Records of it date back half a millennium to the 16th century, but where medieval clansmen got the idea for what is now one of the most iconic events in the Scottish Highland Games remains a mystery.
“We really don’t know why the caber started,” explains Warren Trask, heavy events chair for the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games. “There’s a lot of stories.”
Some tales involve ancient battles where Scots would take felled trees and flip them across small rivers to escape enemies.
“If you could turn it accurately over the stream so it landed on this side, the other end landed on the other side, your troops didn’t have to slow down, they could run right across the caber," Trask explains.
Another wartime origin story suggests that perhaps notches were cut into cabers which were then used to scale castle walls.
Some people say it was a way to install the centre poll in a house.
Trask’s preferred theory is likely the simplest.
“I think they got going with a bunch of scotch and said ‘there’s a tree, let’s try to flip the tree over,'” he says. “They were drunk. A lot of sports, that’s how they start.”
The modern iteration of the event, which is showcased at the Fergus Scottish Festival, uses 100 to 200 pound cabers measuring 18 to 19 feet in length. The objective is to toss the beam end over end so that it lands with the bottom directly away from the contestant — at 12 o’clock, if the competitor is standing at six o’clock.
“Anywhere from nine o’clock to three o’clock is considered a good throw, and the closer to twelve you get, the better your score,” explains Trask.
While the event requires an enormous amount of strength, technique is also important.
“Every caber is different,” says Trask, a former Canadian caber champion with 35-years experience throwing.
“Some cabers, you want them to fall forward further before you pull them up, some you want them more straight up, depends on the taper.”
Competitors get three attempts, but the most experienced athletes can tell what kind of approach they’ll need to employ just by looking at a caber, Trask says.
The cabers used at the Fergus Scottish Festival come from the bush at Trask’s family farm just outside Alma, including the festival’s famed 'Unturnable Caber.'
Not only is the ironwood beam exceptionally long at over 20 feet, it’s 140 pound weight is concentrated at the top, meaning it has very little taper.
“It’s got everything working against it,” says Trask.
In the Unturnable Caber’s around 12 year history, it’s been flipped only twice.
Two athletes made successful attempts in 2012.
“It was a rainy day, the caber was wet,” Trask recalls. “We were in disbelief.”
Festival organizers had waited years believing, but not knowing, “somebody at some point in time would turn it.”
Every year a $500 bounty is added to the Unturnable Caber. Currently, the next person to successfully attempt it is set to receive $4,000.
“We’re just waiting for that athlete to come back again that’s the next incredible caber tosser that can turn it,” says Trask.
Caber tossing was just one of several heavy events staged at Trask’s farm last weekend. The competition was filmed and will be aired as part of the Fergus Scottish Festival’s Digital Ceildah 2 Go.
Eight athletes participated in the scaled down version of the festival’s regular heavy events competition, including Trask’s son Jamie.
The younger Trask says it felt “awesome” to compete again and be reunited with fellow heavy events athletes.
“To see these people, over the course of the summer, you kind of become, I’m not going to say family, but you become close," he says. "And then all of the sudden you don’t see them for two years so it’s nice to be able to catch up again.”
Fellow athlete Lorne Colthart welcomed the break. He's been competing in heavy events since he was 14. In Scotland he can participate in 35 to 40 Highland Games per year.
With three years at the Fergus Scottish Festival under his belt, he says the main difference between that competition and those in his home country is the crowd.
"The crowd is far more lively I find in Canada, it's more of a local crowd, in Scotland it's very tourism based," Colthart explains. "So it's nice... everyone's having a good time."
This year's virtual Fergus Scottish Festival runs Aug. 13 to Aug. 15.
Festival organizers hope to welcome crowds back to their usual home at the Centre Wellington Sportsplex in 2022.
Alison Sandstrom, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, GuelphToday.com