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The Larch Leviathan
The Story of the United States Royal Braemar Challenge Caber
by Gary McMaster
Reprinted with permission from The Buchanan Banner, The Official Publication of The Clan Buchanan Society International, 1999 Winter Issue, Volume XXVII, Number 1

Picture of Larch Leviathan displayed at the 1996 San Diego Scottish Games.
1996 San Diego Scottish Games, Gary McMaster, (then) President for The House of Scotland, displays the "Larch Leviathan" on the 20th Anniversary of its arrival to the USA.

If you tell people that you're Scottish (or of Scottish ancestry), you're likely to be asked if you either "play the bagpipes" or "toss the caber." Both endeavors require a great deal of disciplined training, natural dexterity, and endurance to be proficient, and neither should be entered into lightly. The exact origins of both practices are equally subjects of speculation. But as for the caber, this we know for sure the biggest and baddest in the entire world is right here in the USA. There is a lovely little corner of Scotland in San Diego, California, called "The House of Scotland." In beautiful Balboa Park -- San Diego's natural showcase. The House of Scotland has been pretty much the center of Scottish-American culture in Southern California since 1937, when it was built as one of the "International Haciendas" for the 1936-37 International Exposition. It serves as the display place for any Scottish items -- probably the most impressive among them is the United States Royal Braemar Challenge Caber. Now, if you will allow a little history on this unique gift to the United States, sometimes jokingly explained to inquisitive visitors as--"a toothpick for the Loch Ness Monster!"

The very first San Diego Scottish Highland Games were held at Helix High School in 1955. The Games became very popular, and flourished through most of the 1960s. Pipe bands, highland dancers, and other groups from San Diego and the Los Angeles area would participate on a regular basis. A lot of fun was always had, and plenty of trophies were handed out to the winners, but there was not much prize money awarded. By the late 1960s, more and more participants were becoming interested in prize money as a reward for their unique talent, and the Games went into a state of hibernation.

1974, began the current series of the San Diego Scottish Highland Games. It resurfaced in Balboa Stadium, behind San Diego High School at 12th and Russ Streets. The stadium had served as the city's sports stadium since President Woodrow Wilson presided at its opening. The first Secretary of these Games was Edna Horlor, later to become a President of the House of Scotland. As Secretary, in 1975, she and her husband Bill were invited to Scotland by the Royal Braemar Highland Society to attend the Braemar Gathering. The Society organizes this famous event. The invitation was quite an honor, for the Braemar Gathering is the foremost Highland Games in the world. Each year the event is held the first Saturday of September in Braemar, Scotland. This is in Royal deeside, near the Dee River, which flows east through the "Granite City" of Aberdeen into the North Sea. It is also near Queen Victoria's beloved Balmoral Castle, a residence for the Royal Family during the summertime. The Braemar Gathering is attended annually by HRH, Queen Elizabeth II and members of the Royal Family, as was done by her Royal Predecessors from Queen Victoria's reign. Edna and Bill got along famously with the Royal Braemar Officials. They were honored with seats next to the Queen's box. The Royal Braemar Officials were impressed by the fact that Edna Horlor held the position of Secretary of the San Diego Highland Games. In Scotland, at that time, a woman Games Secretary was virtually unheard of.

Since the San Diego Games were struggling to gain community recognition and popularity, Edna and Bill were thinking of ways in which to boost its credibility and attraction. They presented the Braemar people with the proposition of San Diego having an authentic Braemar Challenge Caber to test the mettle of Scottish-American athletes in the United States. If done, it would add a great deal to the San Diego Games.

In the rugged Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland grow many majestic Scottish Larch trees -- strong and straight. Great conifers, the trunks of these Larch trees have long been hewn into cabers, the unique stars of the Highland Games athletic events all over Scotland. This strange and ancient game of "tossing the caber" has been played by hardy Scots for centuries. The caber is a long section of tree trunk, tapered so that it is noticeable smaller on one end than the other. The pole is placed vertical, with the smaller end on the ground. The athlete raises it up in his (or her) hands, balancing it against the shoulder, he then runs to gain momentum as the top falls forward and away from him, then at the proper angle, he flips the smaller end up. The object is for the smaller end to flip all the way over and land between 9 and 3 o'clock. The caber is likely to come back toward the athlete. The best, or "longest" throw, is that which causes the caber to fall straight away from the player, at 12 o'clock. There is probably not a more severe test of muscle and skill.

