In Steele Indian School park in downtown Phoenix, palm trees sway behind white tents filled with meat pies and haggis for sale. In one of the largest, raucous Celtic bands (one named the Wicked Tinkers) rock out multiple times a day. Outside, bagpipes create an almost constant din. In the middle of the festivities, a metal fence surrounds the main event: Men and women in kilts and sneakers, many tattooed, forming loose groups around heavy objects in a makeshift “arena.”
On a warm, cloudless Saturday in March, the type you’d rarely see in any month in Scotland, the 56th annual Phoenix Scottish Games were held.
Highland games are a centuries-old Scottish tradition, but even in the U.S. they date back more than 180 years. Now, hundreds of these competitions take place around the world every year, although they have evolved considerably since the 11th century.
Notably, they are no longer a men-only contest.
Heather MacDonald, clad in a green tank top and dark red tartan kilt, puts chalk on her hands and takes her turn throwing the “braemar,”a 13-pound rock likely plucked from a patch of local wilderness. The games’ nine events also include the caber toss, which is effectively throwing a telephone pole end-over-end, and the sheaf, in which competitors stab a hay-filled burlap sack with a pitchfork and fling it over a bar. Both are major crowd-pleasers.
MacDonald competes in the women’s amateur A class, the highest class for amateurs. The Phoenix games do not have professional-class events for men or women, so everyone competes as amateurs.
However, in most Highland competitions with a professional class, women have to scrap for equal recognition. They don’t have an official pro circuit like the men. Women have to apply for “pro” status, and the paid travel and prize money that come with, for each competition they attend, and only if it’s available.
A women’s pro circuit would mean more opportunities to participate, and better prize money and potential sponsorships. For now, women like MacDonald compete for accolades and progress towards equality in a contest designed specifically for men nearly 1,000 years ago.
Michelle Crownheart, 62, has been competing in Highland games longer than almost any woman in the sport. The Phoenix resident sits in a camp chair under a tent, watching women throw a metal weight. She’s smoking a cigar and drinking a Kilt Lifter, a beer made by Four Peaks, one of the games’ sponsors.
Crownheart was formerly the athletic director of the Phoenix tournament. She started competing in 1994 because one of her daughter’s teachers was the athletic director then, and convinced her to show up. She learned how to do all of the events on the fly. Back then, organizers would pull people from the crowd, hand them a signup sheet and let them compete if they seemed inclined.
Only five women participated in 1994, Crowheart says. “Out of the five women, I finished fourth, so I was happy, but I fell in love with it.” This year, she wants to take first place at the World Masters Championship in Ireland.
Crownhart was also one of the first competitors in the Women’s World Championships, which used to be held in Phoenix but recently moved to Oklahoma. She says that only in the last year or so have women been given pro designations, despite their small, yet mighty, representation: “It’s taken that long.”
Women’s participation in the games grew quickly over the last decade. In 2009, 201 women participated in Highland events, according to a database of athletes and results on the North American Scottish Games Athletics (NASGA) website. In 2019, that number climbed to 702.
Competitors in Highland games can generally sort themselves into whatever class they feel they belong to: lightweight, masters or the A, B and C amateur. To participate as a professional, an athlete needs to be deemed worthy based on skill and reputation by the games’ organizers. Women can be invited in the same way as men if a competition offers a pro class for them. But men are the only athletes officially classified as pros on the NASGA database.
“There isn’t even a place on the website to enter a score as a pro if you are a woman,” MacDonald says. When someone asks her how to go pro as a woman, she says it isn’t really a “thing” like it is for men.
MacDonald, a former discus, shotput and hammer thrower at California State University Fullerton, got into Highland games 14 years ago during her last year of college. She believes the women’s classes have “exploded” with athletes in the last five years largely because of the community. In college, track meets sometimes felt overly competitive. That’s not the vibe among Highland games athletes. “We’re the Island of Misfit Toys because we all come from very different backgrounds,” MacDonald says.
Amaris Saldate, another athlete at the Phoenix games, is a chaplain who used to be a professional rodeo barrel racer. She describes herself as “not a sporty-type girl at all,” and jokingly refers to her body type as “the Michelin Man.”
She found the sport by accident. Two years ago, she walked into the Phoenix games after finishing an exhausting shift at the Phoenix Veterans Administration, which borders the park where the games are held.
“There’s this crazy, small little blonde lady running around in a kilt and throwing shit, and I was like, ‘What is she doing?’” Saldate laughs. The blonde lady was Rachel Smith, a Highland games athlete and co-organizer of the Phoenix games with her boyfriend Tim Timm, the athletic director. They invited Saldate to a weekend practice, and from then on she was part of the crew.
