The good news for Bubba Farrell is that he’s lost more than 100 pounds in the last 10 months. The better news is he didn’t drop very many dress sizes.
So this weekend, when the 6-foot-2-inch, now-320-pounder from Gaithersburg joins a horde of sweaty, kilted men on the well-manicured grounds of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, he’ll be all dolled up in the very same tartan he always wears to the Virginia Scottish Games.
When Farrell, 46, got his kilt, he tipped the scales at over four bills, and in his search for proper attire he learned that a guy that size can’t necessarily pick out something in his ancestors’ primary colors. Worse yet, no plaid pattern anywhere close to understated was obtainable. But, being a good Highlander, Farrell wanted to be a part of the Scottish games, to throw stones and poles and assorted other really heavy objects with other really heavy men of shared ancestry. By the book, that meant he needed a skirt. So he took a tartan that was available, garish as it was, and made himself one that fit.
And in the several years since, Farrell’s apparel has gone from embarrassment to legend among Scottish Games participants, as much a part of the proceedings as the grimaces by the haggis stand.
“Everybody calls my tartan ‘McNeon,’” Farrell laughs. “I don’t know if I could say just that it’s extremely bright, the color is sort of OSHA orange. I took a lot of heat when I wore it at first, but by now I’m proud of it. And when I have it on, everybody can tell from a few hundred yards away that it’s me.”
Jeff Middleton is equally proud of his dress, though he didn’t stitch it up himself. Middleton, at a relatively svelte 235 pounds, sports the same tartan that his mother’s clan, the Buchanans, wore in the mother country. A swimming pool operator by day, he’ll don the red-and-green kilt for the fifth year in a row this weekend in Alexandria (a city founded in 1749 by a pair of Scottish merchants, John Carlyle and William Ramsey), when he joins Farrell among the handful of local competitors entered at this year’s Games. And he can’t wait to show some leg.
“I look pretty good in a kilt,” says Middleton.
Even if you think he doesn’t, it would be unwise to make fun of Middleton, or Farrell, or any of the competitors at the Scottish Games if you run into them at Episcopal. Dress or no dress, don’t tell these dudes they look like ladies.
Why? Well, Middleton bench-presses 400 pounds. Farrell can squat 600.
And they’re only the amateurs.
“I work out, but I’m puny compared to some of these people who come to town for this thing,” says Middleton. “Half the people who enter look like linemen for the Skins. That always amazes me, every year.”
Size does matter at the Virginia Scottish Games, which at 25 ranks as one of the oldest and most popular festivals for men of plaid held in the region. More than 200 clans, or families, will be represented this year. There will be plenty of bagpipes, traditional dance demonstrations, and ethnic food vendors. But athletically speaking, the highlight of the weekend will be the Highland Heptathlon, a ridiculously tough, daylong endurance and strength test that should be of little appeal to the synchronized swimming or rhythmic dancing crowd. This competition is about big, burly, Rob Roy wannabes casting heavy objects just as far as they can.
There will be the 16-pound hammer throw, the 16-pound stone toss, the 28- and 56-pound weight throws, the 20-pound sheaf (bale of hay) toss, and, the big daddy of all Scottish Games amusements and the contest most likely to make SportsCenter, the caber toss.
A lay description of the caber toss: You pick up a log the size of a telephone pole and try to get it perpendicular to the ground, at which point you take off running and try to flip the big rod, end over end, and hope that the end you held in your hands lands pointing directly away from you.
Scottish legend has it that the technique used in the caber toss came in handy centuries ago, when you needed to ford a river but there wasn’t a bridge, or you had to get to the upper reaches of a castle without a staircase or the castle-dwellers’ permission. Well, now we’ve got bridges, and we don’t have castles, but the caber toss endures.
Middleton, despite his Highland roots, never picked up a pole or tossed a bale of hay before signing up for the 1994 Scottish Games. He now gears up for the Alexandria competition and a host of others like it on the East Coast by throwing his weights around at a school field near his Lanham home. And though his caber technique is hardly as smooth as single malt, every toss brings him closer to his Old World ancestors.
“Part of the reason I got into this is because I love to compete, and a guy my age  doesn’t have too many activities to get so competitive,” says Middleton. “But I’ve never been to Scotland, yet, anyway. And to think that I’m doing something that Scottish people have been doing for so long, some of these events go back to the fifth century, is cool. That’s why the dress code is cool, too. I mean, before I got into this, I never wore a dress before, unless you count my graduation gown. Because of the Games, I’ve learned a lot more about the Scottish people and Scotland and my roots than I ever thought I would, and that makes me feel good. I get into it.”
Farrell likes the way his dress makes him feel, too. Because he’s dropped so many pounds since he last competed, you’d think Farrell might be a little wary about his ancestral habit falling down around his ankles in the heat of battle. If that happens, he says, then the crowd will just get more for its money.
“I’m not worried about losing my kilt. But the standard question you always hear about the Scottish Games is, ‘What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt?’” Farrell says. “Well, I say, ‘Come and find out.’” —Dave McKenna
The Virginia Scottish Games will be held on Saturday and Sunday at Episcopal High School in Alexandria. Gates open at 8 a.m. Tickets are $10 for one day or $17 for both. For further information, call (703) 912-1943.