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Say what? Haggis hurling at the Highland Games

Heather Overfelt takes part in a haggis toss.
Heather Overfelt takes part in a haggis toss.Andrea Clements

Mention haggis, the Scottish culinary oddity made of a sheep’s internal organs, to most folks and more than a few may feel like tossing their cookies.

On Saturday, visitors to Bardstown, Ky., can spare themselves the emetic unpleasantness, keeping those cookies where they belong and physically hurling a "haggis" — or at least the modern-day equivalent of one — instead.

Part of the town’s Highland Games, the haggis toss earns the Scottish-themed festivities a tip of the tam ‘o shanter as the Overhead Bin’s newest Weird Festival of the Month.

“You don’t have to be the biggest or strongest person to win the haggis toss,” said Lynne Grant, director of guest services at Heaven Hill Distilleries, which is sponsoring the festival. “It’s more about technique than sheer brute strength.”

Which, it must be said, puts it in marked contrast to pretty much every other event at the Games. Like Highland Games all over the world, the party in Bardstown showcases so-called “heavy events,” such as the caber toss — think heaving a small telephone pole — and weight throws with blocks weighing 28 to 56 pounds.

“In Scotland, they used to use throwing events to determine their best warriors,” said Kerry Overfelt, a three-time North American Highland Games champion and Bardstown resident who helped organize the inaugural Games three years ago. “Most of the events are based on ways to kill people.”

Fortunately, the festivities in Bardstown will take a more lighthearted, less "Braveheart," approach. Kids can compete in a mini-caber toss (using the core of a carpet roll); men can enter a Bonniest Knees competition, in which blindfolded women use their hands to determine which man has the shapeliest shanks beneath his kilt, and there should be enough bagpipes and bourbon to keep the entire clan happy.

Then there’s the haggis toss, which, at least according to legend, also owes its existence to the days of yore, when Scottish wives would bring lunch to their men toiling in the fields and peat bogs. Blocked by streams and rivers, they’d resort to hurling their handiwork to their mates who would either catch it in their kilts or settle for splattered, dirt-covered haggis.

The historical record is unclear as to whether the latter was considered a calamity or a culinary improvement.

Either way, the so-called “great chief o’ the puddin’ race” has earned its place both in history and in athletic competition, although, like the other Highland events, it too has been modified for modern times. 

Today, most haggis hurling is done not with cooked conglomerations of organs, oatmeal and suet, but with objects that mimic haggis’ shape and heft. In Bardstown, the ersatz "haggis" of choice is a cornhole or bean bag, which contestants toss while standing atop a whiskey barrel.

“You basically start with the haggis down by your side, get a good rotation and release,” said Heather Overfelt, Kerry’s daughter, who won the event last year with a toss of 81 feet.

Of course, haggis-tossing traditionalists may quibble over the lack of ovine offal involved but there’s something to be said for forgoing the process of boiling sheep guts, stuffing them in sheep stomachs and flinging the results in front of large crowds of unsuspecting people.

“We miss out on some of the authenticity by not having an actual haggis,” the elder Overfelt told NBC News, “but at the same time, we don’t have to worry about the haggis bursting open.”

Spectators with a tenuous hold on their cookies will no doubt be relieved.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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