Pitching Pines

Caber-tossing is never done without a kilt - but it is done by more and more non-Scots

DOUGLAS EDMUNDS perches on the sofa-end like a beached whale. His bulk makes anyone near him suspect they are shrinking, as he describes how to lift a Scotch pine tree-trunk 19 feet long and 150 pounds heavy before ``tossing'' it. Mr. Edmunds is a Scot and former champion caber-tosser. Nowadays he judges caber tossing and a host of the other strong-man events to test the brawn of Highland Games participants.

He also trains caber-tossers - an Icelander, for example, called Jon Pall Sigmarsson. Tossing the caber has become an international event over the last decade. Though it simply isn't done without wearing the kilt, in recent years notable caber tossers have been Scandinavian (though they have done it for centuries like the Scots), Australian, American, Canadian, and Nigerian.

Edmunds is particularly proud of helping to turn Mr. Sigmarsson (who regularly earns the title ``World's Strongest Man'') into ``the world's No. 2 caber-tosser.''

``Right now,'' says Edmunds, ``the best caber-tosser in the world comes from California, believe it or not. That's Jim McGoldrick.''

Do you simply have to be immensely strong to toss the caber? ``Size is important,'' Edmunds concedes, ``but you've got to be big and athletic.... I don't know any good caber-tossers who haven't got good strong backs and legs. Yet again I've seen very strong men who can't toss a caber. Even if you show them, they don't seem to twig it: not coordinated, you see.'' What you need, he says, is ``timing-feeling.''

Don't let the caber loll about

Watching him demonstrate the art on a sofa is not quite the same as seeing it on the dewy turf surrounded by mist-hazy Scottish hills, but it's still impressive and undomesticated.

The caber is presented in a vertical position to the performer. He, legs apart, gets down and, with clasped hands (coated with sticky resin) near the bottom of the caber - Edmunds demonstrates - ``you actually lift it with the palms of your hands - you lift it like that and then slip your hands under it.'' Sounds easy.

The caber, he goes on, ``must be rock steady. If a caber's lolling about, there's no way you're going to toss it.''

He continues: ``If you flick it up'' (Flick it up]) ``and it falls back, you don't try and pull it in, you move with it - move your body and try to counter it, because, as I say, if you've got 20 feet of stick above you it's a terrible leverage.''

Anyway, once the thing's steady and ``you have it around your navel, OK, ... and your arms are semi-bent - you're up, now - then you tilt it forward slightly, OK, and you start your run.

``You've actually got to accelerate a wee bit before you plant your legs. You'll never be able to toss it on the run: You've got to plant and then drive.... You drive with the legs, lift with the hips, and pull it over the top.''

He leans back vigorously and I visualize the tree trunk whipping aloft, its heavy top end getting ready to fall once more and ``bite'' the ground so that the other, lighter, end will turn heels-over-head over it.

`Turning' it is rare

``It's got to be a struggle to get it over,'' says Edmunds. ``There are a lot of failures.'' In fact, ``turning'' it is rare: Maybe only one man will manage it in a day.

The feat of turning it, however, is not the sole or main aim of caber tossing. And distance has nothing to do with it. This event is entirely a matter of ``accuracy and control,'' Edmunds explains. ``The idea is to turn it dead straight on the face of an [imaginary] clock.'' A perfect throw would have the thrower standing at 6 o'clock and the caber pointing to 12 o'clock.

David Webster - a historian, organizer, and commentator at Highland Games - adds a touch of history from his home in Irvine, Calif.: ``It used to be also known as `Ye Casting of Ye Bar,''' he says. Henry VIII practiced it. ``Another theory is that it was originally a woodsman's sport, where they would toss the logs into the center of the river.'' Webster doubts this: ``My own view is that woodsmen would have taken the easiest way.''

But one man who doesn't take the easy way today is George Patience. He is Scotland's No. 1 caber tosser. He finds the sport ``very enjoyable. A good caber toss is a joy forever, you know.''

In his opinion, tossing the caber gets increasingly difficult. Stronger competitors have meant bigger cabers. ``The majority are now so big that a 12 o'clock toss is quite unusual nowadays.''

And when did he last toss one at twelve o'clock?

``Two weeks ago,'' he said. He sounded quite pleased about it.

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