Introduction: Backyard Highland Games

I was recently tasked with coming up with a fun family activity that was different than what has been done before. This same time I was already working on some family history that involved the Scottish side of my family so I was reading histories and looking up cultural information about the areas, activities and food that my ancestors may have experienced. I was thinking about what to do as an activity as I was watching Scottish Highland Games on Youtube, and I decided I really wanted to do Highland Games as the activity. I started to take notes and getting ideas about what to do for the activities.

My wife being ever so pragmatic suggested maybe something where the likelihood of death or maiming to the participants and observers was slightly lessened. Taking this in mind but still wanting to do Highland games I started to look for ways to get the experience of the games without the possibility of death to those involved.

I started to design some equipment that would provide the experience of the games but making them safer, especially for a large group on people not experienced with throwing telephone poles, boulders, and sledgehammers around.

So in this instructable I will show how I made some novice / family safe equipment to be used in our Highland Games.

Step 1: The Caber - Build

Probably one of the most iconic things associated with Highland Games, aside from bagpipes and kilts, is the caber. Cabers are basically large hewn logs or poles that can be as long as 19 feet and around 175 lbs. The length and weight can vary from beginner to pro and from men to women. The basic guideline for a caber is that half the contestants should be able to turn the caber.

Turning a caber requires that the contestant be able to pick up the caber vertically, holding it by one end and throw the caber as they try to flip the end they were holding to land directly from them. A throw is scored by the angle the caber lands away from the thrower, 12 o'clock away is perfect, anywhere else reduces points, and if the caber does not flip all the way over the angle the thrower was able to get is scored.

This made having a caber at our event important, but not so big and heavy. At 20 feet the reach that an accident can happen is large. So I needed to find a way to limit the reach or the impact it might have. I planned on using an inner core wrapped with closed cell foam as a protective layer.

I first tried four 2" x 4"s with two butted at the center, one centered over lapping each of those and the last cut in half to fill in the ends all connected to each other with 3" deck screws. This gave me a 16 foot caber.

This design didn't work so well the length combined with the center butt could not take even slight impacts cracked the center board after only a few throws. It did reduce the weight quite a bit.

I next tried two 2" x 4"s overlapping each other by 4 feet, and two four foot sections butted to each of the full length pieces on each side. This design worked out much better since the butted joints were moved from the center. The center proved to be where the forces of the throw and the force from the impact came together and really tested the wood and any joints near it. Even without any reinforcing of the joints there was no cracking or damage during multiple throws and impacts.

The actual build involved laying the 2" x 4"s on their sides and overlapping them by 4 feet and placing the shorter 4 foot half sections at the end of each of these to fill in the open space, align the edges, and attach them together with 3' deck screws every 6 - 9 inches.

Add construction adhesive between the 2" x 4"s to give them a stronger bond than just the screws. You can also wrap the 2" x 4"s with duct tape before adding the padding layer giving them one more layer holding the 2" x 4"s together. Even though this caber is not that heavy the repeated impact can pop the screws.

I used my circular saw to cut the corners off at 45 degrees, and the guide set to take off 0.75". This gave a rough octagonal profile which I rounded off further with a hand plane. I also ran the plane around the ends to round over the ends.

At the joints between the full length 2" x 4"s and the half sections I used the reinforcing plates to layout the mounting holes for the plates and moved them. I countersank where the screws would go. The mounting plate will limit the screws from being completely countersunk but will bend in and allow for a smoother mount without the screw heads standing out so much from the plate. You can also reduce how much the screw heads stand out by using the pan head deck screws which have a rounded over profile rather than the standard head.

Return the plate to its position and mount it using the deck screws. I turn them until the plate gets pulled down into the countersunk holes I made.

I placed duct tape over the plate, then wrapped it to cover any sharp edges from cutting the foam covering I will be adding later. This setup turn out to make a solid build with no cracking or popping during throws and impact and a caber weighing about 30 lbs.

Caber Lite

I then made a bit lighter version for the kids using PVC pipe. I took seven 10 foot, 1/2" pipes. Adding a piece of duct tape to the center pipe with a half wrap then adding other pipes around it and wrapping the tape around the outside and binding them all together.

