Highland Games invade Prineville

Video: Caber toss and weight throw among competitions at Pioneer Summer Festival

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin

PRINEVILLE — If any of Crook County’s pioneers were inclined to sport a kilt on a cool summer day, they’d have felt right at home Saturday at Prineville’s Pioneer Summer Festival.

Now in its second year, the festival in Crooked River Park hosted a Highland Games competition, a collection of large men — and a few women — in kilts throwing impossibly large objects in a series of events that trace their origins to medieval Scotland.

By midday, competitors were abuzz at the possibility John Odden had set a world record by pitching a 42-pound weight on a short handle over a crossbar 19 feet, ¼ inch off the ground.

But first, to verify the record, they had to find a decent scale that could prove the 42-pound weight, in fact, weighed 42 pounds.

Preparing to take their turns tossing the Scottish hammer, competitors Jennifer Keffer of Weiser, Idaho, and Teige Neill, of Ontario discussed the still-pending record. Keffer, daughter of games organizer Tom Keffer, said her father had headed out in search of a suitable scale.

“The scale my dad uses came out of his bathroom,” Keffer said, noting its been known to grossly overstate her own weight.

“Not very accurate,” offered Neill. “We’ll weigh. We’ll do that for every throw, but for a world record we really make sure it’s where it needs to be.”

Jenny Agee, of Prineville, organizer of the Pioneer Summer Festival, said she knew almost nothing about Highland Games when she and her husband, Bret, held the first festival last year.

She said they’d wanted to host a lumberjack competition, as was once held at past Prineville events, but couldn’t figure out where to begin.

Through a series of family connections, she was introduced to the Bald Mountain Knuckle Draggers, an Idaho-based group of Highland Games enthusiasts headed by Tom Keffer. The club offered to provide all of the equipment and help recruit athletes if the Agees were willing to host a Highland Games.

“I said, ‘What is that?’” Agee recalled. “I didn’t know what it was. I did a lot of Google searching, and (said), ‘Heck yes, let’s do that,’” she said.

Rick Morriss, of Boise, a judge for Saturday’s competition, said many Highland Games events began as a way for the Scottish people to maintain a well-trained army without attracting the suspicion of England’s King Edward I.

The conquering king had disarmed the Scottish armies, Morriss said, but powerful Scottish landowners figured out they could conduct rudimentary military training by disguising it as an athletic competition.

“People have been throwing stones at each other since forever,” he said.

The caber toss — possibly the most well-known Highland Games event, in which competitors throw a large wooden pole — is actually about accuracy, Morriss said, in which the goal is to flip the caber a full turn and have it land pointing directly away from the competitor, in the 12 o’clock position on a clock. He said early Scottish armies were known to use a caberlike timber to quickly ford streams, or to break open a hole in a line of English soldiers.

Morriss said the 19 participants who turned out to compete Saturday is a great start for a first-time Highland Games.

“If they’re a good games, and people enjoy them, they’ll grow,” Morriss said.

By early afternoon, Odden’s record was official, the second world record set by the 34-year-old recent transplant to Bend within the last month.

A former professional competitor who’s been doing Highland Games for 11 years, Odden said that although the sport is still a bit obscure, Saturday’s event could do a lot toward building interest in Central Oregon.

“It’s kind of a fringe sport in a sense, but it really has a lot of competitive but fun, challenging camaraderie,” Odden said. “And just the culture part of it, so I appreciate all of that. And just being able to be outside and part of a new event and a community, too, is a good thing all around.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com