The Caber Toss (Gaelic caber, a pole or beam) is a traditional Scottish athletic exercise which consists of throwing a section of a trunk of a tree, called the “caber,” in such a manner that it turns over in the air and falls on the ground with its small end pointing in the direction directly opposite to the “tosser.” This event is a staple at the Highland games held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage, especially that of the Scottish Highlands.
This modern test of strength, agility and balance can be traced back to 17th and 18th century illustrations and descriptions. Scotland proudly claims the origin of caber toss, although there were very similar activities in the Nordic lands, France, Italy and Germany.
The most prominent theory surrounding the origin of the caber toss is that of crossing the stream. The caber was tossed from one side of the river to the other to allow people to cross. This is why the caber is tossed for accuracy, rather than distance. Though another popular explanation involves tossing logs during battle, either across a moat or against the walls of a castle or to breach a barrier.
1. Start with a wooden pole about 16-22 feet long, and weighing anywhere from 80-180 pounds – different festivals have different regulations. One end of the pole should be tapered. This pole is the caber.
(According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest caber ever tossed was 25 feet long and weighed 280 pounds!)
2. Have the pole brought to you, which usually requires at least three grown men. Lift the caber into your arms – this is called the ‘pick.’
3. Hoist the caber, so that the bottom of the pole is about level with your elbows. Cup the smaller, tapered end of the pole in your palms, and balance its weight against your shoulder.
4. When properly balanced, run forward with the caber for about twenty yards, so as to gain momentum. This is called the ‘approach.’
5. After a good running start, plant your feet so as to provide a good throwing platform. This is called the ‘plant.’
6. Push upward and out, away from your shoulders. Your intention is to flip the pole, with the larger end of the caber hitting the ground, so that the pole lands in a straight line perpendicular to your shoulders.
The object is not the distance of the throw, but rather to have the caber fall directly away from the thrower after landing. A perfect throw ends with the ‘top’ end nearest to the thrower and the ‘bottom’ end pointing exactly away. If the throw is not perfect, it is scored by viewing the caber as though it were the hour hand on a clock. A perfect toss is 12:00. A caber pointing to 11:00 would yield a better score than one pointing to 10:30 but would be the equivalent of 1:00. If the caber lands on its end and falls back towards the thrower, the score is lower than for any throw that falls away from the thrower but will be based upon the maximum vertical angle that the caber achieved (side-judging may involve a second judge.) An angle of 87° is better than 75°. Scoring depends on accuracy, and if the caber did not completely turn once, then it is based on the degree that it rose away from the ground.
Cabers vary greatly in length, weight, taper, and balance, all of which affect the degree of difficulty in making a successful toss. If a caber is too heavy to be ‘turned’, it may be cut until a successful toss.
Photo 1: Caber Toss © John Haslam / Flickr.com – CCA ShareAlike
Photo 2: A caber being tossed at Loon Mountain at the 2000 New Hampshire Highland Games