I then taped the pipe together in the same fashion every 2.5 feet. This keeps the center pipe from sliding out and helps make the bundle stiffer. It made a good caber for the kids that was less than 10 lbs.

Step 2: The Caber - Wrap

I lucked out from having to buy any closed cell foam for this project. I had an old roll of foam that was used as a block for shipping in a truck a friend was driving. The company didn't want it after and it was offered to me, so I jumped on it. If I hadn't had this already I would have found some of the cheap camping mats connected end to end to wrap the caber.

The foam was laid out on a flat surface and the caber laid on one edge. I attached the foam with short pieces of duct tape every foot from one end to the other. I then rolled the caber up in the foam as snug as I could, taping the edge down the same way I attached it to the caber. The ends were trimmed so that the foam could be folded in to just barely touch on the ends. I folded the sides in, then the top and bottom together and taped them together. Once secured in place I taped top to bottom, side to side, then diagonal corner to corner both directions.

I then wrapped the entire length of the caber with the duct tape over lapping each prior layer by a 0.25".

The duct tape adds a protective, grippy layer to the foam to keep it from getting tore up on impact and by the lifting and throwing of the users. Add a second layer on the end the users will be using most to help protect where it will be gabbed the most.

I did this on the lite caber too. On the ends I added some electrical tape so the two ends can be told apart during a throw to make sure a full rotation can be seen. On the wood centered caber I added a center line so I can see which direction the 2" x 4"s are oriented.

Now I have two cabers ready to go to the games with.

Step 3: Stone Put or Stone Throw

Another game at Highland events is the stone put or stone throw. Basically you take a rock about 16 lbs. and throw it as far as you can like a shot putt with a most thrower taking a few spins before throwing. My wife loves a good workout and had asked me before about getting a medicine ball. We had priced a few and looked online about anyway to make one. I found a few good discussions about making medicine balls and this seemed like a good time to take care of two needs at once.

I found a used basket ball at a second hand store for a few bucks. Most discussions on making your own medicine ball involved cutting a hole thru the side of the ball filling it with your weight material, usually sand, then gluing and taping it all back together. I was concerned that with the integrity of the ball would be compromised too much for throwing it around I wanted to limit cutting it up and trying to get the glue and tape to hold it all during throwing.

I found that the valve could be removed and that inside the ball the area around the valve was built up. I decided to just use the valve hole to fill the ball and only have to secure this already built up area to hold it all together.

Removing the old valve by trying to work it out as seen on sites that show how to replace the valve didn't go so well, the part I could grab with some needle nose tore off. Pushing what was left all the way into the ball was easy. And since I was just going to fill it with sand it didn't bother me that that small piece of rubber was left inside.

The sites that promoted cutting the ball to fill it also used funnels in the holes to load the sand inside. The valve hole was too small for any funnel I had, but I figured out that by just pushing the area around the hole on the ball in a little it made a funnel of the ball. The valve hole was small so it slowed how fast the ball could be filled, but by rocking the ball a little as the sand flowed helped keep it from stopping. If you have clean sand it flows pretty good, but if there are any clumps, or debris a little pinch on the ball forces some air out and clears the hole.

Once filled I glued the valve hole closed with hot glue.

After the glue had set up I stated taping the ball. I started at the valve hole and wrapped around the ball and back to the hole. I then followed the line around the ball perpendicular to the first wrap, turned it 90 degrees, and wrapped it perpendicular to the first two wraps.

The ball now has 8 triangular sections still showing. I then wrapped the tape from the point of one open triangle to a lower point of the neighboring triangle continuing completely around to overlap the tape end by 2 inches. Then did the same with the other points. Then wrapped inside what ever areas were still uncovered by the tape until the entire ball was covered.

In the end this is probably the most like what is actually used in the games at full weight. This medicine ball ended up weighing 17 lbs. but is not nearly as hard as a rock. And when it falls it hits more like a dead blow hammer than a rock with no bounce, and little rolling.

