Since 1860 two granite stones weighing a combined 733 pounds have sat in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near where Scottish strongman Donald Dinnie carried them about 17 feet across the Potarch Bridge.
The stones had been intended as counterweights for the bridge.
In September 2018, John Forsythe, a 2003 Billings Senior High graduate, decided he would lift them.
And in June, he became one of just more than 100 people ever to lift the stones.
Power lifters have been drawn to the stones since Dinnie's original carry, traveling from multiple countries to try their hand at variations on the classic feat of strength for which records continue to be kept.
A documentary called “Stoneland” detailing the history of lifting stones in Scotland put the idea in Forsythe’s head. Scattered throughout the countryside of the island are massive stones of varying shapes and sizes, some said to be connected to tests of strength stretching back through Scotland’s premodern history.
“I remember seeing that and thinking ‘Well, I like lifting things, and I like kilts. So that seems kind of a natural fit,’” Forsythe said.
Another draw is the feeling of permanence that surrounds the stones.
"I think a big draw of the Dinnie Stones and a lot of these historic lifting stones is this idea of participating in a test of strength that existed long before you and will exist long after," Forsythe said, adding that he likes to imagine descendants making the trip someday to the stones and seeing his name in the book.
He started training in September 2018.
The idiosyncrasies of the Dinnie Stones present a unique challenge to modern power lifters. Lifting the stones most closely resembles a dead lift.
Dead lifts are performed with an evenly weighted barbell placed on the ground. A person performing the lift evenly spaces his or her hands apart on the bar, squats down, and stands up.
That consistency in spacing and balance isn’t possible with the Dinnie Stones. The stones are different sizes, different weights and the handles are different distances from the ground. The smaller stone weighs about 318 pounds, and the larger weighs about 414 pounds.
Gloves, which some power lifters rely upon to improve grip and protect their hands from wear and tear, are not allowed to be used for a lift of the Dinnie Stones. Hand straps and lifting suits are also prohibited. Some people, like Forsythe, wear kilts during their attempt to lift the stones.
In order to register for an attempt at the stones, a person “must provide credible evidence” they can lift more than 300 kilograms, or about 661 pounds, in a dead lift without lifting aids, according to rules enforced by the Ballogie Estate, the organization that oversees attempts to lift the stones.
To prepare for the lift, Forsythe, now a 34-year-old attorney in Tacoma, Washington, went so far as to purchase “pins” topped with replicas of the metal ring handles chained to the stone. He constructed a weight lifting plan for the stones that he would follow on Sundays.
Standing at 5 feet 10 inches and weighing 250 pounds, Forsythe said throughout the week while preparing to lift the stones he would squat on Mondays, dead lift on Wednesdays, and squat again on Fridays.
He went through multiple nine-week cycles for his Dinnie Stone strength training plan, gradually increasing the weight stacked on the pins and decreasing the number of repetitions of the lift until by March he was lifting the full weight of the stones.
In an attempt to get feedback, he would post pictures of his grip and videos of his lift to Instagram. An early post got a response Forsythe still laughs about.
“Someone said, ‘So are you training simulating picking rocks up and then putting them down?’ Yeah, that’s exactly right,” Forsythe said. “I have a couple friends who are lifters who immediately got it. A lot of other people just thought one, that’s odd, and two, why would you go to Scotland to do that? Which are both fair points.”
Before long he was getting advice and support from the niche community of stone power lifting enthusiasts, including Stevie Shanks, a Belfast resident who Forsythe described as something of a seasoned statesmen of the stone lifting community.
Shanks’ father, Jack Shanks, is credited as the first man to lift and carry the stones since Dinnie’s original carry.
One stone lifter pointed him toward a YouTube video showing the proper grip technique for the Dinnie Stones. The grip advice, to use what Forsythe calls a “hook grip,” was welcome.
“You kind of put your thumb in first,” Forsythe said. “Really, you’re kind of crushing your thumb as you do it, but it keeps your hold pretty strong.”
Whether it’s the result of calluses or numbness, Forsythe said he got used to the hook grip eventually.
“You’ve got to kind of work through that,” he said. “It hurts like hell.”
On a beautiful June day Forsythe drove through the Scottish countryside, minding the narrow, winding roads — some accented with signs noting a “Weak Bridge” ahead.
On the day of the lift he took a break from a diet of heavy, full English breakfasts and steak pies, settling for what he described as a classic Scottish porridge with honey and a few cups of tea.
He felt he had prepared enough to lift the stones. But in his hotel the night before, he had doubts, wondering if he'd come all this way just to fail. And if he failed, when would he have a chance again?
Not long after Forsythe and his wife arrived at the site of the stones on the day of the lift attempt, it started raining.
They were at the Old Potarch Hotel and Café at the pre-arranged time for his attempt at lifting the stones when pouring rain broke through the Scottish sky, turning the lifting grounds muddy and wetting the rings that are notoriously difficult to grip, even when dry.
“I asked one of the organizers, ‘Are we going to put up a tent or something or some kind of cover?’ He said, ‘No, we don’t do that.’”
In all the weeks of training to lift the stones, Forsythe had never thought to lift weights in the rain.
Seven people were scheduled to try lifting the stones that day. Forsythe was first. He started chalking up his hands. The rings were wiped down. Forsythe grabbed the rings and got his grip. After about two seconds, he went for the lift. Shaking slightly, Forsythe let out a whoosh of air. The gum he'd been chewing flew into the mud. His joints locked out, straining against the weight, Forsythe brought the stones up clear from the ground.
The event photographer hadn’t had time to get set. Forsythe said that he didn’t want to waste any time letting the rain compromise his grip. He held the stones aloft for 10 seconds. A record hold of the stones requires they be in the air for nearly 40 seconds.
A certificate awarded to Forsythe for the feat describes, with a poetic flair, the way the rocks departed their muddy resting place.
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Rolled up to Potarch an hour early and it was gorgeous. Started pouring rain right before lift. Still got it! (that’s my gum flying out mid-lift) Big thanks to @killerstrengthscotland @nicol.brett @stevie_shanks @potarch and all the lifters who came out. #dinniestones #potarch #stonelifting #killerstrengthscotland #uruzfit #sportkilt #kilt #meninkilts #clanforsyth
“For putting the wind beneath the stones,” it reads. Just more than 100 people have achieved the feat over the years.
The rest of the day went well. The crowd was supportive and enthusiastic. One of the lifters, a Finnish woman named Annika Eilman, became the first woman to lift the stones without help from straps.
Forsythe said that with plans to start a family, he’s not sure what’s next, but that he remains interested in stone lifting. He’s already got ideas about his next attempt.
“My feeling is, 'Well, I got to think of something else to do,'” Forsythe said. “This Finnish guy was telling me about this stone in Iceland called the Husafell Stone, that you not only have to pick up, but you have to walk around a fenced area.”
The Husafell Stone lift takes place around a goat pen. The stone is 418 pounds.