Courtney McGuire competes at a Scottish highland festival. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Bishop)

ITHACA, N.Y.—The Scottish Highland Games is one of the oldest competitions of brute strength, and involves throwing lots of heavy things in awkward shapes for both height and precision while wearing a kilt.

Caber toss is likely what people think of when they hear about highland games, and the event entails throwing a 20-foot pole (that looks like a telephone pole) so that it lands at a perfect 12 o’clock away from the athlete, which is how it’s then scored.

Other events include pitchforking a 10-pound burlap and throwing it over a certain height, only to be rewarded by your success by having to throw it up even higher on your next turn.

There are also stone and weight throws, explains Ithaca local Courtney McGuire, who has been competing in highland game events for close to 12 years and just came in second in her age group at her most recent games in June.

She originally got involved when she saw the Ithaca Scottish Games and Celtic Festival that used to be held at Stewart Park, though unfortunately that event has since been discontinued.

“I was like, I could probably do something with that stick,” she said with a laugh, continuing on to say that her wife had suggested she get involved. “Three weeks later, I was completely clueless in my first games,” McGuire said.

McGuire compared some of the highland events to that of track and field, saying that a lot of people actually find the sport after high school and collegiate careers in track and field.

In school, McGuire had played softball, basketball and hockey, but had no knowledge or experience with events that involved throwing things — “The best part about highland games is the community. Even though you’re competing against each other, everybody is there to help everybody learn to get better and to encourage them,” she said, laughing and likening it to the “biggest family reunion you’d ever want to participate in.”

Though it can be a lighthearted sport competitively, people do want to challenge themselves and get better, so training, at least for McGuire, takes place year-round.

McGuire has been participating in masters world championships since 2015, and the competition season varies in terms of how many games participants can and want to compete in. Games occur throughout the entire year around the globe, and over the past couple of years athletes have had to take COVID-19 travel restrictions into account when deciding where they want to compete.

Games are set up decathlon-style, but the Worlds games are split up into two days to accommodate more than 150 athletes and optimize the venue’s field space.

Athletes also have to submit their numbers which are then put into a national database, which is then combed through by the committee that sends out invites to the athletes, which are typically limited to groups of 12 maximum.

McGuire’s training takes place year-round, except for a two-week break after the end of her season sometime in the early fall. Typically, she said, workouts are focused on heavy, Olympic-style lifts with accessory stuff mixed in, “A lot of it is just real kinds of sports-specific stuff, whenI get through my off-season, I see when Worlds or Nationals are, and I count back eight weeks for a specific program that includes a lot of cardio.”

Adding cardio and conditioning helps McGuire get her endurance up for competing. “Mass moves mass, and I’m competing against girls that are a foot and a half taller than me,” she said.

McGuire gets together a few days a week with the self-proclaimed Danby Heavies, a to group that likes to train in the member’s backyards.

Since the Ithaca Scottish Games don’t happen anymore, McGuire’s goal over the next few years is to host a clinic at the Trumansburg fairgrounds to increase exposure for the sport and get more people involved locally.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about having fun. The cool thing for me is that I get to have fun, see friends and get to travel all over the world competing,” she said.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is the digital editor/reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Joining in November 2021, she has covered a wide range of topics related to local news. She can be reached at,...