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Bagpipes, all things Scottish at Dunedin Highland Games

Dunedin is coming off a week of bagpipe playing, whiskey tasting and a Ceilidh, a Scottish street party, leading up to tonight’s bagpipe band parade and Saturday’s celebrated Dunedin Highland Games.

More than 10,000 are expected for a day filled with authentic Scottish music and dance as well as the Highland Games, including the celebrated caber toss where husky men compete in pitching and flipping a wooden pole. Alan McHale, head of the Dunedin’s Highland Games Committee, says this year the caber is bigger than ever at 180 pounds and nearly 18 feet long.

Other popular events are the sheaf toss, a 16-pound bale of hay thrown for height; the weight throws, including a 28-pound throw for distance, a 56-pound throw for distance and a 56-pound throw for height; the Scottish hammer, a 22-pound throw for distance; and the clachneart, or “stone of strength,” a 17-pound stone throw for distance.

There is a 5K run in Dunedin’s Hammock Park Son aturday, and

McHale says, 18 pipe bands, the largest gathering in the United States, will be in competition being judged by representatives from the Piping College in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Dunedin Games celebrate all things Scottish from kilts and bagpipes to the Highland Fling and Scotch whiskey.

It’s all tied to the town’s history, says McHale. Dunedin is the Gaelic interpretation of Edinburgh in Scotland. “The town was settled by Scottish families in 1874, and two Scotsmen gentlemen, J.O. Douglas and James Somerville, named it Dunedin after their hometown,” he says. “And there’s been a tradition of Scottish heritage since that time.”

People that live in Dunedin, and especially children that grow up in the Pinellas town, are exposed to Celtic culture year-round thanks to the city’s Scottish Arts Foundation, dedicated to preserving Scottish heritage.

This annual games celebration raises money to support the City of Dunedin Pipe Band, the Dunedin High School Scottish Highlander Band, the Dunedin Highland Middle School Band and a Director of Scottish Programs.

And since the 1950s, there have been bagpipes classes in the schools. Today, more than 350 children are in the local school bands, McHale says. Highland dance classes also are taught in town.

It’s not unusual to see people in kilts, or youngsters playing the pipes or drums on any weekend in Dunedin, says McHale, who was professional drummer (Celtic, classical, rock and contemporary) in Scotland before settling in Dunedin as sales manager for a technical data company.

Dunedin also is home to Highland Games competitor Kevin Dupuis, who will be marking his 16th year at Dunedin’s games. Highland athletes compete in seven events, including the caber toss.

“Most people don’t realize that the caber is a test of strength and accuracy,” he says. The distance and how long the caber is held are not part of the scoring.

“The scoring on the caber is really on two things: First, did the caber flip over when the athlete tossed it? Second, if it did flip over, how perfectly straight did it land?,” he says.

Dupuis says there is no standard length or weight for the caber. “The longest caber I ever attempted and turned was a 22-foot-six-inch caber,” he says. “And the heaviest I ever turned was 135 pounds. And the heaviest that I attempted was 165 pounds. I did not turn it and neither did anyone else.”

Dupuis, who is 6-foot-6-inches tall and weights 290 pounds, got involved in the Highland Games in 2001 after meeting some of the local throwers at the Dunedin Brewery. He says mastering the caber is all about balance and confidence.

“If an athlete cannot get the caber balanced, it does not matter how strong he is; he will never turn it,” he says. “The biggest challenge is timing the throw. Even after you have perfected the art of picking up the caber and balancing it, getting the timing down for the actual throw is an art form. Every caber is so different. Differences in length, weight, taper, balance point and diameter all play into the challenge.”

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Bagpipes, all things Scottish at Dunedin Highland Games