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Casey Christie / The Californian

Drummers bring up the rear during the opening ceremony for the 17th annual Kern County Scottish Society's Scottish Games and Gathering in 2012.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Members of the Stag and Thistle Pipes and Drums from Fresno, Gold Coast Pipe Band from Ventura County, and the Tehachapi Pipes and Drums play music during opening exercises in 2012. This was part of the 17th annual Kern County Scottish Society's Scottish Games and Gathering.

Very strong people chucking tree trunks and big rocks isn't your usual spectator sport, but it's the heart of the 18th annual Scottish Gathering & Games this weekend at the Kern County Fairgrounds.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 people are expected to attend this year's games, sponsored by the Kern County Scottish Society. The games will include pipe and drum bands and Celtic music ensembles, food and craft vendors, "edutainment" demonstrations and other celebrations of Scottish culture and other Celtic cultures as well.

"We include everybody else because it's a small group," said Tony Urzanqui, this year's chieftain. "We're a lot closer than we realize."

Urzanqui said the games are the society's main fundraiser for the year and help cover the cost for other events, such as the Burns Dinner, the Celtic music festival and other cultural events.

The centerpiece of the daylong event is the "heavy athletics," referring to the heavy weights thrown by competitors in various weight classes.

Scheduled events include the stone throw, weight for distance, the hammer throw and the iconic caber toss. Urzanqui said all competitors participate in all the categories, earning one point for first place, two points for second place, and additional points for subsequent standings. Low score wins.

"Most of us know as athletes we're not going to beat the other athletes," Urzanqui said. "We're just going for our personal best -- trying to better our own scores."

But competitor Rich Wilson is hoping to win. A competitor for about six years, Wilson said he got serious after trying an event, thinking his regular weight-lifting training was enough to prepare him.

"I was pretty humbled the first time out," he said.

Now Wilson competes in games around the state every month, with his best scores in the weight-for-distance event.

"I'm one of the top 15 in the world in the lightweight class," Wilson said. "My best with the 42-pound weight is 34 feet, and with the 28-pound weight, I'd say 52 feet."

Wilson said the lightweight class is for competitors weighing less than 200 pounds. Competitors in the heavyweight and professional-level classes average about 250 pounds.

"No one's inviting me for that," he said.

The heavy athletic games are entertaining feats of strength today, but served a very important role in Scotland in past centuries. The demonstration of strength was important both in selecting the strongest warriors, and also as a way of intimidating potential enemies.

"Instead of fighting battles, (Scottish clans) would compete in these games," Brownfield said. "They prevented a lot of wars."

Clans resorted to using large rocks and tree trunks during the years of English rule, when the ability to carry traditional weapons was outlawed.

"It gave the men a way of preparing for battle without actually going to war," Brownfield said.

Competitors prepare for the games with regular training and practice. There are many manufacturers that serve the Scottish and Celtic market niche, making "implements" -- as the athletic equipment is called -- including weight-lifting attachments and exercise gear that mimics even the caber toss.

"It requires a lot of strength, but a lot of technique, too," Brownfield said.

Wilson said he combines weight-training with field practice to prepare for competitions.

"(Competing) gave me a lot of purpose in what I'm doing; I plan my workouts for the entire year," Wilson said.

"I'm training basically to throw things around. It gives me focus."

"And, it's a blast."