It was decided that the Royal Braemar Highland Society would indeed honor the United States with the gift that the Horlors had endeavored to obtain. The preparations were made and a fine larch tree in a forest in the Cairngorms was selected. It was felled by woodsmen, and hewn by craftsmen into a caber that magnificently stretched nearly twenty feet in length, and weighing a mammoth 180 pounds. (Most cabers used in competition outside Scotland are fashioned of local trees, and are of much lesser weight.) The new Challenge Caber was wrapped in burlap and stored beneath the grandstand at Braemar for the Winter, as tradition dictated. After the Spring thaw, the caber was unwrapped, carefully inspected by the Braemar craftsmen and deemed a worthy gift to America. It was then waterproofed and laid to dry. British Airways had agreed to fly the caber to San Diego at no charge, in the belly of one of their big transcontinental airliners. Unfortunately, cutbacks had removed that particular type of plane from their schedule, and the replacement plane could not accommodate it. Several other attempts at donated transportation failed to materialize. Bill and Edna again used their powers of persuasion, and the membership of The House of Scotland agreed to pay ocean freight to San Diego, to bring this dream to fruition. At Greenock, Scotland (near Glasgow) on the Firth of Clyde, the caber was loaded aboard ship. It crossed the Atlantic, passed through the Panama Canal and up to the Port of San Pedro, California, just south of Los Angeles. From there it was hauled by truck down to the Horlors' home in Santee, in East San Diego County. The Horlors and other members of The House of Scotland drove to San Pedro to sign for the caber as it came off the ship. When they arrived, they were aghast to find that longshoremen, unaware of what it was, were using the new Royal Challenge Caber to roll large crates of cargo across the dock!

Bill Horlor, left, and John Ward pose with the Royal Braemar Challenge Caber ("Larch Leviathan") at its USA debut in San Diego in 1976.

The new caber was first put into competition in September, 1976. It was the shining star of the San Diego Scottish Highland Games when it was introduced in Balboa Stadium, and it was featured in all its glory in the local newspapers. Some of the finest caber athletes came to try to best this huge caber, year after year. In fact, at least two gargantuan World Champions tried--but no one ever successfully tossed it! Many hundreds of dollars were offered time and time again, all to go unclaimed after all the grunting and yelling had ended!

Edna and Bill Horlor stored the Royal Braemar in their home for a while. Then they decided that the best place for it to permanently reside would be in The House of Scotland. That way, it could be displayed for the public to see when it was not in use. The City of San Diego, owner of Balboa Park and 'landlord' to The House of Scotland and the other International Cottages, was contacted. They obligingly agreed to install a set of huge iron hook-shaped holders on the wall of the cottage. Each year, when it returned from the Highland Games, the giant caber was lifted back up onto its iron racks to rest until the next season. Bill Horlor says, that while it was still stored at his home, he hauled it out into his backyard for fun one day. Finally getting it up on end, he struggled for a while and managed to lift it---but when the heavy top end started to head for the roof of his house, he had to push it away and let it drop to the ground with an earth-shaking thud! "I could just see myself having to pay for major repairs to our roof," he laughs, "if that monster had fallen on it, and then explain it to Edna!"

After a few years, the Royal Braemar Challenge Caber was retired for a while. Then House of Scotland's Jim Scrimgeour took it to the San Diego Games to be used a couple of times during the early 1980s. Still it remained unconquered! Then it was given a more than 10-year hiatus until the San Diego Scottish Highland Games of 1996. I was President of The House of Scotland at that time, and Vice-President Ted Wilson was strongly urging that the big stick be put back into action. We agreed that it was time, and The House of Scotland voted to offer a $500 cash prize to the first athlete to successfully turn the monster. I started corresponding with Mr. William Meston, Secretary of The Royal Braemar Highland Society and Convener of the Braemar Gathering, on procedures. I did not want us to unknowingly commit any 'faux pas' in its use. Then I coordinated with Ray Pearson, Chieftain of the San Diego Scottish Highland Games, on the details. The Scottish-American Athletic Society was in charge of the athletic events, and would supervise the competition. At this time, the San Diego Games were held at Rancho Santa Fe Park, in the North County community of San Marcos. The plan was to take it up to the Games on the top of Ted Wilson's Volkswagen van. Jim Scrimgeour had gotten it weighed the year before, and it had dried over the past couple of decades to 175 pounds, but we knew that we would still need some help handling the monster. We enlisted the help of Kit Brainard, husband of House of Scotland Secretary Joni Brainard. Since Ted and Kit are both big 'braw' lads, they lifted the caber over their heads and secured it on the top of the van. I followed them in my car to San Marcos to keep an eye on the load, in case it were to shift or loosen from its bindings. Ted and I carried the caber into the Park and set up The House of Scotland's tent and displays, with the Challenge Caber on stands in front of the tent.

Caber toss
Here and in the following image...Albeit unsuccessful, valiant tries with the Royal Braemar Caber climaxed the 1996 San Diego Scottish Highland Games heavy athletic events.

People who remembered this Caber were glad to see it back again. Others were amazed or intrigued. It tempted many a Games-goer to come back the second day to see the Best of Competition struggle with this larch leviathan! On Sunday, after all the traditional caber-turning was over, the First, Second and Third-Place winners of the Class A competition, and the First-Place winner of the Class B competition got to attempt a turn at the "Braemar Beast."

