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Great Scots! They'll Take the High Road

May 28, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

"It's like balancing a broom in your hand," Dale Stewart said. "Then flipping it so the brush side lands first. Nothing to it.

"Only this particular 'broom' is 22 feet long and weighs 170 pounds."

The caber in question, brown and dirty as a telephone pole, lies on the sidelines like a sated boa constrictor stretched out for a nap in the sun. A monster boa that does not want to be disturbed. A boa, in fact, that has not been disturbed for the last four years.

Huge men in kilts circle the pole, stroking it with ham hands, lifting the end, testing its heft. Wondering.

This is the Challenge Caber. A "virgin," they call it. A $500 bounty awaits the man who can hoist it upright, run with it, then flip (or "turn") it so that it falls in line with his desperate trot.

Like Excalibur, the Challenge Caber awaits a man with a mission. It has never been turned.

Tossing the caber is the athletic sinecure of the 55th annual Highland

Gathering and Games at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

It is an ancient Scottish rite, derived from the days when clan fought clan--and occasionally the English--with sword, bow, bare hands and teeth.

Pursued cross-country, the Campbells, or the MacDonalds or the Turnbulls, would ford streams by calling upon the strongest of the clan. A tall, straight tree would be felled and stripped. With one prodigious heave, the braw lad would toss the log across the burn, a makeshift bridge.

"It's not as easy as it looks," Stewart said, though it doesn't look easy at all. Stewart, 26, athletic director of the Games, smiles with just a hint of malice. "These body builders say, ' I can do that ,' and fall on their buns. They lack technique.

"They get the thing in the air and it starts to tilt backwards, and they begin to run backwards to compensate. But you can't muscle it back up. There's a point of no return.

"In that case, the best thing to do is to let it go. A few years ago, somebody didn't. Now he's got one shoulder about seven inches lower than the other."

The bigger athletes, the bull elephants, continue to circle the Challenge Caber: old war horse Keith Tice, a legend at 39 in a Black Watch kilt; Kevin Brady, pretender to the throne, 10 years younger, in outrageous saffron; Rob McKay; Mark MacDonald . . .

There are other events, eight in all over two weekend days--an octathlon. Six events would have been unseemly (the Scottish Sexathlon?).

Divided into pros, amateurs, novices, they will throw two weights of stones; twirl a 16-pound hammer attached to a 50-inch cane shaft; throw two weights for distance, one 56 pounds ("You don't throw it, it throws you ," says amateur Miles McLennan), and the same 56-pound weight for height--one-handed, backwards, over a pole-vault bar--an event almost as insane as the caber toss.

"And in Scotland," says Stewart, "there's the 'Stone of Strength' that you have to lift onto a pedestal. It's a boulder, so enormous you can't get your arms around it; you have to squeeze it!

"Sure, it's all pretty macho, but you've got to be macho if you're going around wearing a skirt."

Even without a breeze, Kevin Brady's "skirt" flies in the face of tradition. Brady is an Irishman (non-Scots are welcome), and adopted the saffron motif from the Emerald Isle Pipers. "I get a big kick out of beating the Scots," he said. "After all, the whole Scottish tribe comes from Ireland."

In days of yore, Brady would have been minced into haggis. Today, the Scots not only tolerate him but enjoy the antics of a born showman. Brady struts, preens, stares, psyches. Then he delivers, and applauds his applauders ("I like to give 'em their $7 worth").

A mobile mountain at 6-5 and 285 pounds, Brady is one big muscle from toe to neck. With his black bangs, he resembles Prince Valiant on steroids (Brady disdains them, but "I'm not sure about Val.") Tucking up his kilt, swinging the 56-pound weight between his legs, his biceps bulge, a phenomenon known far--and mostly wide--as the Brady bunch.

The weight hits the bar at 16 1/2 feet, going up! "Come back tomorrow," he said.

Keith Tice, bigger than Brady but less evenly distributed, looks on stoically, though his tank top is eloquent: the Scottish lion red and rampant on a field of yellow pecs.

Brady's is not the only departure from tradition here. Border collies herd ducks . Pipers sport shades. A beer vendor sells Watney's light . And "We opened the athletic events to the lasses four years ago," Games Chieftan Robert Reoch said. "One of them (Linda Wales) tossed the caber quite handily; two days later she gave birth to a 14-pound boy."

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