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Donning a kilt to make history

On January 1 this year, the Maryborough Highland Gathering did something never before seen in its 159-year history.

The event, known as the longest continuous-running sporting event in Australia, allowed female athletes to compete in their own division of the heavy events. 

Competitor Kay Hodgson felt “almost euphoric” after the event.

Kay Hodgson in action.

“I had an amazing feeling of being involved in something historic and that the five ladies had created a pathway for young females coming through.”

This was the first female event in Victoria, and both male and female divisions were awarded equal prize money. Five women competed in four events alongside eight men in six events at Maryborough, with prize money varying from $80 to $140, depending on the event. 

Helen Kate competes in the stone put at Maryborough.

The Highland Games are a traditional Scottish event involving dance, music, and the crowd-attracting heavy events. These involve the caber toss, hammer throw and stone put.

Historically, the heavy events were a test of manhood. Spectators wanted to watch the strongest competitors, who were inevitably men, says Highland Games throwing coach Joshua Plante.

“History itself is why women weren’t in it. But recently, there has been a cultural change.”

Plante prioritised the safety of the athletes when he started training them only a month prior to the event. But lifting heavy objects wasn’t an unknown challenge for these women. Despite coming from different sporting backgrounds – Crossfit, gymnastics, jockeying and Muay Thai – all women had previous experience in Strongwomen or powerlifting competitions, says competitor and gym-owner Hodgson.

The ex-Muay Thai boxer recalls her nervous excitement on the day, particularly since the women had expected to start competing in March.

“I hadn’t been that nervous since my pro fights.”

In addition to the usual pre-competition nerves, Hodgson realised the significance of this event in front of a five thousand-strong crowd.

“Being the first group of females to be asked to compete, all eyes would be on us. It was great to compete in front of the crowd, just to show what females can do.”

Fran Fitzpatrick (the overall women’s winner) competes in the hammer throw.

Women have competed worldwide since the 1990s, with a noticeable increase in the last 15 years. 2019 was particularly significant, as the Scottish Highland Games Association officially introduced a women’s division to the sport and urged clubs to provide equal prize money. 

In NSW, secretary of the Maclean Games, Alister Smith, recalls female events as early as 2006. Prize money parity was introduced five years ago, a change which Smith says was based on competitor and spectator feedback at Maclean. 

He says there are upwards of twenty female competitors at the Maclean Games, with many of them competing on top of other sporting commitments. 

“We get big crowds now and a lot of [female] participation. The specific reason it has grown so much [recently is] CrossFit.”

“Our competitors, particularly the ladies, are local sportspeople who excel in other sports as well.”

Hodgson and Plante both agree that increased female participation in strength sports will draw more women across to compete in Highland Games. 

They both credit the Maryborough Games’ promoter, legendary Billy Binks, as being a driving force behind the growth of competitions and the positive response to female participation. At 82 years old, his experience as a worldwide Highland Games competitor provided helpful feedback to the first-time female competitors. 

Speaking recently to Hodgson, it sounds like the excitement remains.

“To this day a month later I look at my sport kilt and smile and feel privileged that we did something that we’ll all look back on when are old and say: ‘we were nervous but had some fun and did it’, and hope to empower women around the state.”

In Victoria, the only other Highland Games for females will be at Ringwood on March 29. Plante is currently training more women and expects eight male and female competitors. There will likely be more female events next year.

Story by: Ella Smith

Photos by: Anthony Rogers photography

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