Thirteen attempts were made by the big athletes. A great deal of very loud huffing and puffing was heard as the contestants brought all of their concentration to bear against their formidable rival. Two of them managed to lift, balance, and run with it, flipping the giant caber skyward. However, none were able to turn it to a complete perpendicular position. It fell backward each time with a loud "thud" and the contestants running for cover! The $500 in prize money offered by The House of Scotland remained still unclaimed! (A big sigh of relief was heard from Treasurer John McColly.) But all of the officers of The House of Scotland were pleased that the Braemar Caber was once again doing what it was made for, especially Ted Wilson. There had been some apprehension that after sitting through so many hot Southern California summers, the caber might split, but it held up perfectly. Only a couple of new nicks were observed on the wide end when it was put back up in the cottage. There was a slight bow to the Caber, so when we repositioned it in its great iron racks, we set it with the bend up to help it straighten. I was able to take the first photos of the Challenge Caber in competition for The House of Scotland photo album. I also sent copies of the photos to William Meston of the Royal Braemar Highland Society as well as let them know how the competition went.

Caber toss 2

Its entry was repeated in 1997, at the San Diego Scottish Highland Games new location of Brengle Terrace Park in the North County town of Vista. There were some more valiant tries, but The Royal Braemar Challenge Caber of the United States remains an unconquered giant!

This famous Caber also has some sisters around the globe. At the 1971 Braemar Gathering, Matt Davitt, representative of Combined Scottish Societies of New South Wales, Australia, had been presented with two Braemar Challenge Cabers by His Grace The Duke of Fife. The larger of these had its debut at the 103rd Annual Highland Gathering at Wentworth Park in Sydney, NSW, on New Years Day, 1972. It is 19 feet 10 inches long, weighs in at 132 pounds, and has been used many times in competition for the Australian Championship. Helen MacKenzie, the Honorable Secretary of Combined Scottish Societies of New South Wales, and Games Convener, related to me, "There was a period of some years when no competitor successfully tossed our Braemar. The prize money was finally won again in 1983 when we brought out Jim McGoldrick from the USA. He broke the drought!" It had been successfully tossed for the first time by the champion Colin Mathieson (originally from Argyllshire, Scotland) in 1974, and for the last time (so far) by the champion Francis Bremner, of Peterhead, Scotland, in 1997. It was once again in competition at the 129th Annual NSW Highland Games at Drummoyne Park on Sunday, December 6th, 1998. Australia's other Braemar, I am told by Billy Binks (President of the Scottish Highland Games Society of Australia, and a former caber champion himself) has been used in competition in Highland Games in Canberra, Bathhurst, and other towns over the years. It has been successfully tossed by five athletes, including himself. He also tells me that Australia was presented a couple of other Braemar Challenge Cabers long ago, which were used many times during the decades prior to their replacement by the ones in use now.

Reportedly, there also were Braemar Challenge Cabers which went to Scottish Societies in Indonesia (Djakarta), and Japan. Very few details on these last two are known, but we are researching their current status through Scots in Java and Tokyo. Anyone who might have any knowledge of these two is invited to contact me through this publication.

It's a sure bet, however, that the United States Royal Braemar Challenge Caber remains the only undefeated one in the world. Is there someone out there big enough, strong enough and expert enough to do it, who has just not yet tried? Or is there perhaps some 'wee lad' out there who will someday grow into a 'braw' caber champion and heft and flip this giant--to be acclaimed the greatest caber champion of all time. Only time will tell! But until then, this great behemoth rests silently in its great iron shackles in The House of Scotland, in San Diego's majestic Balboa Park. There, it seems to peer curiously down at the endless stream of visitors--patiently awaiting its next brave and ambitious challenger to come along!

Gary McMaster is a member of Clan Buchanan Society International, Inc. (CBSI), and frequently provides the Buchanan Banner with original stories and articles.

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Afterword--Some comments from a pro

'Big Chief' Jim McGoldrick, one of the world's greatest caber champions, wrote to Gary McMaster about the United States Braemar Challenge Caber in the House of Scotland.His comments give a great understanding and insight into the mind and mettle of a true handler of the mighty cabers.

"I have turned longer cabers, like the 24' 150-pound challenge stick at Fergus, but it has a lot of taper. I have turned heavier sticks, like the 17' 190-pound McGoldrick Special at the World Championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it is obviously shorter, and the 18' 190-pound caber at the Celtic Classic in 1993, but again it is shorter.

"I described the 'Larch Leviathan' this way some years ago when someone asked me if it might be possible to turn it. First of all, the man would have to be Geoff Capes, Grant Anderson, or Jim McGoldrick. No one else at the time could have done it. He would have to be in very good caber form. He would have to be very strong, and explosive on that day. Weather not too hot, nor too humid. Possibly have the caber late morning, or early afternoon, rather than the last event. Maybe a little wind at his back, and maybe sand off a bit of the varnish on the end. Then the answer would be probably yes. As an example, in about 1991, at the World Championships in Scotland, we faced the McGoldrick Special caber. In the field were Jon Pall Sigmarsson, four-time World's Strongest Man, Grant Anderson, and Jamie Reeves, also a WSM winner in 1989, as well as the rest of the best caber tossers in the world. I was the only one to turn that stick that day, and no one has turned it since. And it was 17', not 21'."

© House of Scotland 2008. Last Updated Sept. 1, 2008