BELFAST, Maine — For John White, part of the fun of competing in the Highland Heavy Games was impressing his girlfriend, who was watching from the sideline.
“It’s a bunch of big guys throwing heavy things around,” White said Sunday during his first foray into the Scottish tradition-inspired games. “And we’re wearing kilts. What more could a girl ask for?”
White was right about the competition, which was part of the three-day Maine Celtic Celebration in Belfast over the weekend. The competitors were big, and the implements ranged from 56-pound steel balls to 100-pound wooden poles.
The concept of the competition is simple, said organizer David Dow of Searsmont.
“What are the rules?” he said. “Throw it far.”
Highland Games date back centuries in Scottish tradition. Over the course of generations, the events developed as training exercises for Scottish soldiers who were forbidden to bear or train with arms by their English occupiers. Today, Highland Games competitions are held all over the world to celebrate Scottish heritage.
That link is why the competition is part of the 4-year-old Maine Celtic Celebration, said Donna Hughes of Searsmont, vice chairwoman of the celebration. The concept of the annual event was hatched about five years ago when Belfast officials were looking for a unique summer event to hold in the city’s picturesque waterfront park. For years, the city had held various annual festivals which, according to Hughes, evolved into the Ferris wheel and cotton candy variety.
“A lot of people were getting sick of the carnival atmosphere,” said Hughes. “I suggested a Celtic celebration, and everyone thought it was a great idea.”
More than 60 volunteers collaborated to produce the event, said volunteer coordinator Diane Braybrook of Belfast.
The festival, which relies on donations and fundraisers as opposed to entrance fees, has grown every year since it started.
“We’ve really gotten a boost this year from our Facebook page,” said Braybrook. “This festival really pulls people into the downtown, which is what we need.”
This year’s schedule included numerous local and regional musicians and family events ranging from wheelbarrow and three-legged races to the slimy, smelly Cod Toss Relay. (Yes, they use real codfish.)
Gene and Glenda Thurlow of Concord, Mass., said they stopped by the celebration Sunday on their way to Bar Harbor.
“We saw a sign during the drive and decided to stop by,” said Gene Thurlow. “We never would have discovered Belfast otherwise.”
Many of the competitors in the Highland Games said their interest in competing is enhanced by having Scots in their bloodline.
“I’ve got a little Scottish heritage in my family,” said Chris Blackie of Old Town, who was competing in the over-40 category. “I never paid any attention to that stuff as a younger guy. As you get older it becomes more important to you.”
Sara Carter of Clinton, the lone female competitor in Sunday’s games, said honoring heritage for many of the competitors goes right down to the design of their kilts. Carter, who is part Irish, said she researched her genealogy after she and her husband became Highland Games enthusiasts together.
“These are my family colors,” she said of her mostly green pattern. “It was interesting looking into my family roots.”