-30 in Starkville. Woodard lives in Starkville and works at Airbus Helicopter Inc. in Lowndes County. Photo by: Mary Alice Truitt/Dispatch Staff
Men and women compete in Highland Games. Here, a female competitor at a Mississippi event tosses the caber, attempting to send it end over end. Jayson Tisdale of the Gulf Coast, at left, serves as a judge. He is coordinator of the athletic events of the games to be held in Starkville Saturday and Sunday.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
John Hill of Sturgis practices to throw the “stone of strength” for distance. The stone toss is another Highland athletic event. A smooth river stone will be used for the actual contest. Each athlete is given three attempts, and the best distance is recorded.
Photo by: Mary Alice Truitt/Dispatch Staff
Jayson Tisdale examines cabers before a caber toss. “It’s the epitome of Highland events; it’s effectively tossing a tree,” he said.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
March 22, 2014 11:41:19 PM
Ryan Woodard and John Hill used the last rays of sunlight Tuesday to replace divots. Lots of divots. But this was no game of golf. These chunks of turf had exploded from the ground from the force of a heavy mallet. And the conscientious divot-menders moving methodically across the Starkville Sportsplex field, heads down, were wearing kilts.
Perhaps it's no accident that the origins of "divot" are Scottish, referring to squares of sod used to roof cottages. Woodard, who lives in Starkville, and Hill, of Sturgis, had been practicing for the Scottish hammer throw, one of the athletic contests of the Central Mississippi Scottish Highland Games coming to Starkville March 28-30. Until now, Celtic festivals and games in Mississippi have been focused in Jackson and on or near the Gulf Coast. That is about to change, thanks to Woodard's persistence and the willingness of the Golden Triangle Celts.
"I'm very proud of my heritage; I'm Scots-Irish, a descendant from the Kerr (pronounced "car") Clan," said Woodard, who approached the Celts group with the idea of organizing the local event. "It's a great ancestry, a great culture. It really is. Full of everything you can think of -- action, romanticism, mystery."
The three-day Highland Games weekend will give everyone attending a glimpse of all three by way of a grand ball and ceilidh (kay-lee, a Gaelic social gathering) Friday evening at Magnolia Manor, and athletic contests, music and family activities Saturday and Sunday at the Sportsplex.
Woodard admits it was "a wild hair" that led him to contact Paige Lawes of the Golden Triangle Celts in Starkville and pitch the idea of hosting the games. A touch of Scottish stubborn probably helped.
"I'd seen (Highland games) a couple of times, and it's something I've always wanted to do," Woodard said.
The heavy events, as they are called, are steeped in history, with references dating back to 1057 AD. They utilized equipment available in any village -- wood-shaft hammers, hay forks, bales of straw, round river stones and trees. They began as tests of strength and conditioning for Scottish warriors and then the Scottish military.
In 1746, after the Battle of Culloden, the English outlawed large gatherings by Scottish people. They were forbidden to carry weapons, play the bagpipes, wear kilts, speak Gaelic or hold games, shared Jayson Tisdale, an experienced competitor and events judge who lives near Gulfport. He is coordinating athletic contests for the games in Starkville.
By the 1760s, Scots had begun to defy the ban, and England's Act of Proscription was lifted in 1782. The games became an important part of Scotland's cultural vibrancy and were brought to the U.S. They're held annually wherever there are enough Scots to produce an event, passing the heritage from one generation to the next.
On Saturday and Sunday, kilted competitors -- men and women -- from across the Southeast will test agility, strength and endurance in contests including an open stone toss, heavy weight for distance (56 pounds), a 28-pound weight throw, Scottish hammer throw, caber toss, weight for height, and the sheaf toss.
The caber toss might be called the grandfather of contests.
"It's the epitome of Highland events; it's effectively throwing a tree," explained Tisdale by phone from his Gulf Coast home. (Caber is Gaelic for tree or rafter.) It's the only event in which distance or height is not the object. Athletes attempt to lift and balance the caber against their shoulder, then run with it and flip the caber end-over-end, so that the end they picked up points directly away from them.
"It's got wow factor in many forms," Tisdale commented. "Nobody else does it -- it's all ours and is quite the spectacle in and of itself."
Competitors can enter Novice, Mens Open, Masters (40 and older) or Womens Open divisions.
More to do
An opening ceremony at the Starkville Sportsplex at 405 Lynn Lane in Starkville March 29 begins at 8:30 a.m. Games start at 9 a.m. and conclude at 5 p.m. Hours March 30 are noon to 5 p.m. Saturday athletic divisions competing are the Men's Masters and Men's Novices. Sunday divisions competing are the Open Men and Women.
While the contests are underway, attendees can also visit the Golden Triangle Celts Heritage Tent to learn more about Scottish culture and just possibly find a Scot in their family tree.
As of press time, the Gail Gillis Music Tent will host the Father of Waters Pipe and Drum Band at 10 a.m. and the Emerald Accent band from South Mississippi at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Loren Hughes, Ed Swan and other musicians will also perform at the tent. Attend a morning mini-workshop in Scottish dance, and enjoy the food tent as well.
The Bill Stuart Children's Glen for wee lads and lassies ages 3 to 12 will host games, storytelling by Christine Jurusik of the Starkville Public Library, art projects, foot races, tug o' war and many other activities. Admission for spectators is free. Bring your favorite lawn chairs.
A grand gathering
Paige Lawes has been leading a charge since the day she was born, her mother tells her. The description is apt for the driving force behind the Golden Triangle Celts. Lawes' enthusiasm is high for the ceilidh set for Friday at 7 p.m. at Magnolia Manor on North Jackson Street in Starkville.
"The ball is going to be lovely, with a grand march and music by Emerald Accent," said Lawes, whose Three Generations Tea Room is often the site of Celtic celebrations. Tickets are $30, available in Starkville at the Tea Room, Magnolia Manor, The Book Mart and Cafe, or from Celts' board members. Light evening fare is included in the ticket. Dress attire is requested.
Kilts for the ball, for athletes, or just to wear to the games, may be purchased at the Costume Party shop in College Park Shopping Center, 100 Russell St. in Starkville. Prices start at $20. A limited number are available for rental. Call the shop, 662-323-9771, for more information.
"People who are real serious will often have their own kilts costing hundreds of dollars," said shop proprietor Connie Willsey. "They can be quite formal and beautiful."
For more information about the Games, go to facebook.com/CentralMississippiScottishHighlandGames, or contact Lawes at 662-324-1507 or Gillis, 662-325-7991.
Organizers hope to create an annual event that grows every year. There is plenty to share of Scottish heritage and culture.
"Why don't you come and get a glimpse of what competition was like long ago in the highlands of Scotland," encouraged Tisdale, "where people still today recognize men are men because they're not afraid to wear a skirt."
Editor's note: This story's writer is a descendant of Clan Donald, and proud of it.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.