LAURINBURG — While the origin of the Highland Games predates recorded history, early accounts describe the tradition as a way for a king to determine who would be named his kingdom’s best fighter or fastest runner, or become the leading candidate for royal messenger.
Thousands of years later, contestants still don kilts that sport the colors of their clans and practice in the art of balancing and throwing heavy objects — activities which sound decidedly masculine.
But women like Jennifer Rusk and her daughter, Raven, who will be participating in the Scotland County Highland Games, are proving that the sport is starting to gain popularity among those who in previous years would be sitting on the sidelines.
“Some think it should be just for men,” says Rusk. “Some say that if you can’t throw a 60-pound ball 30 feet, then you shouldn’t be competing — but it’s starting to gain popularity in the South among women. Women are traditionally the family people, the ones who are on the sidelines taking care of their men, but it’s getting to where women aren’t happy with just cheering on our guys. We want to participate, too.”
Jennifer and Raven are two of four women who will be competing in the Scottish Heavy Athletics that begin on Saturday — Jennifer’s second year and Raven’s first. The two will throw stones and anvils of varying sizes and weighing anywhere from 8 to 28 pounds across the grounds of the John Blue House, as well as toss a 12-pound bundle of twine off the end of a pitchfork and a 28-pound weight over an elevated bar.
The latter move, Jennifer says, is known colloquially as the widow-maker — “for obvious reasons.”
Jennifer witnessed her first Highland Games in Indiana several years ago and “fell in love” with the event, but her lifestyle as a military spouse prevented her from remaining in one place long enough to compete. When Raven was old enough to tag along, she too became hooked.
“It just looked cool,” she said, namely the Turning of the Caber — a controlled throw of a log the size of a telephone pole. “I said, I’m going to start practicing with mom and seeing what I could do.”
During practices at Northeast Park in Lumberton, the duo, wearing gym shorts and coordinating knee socks, alternate critiquing and egging each other on.
“It’s great that I’m getting my daughter started at a young age,” Rusk said.
It’s become one more thing for the Lumberton High School sophomore to juggle, along with her involvement in the school’s marching band, where she plays the flute and other percussion instruments; and her studies in Advanced Placement courses, in which she continues to earn all A’s.
But Raven is intent on celebrating her Scottish heritage, found in both her mother’s biological and adoptive families, and has even become a fan of Scottish rock bands. The two also say they both enjoy competing in an event where women who don’t consider themselves the “athletic type” can be found.
“You never feel out of place because the women are of all shapes and sizes,” Jennifer said.
Proud members of Clan Buchannan, they also won’t be caught at the games wearing anything other than yellow, red and black.
“You can wear any color of kilt you want, but if you’re of Scottish heritage, you better celebrate it,” Jennifer said.