Step 4: Hammer Throw

The Scottish hammer throw is different than what most think of. The hammer is a round steel weight with a hole in the middle weighing 16-22 lbs., has a hard wood handle rather than the chain or cables used in contemporary hammer throwing. When I first though of doing the Highland games as a family activity this and the weight throws were two that I had to really think about how I was going to do them with out the heavy steel equipment used in the traditional games. Throwing the hammer uses two hands on the handle spinning your arms in large circles then throwing it as far as you can. Usually throwers stand with their backs to the throwing area and throw over one shoulder.

I could think of lots of ways to make these out of other things that would be able to take a beating and have at least part of the weight and feel of the actual equipment does. Most involved bowling balls, chain, pipe and epoxy. Those were determined to have a likely outcome of causing injury and mayhem. So I had to think harder.

Then I had the idea to use a smaller ball which also happened to be a mini basketball, fill it with silicone caulking around a central handle. This would give it some weight and allow for some give should it hit anyone.

I pulled the valve from the ball, and marked a cut line just to the side of the valve hole in the center of one of the ball panels. I figured placing the hole in the middle of the panel would make it stronger so it wouldn't rip along the seams. Once the hole was cut I put the handle inside and pushed it through to mark the other side so I knew where the handle should line up with. The handle is made of a few pieces of scrap PVC pipe one 3/4" and one 1/2", just over 3 feet long.

I knew the handle would need some form of lip or connection at the end, I just didn't want it to have it come to the end of the ball and have a hard spot just at the tip. I heated up the end to go into the ball to flare it out but I found out I couldn't flare it out too much because the ball wouldn't stretch enough to let it go in. Luckily PVC will relax back down when it is re-heated. So I brought it back to heat and got it to a point to go in. I was hoping the caulking would adhere to he pipe and hold it all together.

I put a good layer of caulk in the bottom of the ball to set up as a buffer between the end of the pipe and ball.

While the caulk set up I put the handle together. I knew the handle would need to have a bit more strength but still have some flex to it. I decided on using two PVC pipes, one inside the other to keep the flex of PVC but doubled up for a little more strength. I slipped the 1/2" pipe inside the 3/4" pipe, and cut the 1/2" pipe which was a little longer, to the same length. I got the trusty Gorilla glue and pulled the 1/2" out a bit, ran glue around it and especially the ends and slide them together. I then put a heavy dose of glue around the end to hold it all and set it aside to dry.

Once the first layer of caulk was setup I put the pipe into the ball and centered it to the to top of the first caulk layer. I then put more caulk on top of that, by putting the nozzle of the caulking tube through the valve hole, to glue the pipe to the first layer. You have to squeeze the ball a bit before you put the caulking in, to take some of the air out or the back pressure won't let the caulk go in well. You can feel the ball push back on your fingers as you squeeze the caulk in and it puts more pressure into the ball. Stand it in the corner to set until the caulk cures. Make sure you clean any caulk in the valve hole so it won't plug up as it cures.

I Gorilla glued the area around where pipe goes into the ball to hold it in place.

Silicon caulk doesn't dry it cures in the presences of moisture. So to dry a spot will make it cure slower. I continued to add layers of caulk until the ball was full. It did add quite a bit of weight to the ball. As I reached the top of the ball filling it I turned the ball on its side with the valve hole up and filled it from the back to the the hole.

I let it set for a few days to be sure the caulk had fully cured.

Now the test.

I took the hammer out and started to swing it. It felt good it had a good swing, and it flew beautifully landing and bouncing with no harm, and no handle. The handle popped right out and the ball head flew across the yard and into the flowers and side of the shed. I checked it out and all the caulk was cured it just wouldn't hold to the sides of the pipe. The handle slipped back in as easily as it came out. Some of the Gorilla glue held the silicone near were it was glued to the pipe and ball edge but it just ripped it.

Now for plan B. I used strips of duct tape to run from 2" up the handle around the ball and back to the other side of the handle. I did this again and again criss-crossing over the end of the ball until it was fully covered then wrapped around the handle and tape ends for 3-4 tight turns.

I was sad it wasn't as clean a build as I wanted, but the tape really secured it in place and I had other ideas of what could be done if I had to build another one.

