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Family shares talents in Whidbey Highland Games

The Akins clan of Andrew, center, and daughters Grayson, left, and Jordan will be part of the Whidbey Highland Games athletic competition Saturday. - Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
The Akins clan of Andrew, center, and daughters Grayson, left, and Jordan will be part of the Whidbey Highland Games athletic competition Saturday.
— image credit: Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Whenever Grayson Akins returns to campus at Western Washington University and talks about her summer athletic endeavors back home on Whidbey Island, she’s often met with a blank stare.

New friends are dumbfounded, yet curious, to learn more about tossing logs, stones and hay that are part of the athletic segment of the Whidbey Highland Games.

“Explaining it is always really interesting,” said Akins, 20, who lives in Oak Harbor and will be a senior at Western in the fall. “It sounds like you’re standing in a field wearing something weird and throwing heavy things.”

Wearing a Scottish kilt and tossing large objects across a field is not something Akins would have ever envisioned she’d be doing after graduating from Coupeville High School.

Yet, Akins, her older sister, Jordan, and their dad, Andrew, all tried it out several years ago and got hooked, and the trio will compete in the 16th annual event at Greenbank Farm Saturday, Aug. 9.

“I think it’s great,” said Andrew Akins, who’s been at it the longest in the family, guessing about six years. “It took me a while to talk them into it. They were a little bit resistant.”

“We didn’t know this existed,” Jordan Akins, 22, said.

Athletic competitions such as the caber toss, stone put and sheaf toss are only a part of the Highland Games, which is a celebration of Scottish culture.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, the event also will feature Highland piping, drumming and dancing competitions. A variety of Celtic performances will take place on the main stage. There also will be food vendors and a beer garden.

Cost to attend is $10 for adults, $7 for children, seniors and military and kids 4 and under are free.

The Highland games are played out in various communities around the United States and Canada as well as in Scotland, where the Cowal Highland Gathering, held in Dunoon, attracts thousands of competitors.

The state’s largest event is the Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games, which took place for the 68th time last week in Enumclaw. In 2013, that event drew 30,000 spectators.

Whidbey’s version is played out on a much smaller scale yet is one of the most anticipated annual events at Greenbank Farm, taking on more prominence this year with the suspension of the Loganberry Festival.

About 50 people from Washington, Oregon and Canada are signed up to compete in athletics with seven participants from the island.

Athletics consists of a variety of different tosses with each competitor partaking in every event. In the caber toss, participants lift and attempt to flip over a log or pole with the degree in which it lands carrying more significance than distance. Best tosses flip over and land at 12 on an imaginary clock.

Other tosses involve a hammer, weight and stone. There’s also the sheaf toss, which involves chucking a bundle of straw with a pitchfork.

Athletes compete in different classes, including novice, amateur A and B and masters. Whidbey’s Highland Games don’t typically draw any professionals in athletics, said Jordan Akins, who is helping organize the athletic portion of the games.

The Akins family, which is Scottish, became exposed to the Highland Games after Belle Akins attended the Skagit Games in Mount Vernon several years ago and reported her findings to her husband and daughters.

The family started attending events together and the competitive drive took over.

“It’s just cool,” said Andrew Akins, who played soccer and was a pole vaulter on the track and field team at Oak Harbor High School. “It’s cool being on the field the same time as them.”

The Highland Games community also impressed Andrew Akins, adding competitors don’t have to be Scottish to participate.

“As far as sports go, I’ve never been involved in one with this amount of camaraderie and sportsmanship,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It’s a little family,” Grayson said.

Andrew Akins has grown accustomed to wearing a kilt during competitions. He said at some Highland games, athletes aren’t allowed to compete without one.

He’s convinced a kilt allows him to throw farther.

“Once you start wearing it, there’s no going back,” he said.

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