I went to the Scottish Games in Woodland, California last weekend, two young boys in tow.  They weren't remotely interested in Scottish women doing traditional dances and they were vaguely intrigued by why men wore kilts.

"Papa, why is that man wearing a skirt?" Colin asked.

Being that we were east of highway 5 this was a perfectly reasonable question.   "It's a kilt," I explained.  "If he wore anything underneath it would be a skirt."

Like this fellow:

But they were incredibly interested in the very large men throwing telephone poles.  So I set out to explain how it works and give them some culture in the process.

What is a caber?

A caber is a pole approximately 18 feet long that weighs approximately 150 pounds.   It is about 9 inches thick at one end and tapers to about 5 inches at the other.  And you throw it.  Why?  No one is sure why they do anything.   That applies to most Scottish sports.  Here is Robin Williams on another Scottish sport, golf (please listen with headphones - you have been warned):

Being that caber tossing is also a Scottish sport, and most Scottish sports(1) are based on a dare, the objective is not actually to throw it the farthest, but in the best direction.   Seriously.  A caber is tapered and the hurler holds it by the thin end.   If you are the hurler, imagine 6 o'clock is directly behind you and 12 o'clock is ahead of you.  At the end of the throw, you ideally want the thin end to be at 12 o' clock.

If you don't throw it properly, the score is based on how close you are to that 12 position so 1 and 11 are the same but left or right doesn't make any difference.

How to win

There are two things that will make you successful tossing a caber; one is form, since the judging is done by direction, and the other is energy.

Tossing a caber, like tossing anything, takes kinetic energy.  The Scottish think they invented kinetic energy.   Like the Greeks they find a way to have invented everything.  Here are Scots taking credit for Da Vinci:

Leonardo MacVinci

But energy is sort of abstract for most people to understand so we instead think in terms of work, like how much weight can be moved in some period of time.   Car commercials, for example, commonly talk about horsepower but what does that mean?  The classical definition of a horsepower is 33,000 f *lb /minute, but caber tossing doesn't take a minute so if we divide by 60, we have 550 lbs. moved one foot in one second, which is a little closer to what we need.

A caber is 150 lbs. so 1 HP would lift it 3.67 feet in that one second but a Caber is 18 feet long, give or take so how useful is 3.67 feet?   Since the goal is to get the narrow end being held near the waist pointed directly away from the thrower, it needs to go end over end so it should not go straight up but rather tilted forward.  How much is going to be the difference between art and science.

First the science.   We'll put some more details in the notes(2) but you can see here that getting the height you need to get this to go forward rather than backward means the bottom of the Caber has to go almost to the thrower's head, less than 3.67 feet.   But a Caber also has to keep going, it won't reach its transition point for 2 or 3 seconds, meaning actually getting that Caber where you want it is around 3 HP of work.

Thanks to Michael Hughes and Giulia Fanti Of Olin College of Engineering for declaring the Caber toss to be the most divine and pure of any athletic event and doing the modeling to prove it.

It takes 20 lbs. of muscle to generate even 1 HP so 3 HP would be 60 lbs. of upper body muscle.  That's a lot of muscle mass so it would require a big guy.  Really big.

60 lbs. of upper body muscle for throwing an object is not achievable by any men with the flexibility to throw anything.   60 lbs of muscle must instead come from somewhere else, in this case massive legs, but the Scots also understood early on the value of momentum.

So we can take advantage of a nifty little Kinetic Energy issue here:

KE = mV^2 / 2

An object traveling twice as fast will have four times as much energy.  So running can be a terrific differentiator in tossing success.   It won't mean a tiny guy can win because he still has to be able to pick the thing up and move with it, but a reasonably strong guy with good form and a fast run is going to throw better than a very strong guy standing still.    You still have to make it land pointing as close to 12 o'clock as possible.

Here is an example of a great throw executing all of those.  Below that, we have a step-by-step primer on throwing your own.

How to successfully throw a Caber

Step 1.  Get someone else to bring it to you.  Preferably a competitor.  Those things weigh 150 lbs. and maybe he will throw his back out and you can make goat noises at him.

Step 2.  Pick it up.  This is quite cleverly called the 'pick.'

Step 3.  Cup the tapered end of the Caber in your palms and balance its weight against your shoulder.   You want the bottom of the pole level with your elbows.

Step 4.  Run forward about twenty yards to gain momentum. This is called the 'approach' and, as we showed above, momentum will matter more than strength.

Step 5.  Plant your feet.  This is quite cleverly called the 'plant.'

Step 6.  Push up and out.  You want to flip the Caber so that the larger end hits the ground but then falls over in a straight line so the tapered end is perpendicular to your shoulders.

Step 7.  Sing a song.   Unlike New Years Eve,  when "Auld Lang Syne" makes you want to use a fake voice even though it is a bad idea to attempt a Scottish brogue, now is a perfectly acceptable time.

Don't know any good Scottish songs?  I have that covered also.  Just click the little play arrow and sing along with the words handily printed below.

[The Scotsman dance remix by Brobdingnagian Bards]

THE SCOTSMAN

Well a Scotsman clad in kilt left a bar on evening fair
And one could tell by how we walked that he drunk more than his share
He fumbled round until he could no longer keep his feet
Then he stumbled off into the grass to sleep beside the street
Ring ding diddle diddle I de oh ring di diddly I oh
He stumbled off into the grass to sleep beside the street

About that time two young and lovely girls just happened by
And one says to the other with a twinkle in her eye
'See yon sleeping Scotsman so strong and handsome built
I wonder if it's true what they don't wear beneath the kilt'
Ring ding diddle diddle I de oh ring di diddly I oh
'I wonder if it's true what they don't wear beneath the kilt'

They crept up on that sleeping Scotsman quiet as could be
Lifted up his kilt about an inch so they could see
And there behold, for them to see, beneath his Scottish skirt
Was nothing more than God had graced him with upon his birth
Ring ding diddle diddle I de oh ring di diddly I oh
Was nothing more than God had graced him with upon his birth

They marveled for a moment, then one said 'we must be gone'
'Let's leave a present for our friend, before we move along'
As a gift they left a blue silk ribbon, tied into a bow
Around the bonnie star, the Scots kilt did lift and show
Ring ding diddle diddle I de oh ring di diddly I oh
Around the bonnie star, the Scots kilt did lift and show

Now the Scotsman woke to nature's call and stumbled towards a tree
Behind a bush, he lift his kilt and gawks at what he sees
And in a startled voice he says to what's before his eyes.
'O lad, I don't know where you been but I see you won first prize'
Ring ding diddle diddle I de oh ring di diddly I oh
'O lad I don't know where you been but I see you won first prize'

NOTES:

(1) Scottish food is also based on a dare.   Here is the haggis I ate at the event.   What is haggis?  Sheep stomach stuffed with meat and barley.  I asked the kids if they wanted some but they looked at me like I was asking them to fly it to Cuba.

(2)

Michael Hughes and Giulia Fanti Of Olin College of Engineering