To finish it I did a limited wrap on the handle. The real ones do not have any wrap but the throwers use pine pitch to get a good grip on it. Since we won't be using pitch I wanted a light wrap to give a little more grip to the handle than a slick PVC pipe. I made sure there were no burrs on the edge from the cut then started wrapping some electrical tape on the handle then wrapping up leaving a space between the prior wrap and the current one about the width of the tape itself. Once I got to the end of the area to be wrapped, I did a full wrap on the pipe, and started wrapping back down. I wrapped so the pattern made left the appearance of diamonds on the handle. When I got to the end of the handle I did two full wraps and cut the tape.

Step 5: Weight Throw

The Scottish weight throw is just as it sounds a heavy weight (56 lbs.) thrown for height (weight over bar) or for distance. Definitely not going to be throwing a 56 pound weight around at a family activity. Especially after seeing those weights hit the ground and sink in. After the problems with getting caulk to hold onto anything placed inside it and not finding any good ideas of what could be put into or through a weight that won't hurt someone if hit and won't break apart when thrown or on impact, I though of wrapping the handles on the outside.

Starting with a weighted ball, small medicine ball, or soft workout weight I found one of those gift bags they give at conferences made from cordura and two sections of nylon webbing. These can be found at many second hand stores for a dollar. So for a dollar I get enough material to make a wrapping and enough nylon webbing to add two strong handles.

The idea was still sound but the sewing machine did not like the cordura material which had a rubbery backing to it. But with the basic idea in mind we found a pant leg from some pants that had been repurposed and used that and still used the webbing from the bag handles. .

First make sure the ball being used fits in the pant leg and is long enough that both ends can be closed around the ball. It was a good fit, even a bit snug, and more than long enough.

Fold over the end and mark were you want to put a tube around the top of it for a draw string. Once the markings are done sew a button hole to the side that will be inside the wrap and about 1/4" down from the markings. Fold this part over and sew it at the edge to form a tube around one end. Run a cord through the button hole, through the tube, around the opening and back out the button hole. Put the ball in the leg and draw the cord tight, pull the material tight to the other end and make sure it will touch and mark the length to cut off any extra material.

Mark the new cut end at four points equally spaced from each other around the opening. The easiest way to find this without a lot of measuring and math is to flatten the pant leg and mark the edges at the folds. Bring those two folds together, line then up, and flatten to the sides, mark these new edges so you should have four markings spaced evenly around the leg. Fold the material so two marking near each touch flatten the leg out and mark the edges of the folds, bring these two new marking together and flatten the material and mark these new folds. Now there should be 8 equally spaced markings around the opening.

Four of these markings will be used to help space the locations of the handles and along with the other four to fold the end in around the ball. Put the ball back in the leg with the draw end closed and see how far the handles will go down the sides of the leg and ball while leaving about 3 inches of loop above the top of the ball. Mark where the ends of the webbing come down to on the sides. Remove the ball and flatten the material out use a ruler to mark every other of the 8 markings from before for the webbing, so that 4 are marked with this length.

Sew the webbing to that one side lines up with the marks made on the edges when the leg was flattened with the end lined up with the mark you just made. Sew across the end and up the webbing about 3 inches, go across the webbing to the other side a couple times and sew an 'x' pattern near this end, then back down the opposite side back to where you started and sew another 'x' pattern in the end.

Make sure the webbing is not twisted and bend it over, skipping one mark and sewing the webbing with its side lined up with the edge mark and the bottom lined up with the last marks made. Then sew this one like you did the other side.

Put the ball back in, fold the loose material around the open end over at each of the 8 markings, and mark where they lie. If work your way around making each fold in the same direction. Take the ball out and sew each fold down where you marked. If your sewing machine can't get through all the layers of material at the center, like mine, you can cut the center out a bit and sew a ring just around that area.

To add some strength to this bottom area you can cut out a larger circle of material and sew it to the bottom just under where the bottom of the handles are.

Once sewn put the ball in, draw the cord tight, tie a bow, and tuck any extra cord inside the wrap through the hole.