The earliest records of Scottish games first being held in the United States are from Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1836. The games have continued and spread across the country, even in places with thin connections to the Scottish diaspora.
The Phoenix games, like others, also put on a handful of Scottish and Irish cultural activities over the weekend — like pipe and drum performances, and dance competitions — and host representatives from more than 50 clans. Richard McBain, the acting chief of the McBain Clan was the “chieftain of the games” in Phoenix. Unexpectedly, he is also from Tucson.
While the games’ organizers strive to create a fun atmosphere, many of the athletes are competing to qualify for even bigger competitions.
MacDonald’s goal is to be invited back as a pro to the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games in Pleasanton, California, which are the largest in the country, drawing crowds of more than 30,000 people. Until recently, the prize money was much better for pro men than women.
“And that’s a huge, huge deal,” MacDonald says. “For a long time, we were like, ‘What the heck, why are we getting 50 bucks for fifth place and then the fifth place for the men gets like $600?’ That’s ridiculous.”
Fortunately, some athletic directors are now going out of their way to give women a better cut. The director of the Pleasanton games even raised the top prize for women to $2,500, which is the most MacDonald has ever seen.
At the Alaska Scottish Highland Games, only the pro men were paid, until Jeni McDaniel took charge. As athletic director, she got approval to have women pros compete instead of men at the 2018 games.
“At first, there was a little bit of resistance,” McDaniel says. “But I said, ‘I promise you these women are going to put on a show.’”
The event exceeded expectations.
“The majority of our vendors ran out of food and ran out of beer. It was pandemonium. We broke all-time records with attendance,” McDaniel says.
She credits the games’ success to the novelty of having women pros compete. In 2019, McDaniel obtained funding for six pro men and six pro women to participate.
“They are phenomenal to watch,” she says. “With any pro at any level, you are being paid to put on a show for the crowd and they deliver tenfold.”
Women participating in Highland games can dream big in a variety of ways. No one competition represents the pinnacle of the sport. There’s the World Masters Championship for athletes over 40 years old. There’s the International Highland Games Federation Chile tournament, where qualifying men and women amateurs get a paid trip to compete. Even the Arnold Sports Competition, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famed multi-sport event, has an indoor Scottish Highland games, though only one of the four amateur classes is for women.
But when the women aren’t focused on competition, they enjoy being part of the strong community that characterizes the sport above all. In Phoenix, Timm and Smith are ringleaders, organizing weekly practices for anyone in the area who wants to try heavy events for the first time. Timm calls the group “an incredible family.” At the games, he shows off a table of prizes for the winners, which includes handmade Viking axes.
This year, Timm created replicas of Scotland’s famous Dinnie Stones for the event. The real Dinnie Stones are two granite boulders with metal rings attached to them. The goal: to lift the two rocks, one weighing 414.5 pounds and the other 318.5, off the ground for as long as possible. The record is 41.00 seconds. The replicas, which Timm made by pouring mortar into a hole he dug into the ground, come in at 252 and 261 pounds each. Some of the competitors called them “Timmie Stones.”
Without passion like Timm’s, Saldate might never have discovered that she is a natural Highland games athlete, which she credits to her “ranch worker DNA.” She is competing in the open division at the Phoenix games, but she wants to qualify for the Arnold Sports Competition in Ohio, and eventually go to Scotland to see the sights and compete.
Though lifting heavy objects is a solo endeavour, competitors cheer each other on. Saldate bought plastic tiaras to hand out anyone who breaks a record. And elites, like MacDonald, often travel together to Highland or other strongman competitions throughout the year. She prefers road trips. “It’s part of the experience of being a little community, it’s part of the fun,”custom.painted shoesshe says.
Being a Highland games athlete can feel like a lifestyle more than a hobby, filling the hours outside of day jobs. And sadly, because of the coronavirus pandemic,custom.painted shoesmost of the fun for this year is likely over.
The Phoenix games took place the first weekend in March, at the precipice of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.. The Las Vegas Highland Games in April were soon canceled, as was the World Masters Championship.
“It’s been kind of a bummer,” Saldate says. She was planning a trip to the Las Vegas games with other Phoenix-area competitors.
Because of social distancing, athletes are now limited to practicing at home. MacDonald says she has heard about “backyard games” being held around the country so competitors can stay sharp and keep posting numbers to the NASGA database. MacDonald is currently rehabbing an injury, and has her sights set on 2021. Of the eight competitions she had planned for the rest of the year, seven have officially been canceled.
She misses the sport and her fellow women throwers. And though they’ve set up Zoom dates, they only help so much.
“We didn’t form these connections with people out of nowhere, we all still share our common connections and want to be involved with the Highland games,” MacDonald says. “We can’t do that right now, but the connection that we created can still be preserved.”