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'More women should toss the caber', say female Heavies

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

image copyrightHeather Boundy
image captionHeather Boundy holds a Guinness World Record for throwing cabers

When people think of a traditional Highland Games it is usually the heavy events such as throwing the hammer and tossing the caber that come to mind - and it is burly men in kilts who are hurling tree trunks about.

Women are "very much underrepresented", according to the Scottish Highlands Games Association and it wants to see more get involved.

In Canada, a country that has imported the Highland Games tradition, female participation has been on the rise for a number of years.

Two leading Canadian female heavyweight athletes, Celine Freeman-Gibb and world record-breaking caber thrower Heather Boundy, said more women should take part.

image copyrightCeline Freeman-Gibb
image captionCeline Freeman-Gibb throwing a caber at a games in Scotland

As a child Celine and her family would go to the Highland games at Fergus, Ontario.

In her fourth year at university she took up shot putt and competed at her first games in 2013, winning the women's section of the Heavy events.

"I never looked back," says the 27-year-old athlete.

Celine says: "Once you break a few Canadian records, your name gets out there and the invitations to games start rolling in."

Last summer, she hit the Highland Games circuit in Scotland.

She won first overall in her section at the Isle of Bute Highland Games, third overall at The World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow.

She also competed in the Newtonmore Highland Games but this was in the men's division because there was not a women's section.

As well as her love for competing, Celine says she enjoys the atmosphere of the games.

image copyrightCeline Freeman-Gibb
image captionCeline with her trophy haul at last year's Isle of Bute Highland Games

"At big games you have pipers, dancers, heavy events, bands playing, beer/whisky tents, vendors of both merchandise and food and finally the crowds," she says.

"I have thrown with large crowds watching and I have thrown with only a few spectators.

"I have to say the larger crowds make you want to do the best you can, to put on a show for the people watching and really try to get them involved."

'Old boys club'

image copyrightCeline Freeman-Gibb
image captionCeline throwing the hammer

But Celine says she has encountered barriers to her participation in Highlands games and at university wrote a Masters thesis on the topic.

She says: "Breaking into the Heavy events community can be difficult especially if you don't know anyone involved. I was fortunate enough to have someone who was already throwing who could vouch for me and my abilities.

"At times it can seem like an 'old boys club' and the older men get very fixated in their ways of how games should be run, like women shouldn't be a part of that because 'no one wants to watch that'."

'Strong, powerful, bold'

Celine says: "But I can't count the number of times that I've been approached by a mother or father saying thank you for showing their daughters that women can be strong, powerful, bold and compete in something they have passion for.

"When I was in Scotland this past summer, every games I was at, I was approached and asked to answer questions about throwing by either interested women, mothers or fathers who were curious how I got into the sport or simply to say thank you for showcasing my abilities to the younger generations."

Highland Games heavy events:

image copyrightGetty Images
  • Shot putt - One of the oldest events and traditionally contested using a heavy, round stone. Most putts today are an iron ball weighing 16lbs (7kg) or 22lbs (10kg)
  • Weight for distance - Throwing a 28lbs (12kg) iron sphere on the end of a chain
  • Throwing the hammer - In the past, an event that involved a blacksmith's sledgehammer but today a 16lbs or 22lbs iron ball attached to a wooden shaft
  • Weight over bar - A box shaped weight with a ring for lifting it. The weight must be thrown over a raised bar
  • Tossing the caber - Throwing a length of tree trunk. Usually weighs 150lbs (68kg) and is 5m (18ft) long, but weights and lengths can vary
  • Sheaf toss - An event that involves using a pitchfork to throw a bundle of straw in a cloth sack over a raised bar

'Scottish games need help'

The Scottish Highlands Games Association says it cannot put a figure on how many female athletes there are in both track and field events.

This is because in some events competitors just turn up on the day, and not all games provide reports on numbers of participants.

But a spokesman said: "The main point is that the female athletes are very much underrepresented.

"We know that they're out there - in athletics clubs for example - and we need to encourage them to compete at the Highland games as much as possible."

'Awesome female throwers'

image copyrightHeather Boundy
image captionHeather says she used to enjoy "kicking butt" on the Highland Games circuit

Heather Boundy describes her occupation as a "stay-at-home-mom" but she has also been competing on the Canadian Highland Games circuit since 2002.

The 37-year-old got involved following encouragement from her older brother Paul, who was already a regular competitor but who now races stock cars.

After trying out in some of the Heavy events, Heather honed her skills at a training camp in Fergus, Ontario.

"Seventeen years later and I have thrown in over 100 games and I'm still throwing," she says.

"On 1 June I will travel to New Brunswick to compete in the Canadian Women's Scottish Athletic Championships."

image copyrightHeather Boundy
image captionThe sheaf toss is another popular challenge at Highland Games

She says she did initially find it a "little difficult" to find enough places in Canada with women's events, and would travel to the USA - just 40 minutes away over the border - to compete in games.

"But as the years went on there have been many games opening women's division in Canada," she says, adding: "Some years I throw in over 12 games.

"I host the heavy events at the Trenton Scottish Irish Festival in Canada and I have been doing that for over six years now,

"I normally have around 30 people come throw and 10 of them are women."

image copyrightHeather Boundy
image captionHeather's children Kimberlee and Andrew have also tried their hand at Highland Games heavy events

Heather says in her early years on the Highland Games circuit she enjoyed "kicking butt", competing hard to achieve high scores.

"I still do very well when I throw, but these days I hit the field to have a fun, laugh-filled day with a bunch of great people and the friends that I have made over the years," she says.

Since 2002, the athlete has seen female participation in Canadian Highland Games grow.

image copyrightHeather Boundy
image captionHeather says every season women are breaking Canadian heavyweight event records

She says: "I have seen the female numbers in the last 17 years go from eight to 10 of us to over 30 women in the Canadian Scottish Athletic Federation database.

"Between Canada and the USA there is tonnes of interest and a lot of awesome female throwers.

"Every throwing season women in Canada are breaking Canadian records, which means the women are getting better and stronger, pushing themselves to the limit every time they hit the field."

'Makes you feel powerful'

In 2015, Heather set the Canadian record for weight over bar and the following year a new record in the sheaf-throwing event.

One of her favourite heavyweight events is throwing the caber. She holds the Guinness World Record for tossing 15 cabers in three minutes.

image copyrightHeather Boundy
image captionHeather has been competing at the games since 2002

Heather says: "I would encourage women all over the world to throw. It makes you feel powerful whether you are winning or losing, and I've done lots of both to know.

"I've read that women in Scotland don't throw the caber very often. This makes me sad. Caber is the hardest event but once you've got it, your good to go."

image copyrightHeather Boundy
image captionHeather hopes more women will be inspired to be involved in Highland games

She adds: "I would be more than happy to be given a chance to come to Scotland and help the women learn this event."

For Heather, who started competing because of her brother, Highland games is a family affair.

Her husband Wayne Smith and their children Kimberlee, 18, and Andrew, 14, have all tried their hand at games events.

"And they all did very well," says Heather proudly.

Related Topics

  • Canada
  • Glasgow
  • Newtonmore
  • Isle of Bute

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