It is now ready to throw as far or as high as you can.

Step 6: Sheaf Toss

The sheaves for the sheaf toss are a pretty easy build. The basic idea is get a burlap bag stuffed with straw and throw it as far, or as high as you can with a pitch fork. The real games use a very compressed bag of straw at 26 lbs. and the size of a personal cooler. I figured if I used a full size bag with less stuffing it would get the point across, and even if it approaches the 26 lbs it would be more like a large pillow than a personal cooler hitting someone.

I had some old feed bags of the new plastic burlap type, and I found an onion bag on the side of the road that comes pre-made with holes in it. The bag can be stuffed with straw, or crumpled up newspaper, or shredded paper. Tie the end closed and check that it will hold being thrown around.

I used straw in mine and just added large handfuls to the bag until it was full. I fluffed the straw up a bit as I added it and made sure there wasn't anything in it to hurt anyone. Hay/straw balers do pick up strange items at times and it is always good to check what might be inside a bale when using it.

I found a pitchfork at the local second-hand store for a few bucks. I polished up the tines a bit so it will slide in and out of the bag easier, and rounded off the points down. They will give a good jab but not skewer anyone.

Sheaves can be thrown for height or for distance. So using a tower is needed for height and a measuring tape for distance.

I made my first tower from some recycled 2" x 4"s and some spare top rail pipes from a chain link fence project someone was throwing out. Two rails high give a tower a bit taller than 20'.

The legs are two 8 foot, 2" x 4"s separated by a 4 foot 2" x 4" and brought together at the tops to make a triangle. They are held together with grabber screws. They are separated by three 8 foot 2" x 4"s with angle braces to support them. Scraps were used to make pockets at the peak and the center of the base to hold the rail pipe that are tied in place with baling twine crossed over the rail, and around a leg then behind the pocket. A bungee cord or rope/bungee combination will be used between the two rails as the marker so it has a little give if it is hit. The rails are connected at their socket using self-tapping screws.

Both rails are measured off in 1 foot increments and marked. I then alternated black tape and silver duct tape at each mark from the 10 foot to 20 foot mark. The shiny duct tape shows better in the sun against the grey pipe but in my photo they blend in with it.

Raise the pipe into the brackets and tied in place. The height marker is added to the pipes. It is a length of yellow cord that is tightened with a bungee cord on one side. The bungee also helps grip the pipe to hold it in place. The marker can be raised with a section of PVC pipe.

I found that the tower gets a bit top heavy with the rails in place so I added four 5 gallon buckets tied to the legs or cross supports to add weight to the bottom.

Found a much easier way to put up a tower. I took two old moveable volleyball stands made from old tires, cement, and metal pipes. The vertical rails used fit inside the volleyball pipes and allow you to get right under the towers. The tires of concrete were about 100 lbs. each so they held up well against the light sheaf hitting the towers even at high levels. The stands were rolled into position and the rails inserted into the standpipes. The stand and rails were stood up and the crossbar added.

There is no need for the buckets of water and there haven't been any problems with the towers being top heavy with the cement on the bottom, even with the slightly narrower foot print.

This tower can also be used for the weight over bar throw, which in this case will be a weight over cord throw.

Now try to see how far you throw it, or how high.

Step 7: Have Fun!

Invite family and friends, play the games. See who is brave enough to where a kilt and throw a caber. This equipment is not meant to equal the real deal. Since all those coming to this little party have never tried to do these games the equipment doesn't have to be the big heavy monsters the pros use. It just has to give them a taste of what it is like to participate without throwing a joint out or killing some one.

If afterwards they decide they really liked all this and want to try to do it for real, then I will look at getting them a nice telephone pole to try and throw around. But until then have some fun, throw a safe caber and watch out for wee ones.

Our family had a lot of fun researching, making, and testing the gear we used and, even more fun showing off to the others that they could do it. The rest of the family had a ball learning how to play the games and challenging each other to see who could do better. We did use spotters to help keep the wee ones out of the impact zone. But all in all we had a lot of fun learning about the highland games and our Scottish ancestors.

Alba gu bràth!

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