The Virginia Scottish Games begin at 12:30 Saturday and at 10 on Sunday (gates open at 9 both days) at Episcopal High School, 3901 West Braddock Road, Alexandria. Admission is $5 for Saturday, $4 for Sunday, or $8 for both days. Children under 15 accompanied by an adult will be admitited free; unaccompanied children pay $1. Scottish food and crabs will be on sale, and clan experts will help you trace your Scottish ancestors -- if any. For details: 549-SCOT.
McComas' hands, whitened with magnesium carbonate for a surer grip, gingerly work their way down the trunk of a 20-foot cypress. Then they slide underneath the tree trunk, called a caber in its present role, and tighten. Carrying the hundred-pound tree, McComas runs a few yards, stops suddenly, and raises his arms in a flipping motion. The caber takes flight, the top hitting the ground and the bottom somersaulting over it, landing at an angle that McComas, disappointed, terms 9 o'clock.
"It's at least 9:30," encourages fellow cabertosser Michael Reid, who's working out with McComas to get ready for the seventh annual Virginia Socttish Games, to be held in Alexandria this weekend.
Besides the heptathlon of athletic contests, the two-day event will feature bagpipe and highland dance contests, sheep-herding demonstrations, a tug of war and a celebrity haggis hurl on Saturday and a national fiddling contest, a soccer tournament, a deerhound demonstration and Cairn terrier field trials on Sunday.
The caber "has to land somewhere between 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock with 12 o'clock a perfect toss," explains McComas, who's running behind to call the angle when Reid tosses. "Everybody gets three tries, and if no one does it, they cut a foot off the caber. This one is a reject we picked up at a meet down in Georgia. It's a cypress -- so it won't dry out and lose weight like the poplars around here. There's no regulation-size caber. In Alexandria, they use one that's shorter but bigger around. That doesn't take as much skill to toss, but it takes more strength."
Reid's first toss falls to flip the caber, but McComas consoles him: "I think you just waited too long that time, but if the ground were soft, yours would be going right over."
Reid is a relative newcomer to the local Socttish-games circuit, but McComas, who works in his family's Baltimore heating-oil business, is something of a star: He placed second in the big meet at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina earlier this month, and fourth last year in Alexandria.
"We go to a meet almost every weekend," says McComas. "They used to be seasonal -- from April to October -- but now there are meets in Florida and Texas in the winter. We're professionals -- we do it for the prize money. The winner of a meet can make $500 or $600, and some meets pay expenses. But almost all of us have day jobs, too."
Brian Oldfield, who took the top prize in Alexandria last year, won't be back because he recently won a long-standing dispute with athletic authorities to regain his amateur status as a shot-putter. McComas, who like most Scottish games stars is a former track star, doesn't have to worry about status because he's over 40 -- he won't say how much over 40 -- and the AAU lets the over-the-hill bunch have amateur status no matter what.
Though McComas' Scottish ancestors, who used to spell the name with a "Mac," settled around the Severn River in the 17th century, he wasn't interested in the games until he saw a notice in the paper about a stone toss.
"Track meets around here were so dull," he explains. "And when track athletes see they're not Olympic quality, they look at Scottish games more seriously. These were the forerunners of Olympic events."
The stone toss, or stone put, is similar to the shot put and its usually the first event of the Scottish heptathlon. Reid, a cabinetmaker specializing in reproductions of 18th-century furniture, puts the caber on his back and carries it to its place on top of the car. In the trunk of the car is the rest of the Scottish-games equipment: a round, smooth 15-pound stone; a cube-shaped 56-pound weight; a 28-pound weight; a hammerlike instrument consisting of a lead ball with a wooden handle; a pitchfork, and a bag of grass cuttings.
"We were chased off the pile where we found this stone by some state highway people," says Reid, cradling the stone on his shoulder and winding up. "It's hard to pass by a pile of round stones without stopping."
Reid's stone lands with a thud, and soon he and McComas are playing catch with it. Now they are dressed in shorts, but in the meet itself they will wear knits -- wool kilts despite the inevitable July heat.
"Polyester wouldn't be authentic," says McComas, who wears the tartan of the clan of Gunn. Reid, whose ancestors were Robertsons, couldn't find the proper kilt, "So I just bought a pretty one from Canada."
Knee socks and T-shirts are worn with the kilts. And? "The athletes here wear underwear," answers McComas. "But in Scotland -- well, you can get mooned."
The winner of this meet will get a trip to Scotland in addition to prize money. All contestants participate in all events and win points according to where they place in each event. Consistency, says McComas, is the key.
"I didn't win one event at Grandfather Mountain last week, but I placed second in the meet," he says. "You've got to work on all the events. It took me six or seven years to master the hay toss."
In Scotland, athletes toss a sheaf of hay over a cross bar. Here, the sheaf is usually replaced by a burlap bag stuffed with hay or grass. McComas sticks his pitchfork into the bag and lifts it backward over his head and into the air over an imaginary crossbar.
"Timing is critical in the hay toss," he explains. "If you pull too much with your left hand the hay will go too far back."
The exact origins of Scottish games are shrouded in highland mist, but it's thought that they began as training exercises designed to get warriors in shape for battle again after a long idle winter. Since the highlands lacked sporting-goods shops, they used what they could find for equipment -- stones, trees, blacksmith hammers for the distance hammer throw, and grain counterbalances that were thrown both for distance and for height. And as long as the clan had gathered for the war games, the chieftains threw in dancing, music, food and general sociability.
The sociability even extends to the athletes.
"We get together and have fun," explains Reid. "Not everybody wins, but no one comes in on the losing end. In track, you don't joke around with the guy you're throwing against. But we do."