Most people think nothing of mundane activities such as spitting out a seed, flicking a discarded pip from a trouser leg, or squeezing a cherry stone between your fingers until it scoots into the distance. However in St Andrews in Fife these activities are celebrated in style at the annual seed sessions in the third week of August.
The term ‘seed’ is a generic term that covers pips, stones, and hulls from various fruits. Because of the different sizes of the seeds each of the contests is split into many categories. These categories are for apple seeds, orange pips, cherry stones, olive pitts, and water melon seeds.
The methods used to propel the various seeds are spitting, squeezing between two fingers, and flicking from a flat surface with a finger. There are accuracy tests as well as distance contests.
The festival started during the annual apple picking in 1847 when young men in the orchard were spitting out the pips from their Red Victoria, Cambusnethan Pippin, and
Lord Grosvener apples. One youth, Iain Logie, maintained he could spit a pip further than anyone else although this was difficult to prove as all the pips looked the same. Jamie Nesbit said he could decapitate a wasp at ten paces using a pip that he spat from his mouth.
As no headless wasp bodies could be found, it was decided to organize a contest and have judges to act as independent witnesses. When the Wasp Protection League objected to the possible massacre of these insects in St Andrews it was decided that people should instead aim at matchsticks stuck in wax.
For the distance contests jute sacks from nearby Dundee are used as the playing area covered an area 100 hundred yards square. The distances were marked at every foot and the distance was counted as where the pip finished up rather than where it initially landed, thus allowing the exponents of the ‘bouncing bomb’ technique to compete on equal terms against the high trajectory spitters, flickers, and squeezers.
Once orange pips were added to the contest in 1920 then the landing area had to be trebled in area due to their extra weight and more rounded shape. Soon cherries, olives, and water melons were added to the list of seeds. In subsequent years, larger stones such as those found in apricots, nectarines, and avocadoes were tried as ‘guest’ seeds but have never been accepted into open competition. This is due to the large amounts of phlegm accompanying the seeds when they were spat out of a contestant’s mouth. There was also a near tragedy in 1956 when a contestant, Archie McFadden, swallowed an avocado stone he was meant to be spitting and had to be rushed to hospital because of breathing impairment.
Competitions for each fruit’s seeds are contested on separate days allowing generalists and specialists to compete on equal terms. Seeds travel furthest in the squeezing events. The overall distance record is the 474 feet 7 inches that an orange pip travelled in 1928 after it had been squeezed between the middle finger and thumb of Dougal MacDonald from Lossiemouth. MacDonald was accused of cheating by fellow competitors as the pip had been aerodynamically carved beforehand, so competitors are no longer allowed to bring their own seeds with them. Instead they are allocated a pip or seed from a variety of their choice and must use it otherwise they are disqualified for time-wasting.
The spitting contests are normally the least popular with spectators because of the potential inaccuracy of amateur spitters. Judges wear gloves and surgical masks to reduce the chances of contamination; all seeds are removed using either tweezers or calipers and are then burnt, unless a record has been set in which case they are sent to the spitting museum and planted for prosperity. The record for spitting a seed is 368 feet 2 inches by Mrs Elsie Anderson of Tobermory, whose record has stood since 1921. She spat a pip from a Red Victoria apple using her tongue to apply topspin in a technique she referred to as ‘tossing the caber.’ Apples from this tree fetch a high price from contestants anxious to win a prize; since 1921 pips from apples grown on this tree have been used by eight winners of the Apple Pip spitting contest and are thus justly regarded as the thoroughbreds of the apple pip world.
The accuracy contests take place over distances ranging from five to 50 yards. Five matches are stuck into wax and contestants have to knock down as many as possible using a maximum of ten seeds in the quickest time possible. Extra points are awarded if the match is ignited by the seed. Again contestants spit, flick, and squeeze their seeds at the targets.
The legendary Elsie Anderson holds the record for the apple seed spitting accuracy contest, scoring 806 points in 1922 when she ignited all five matches in five seconds from a distance of 20 yards using her ‘Highland Fling’ technique. This involves rolling her tongue around the pip and blowing hard to impart sidespin before spitting the pip at the target.
Elsie Anderson’s mother knew her daughter would excel at these events as she had shown promise from an early age: “Why, when Elsie was seven years old, we baked her a cake and put the candles on and lit them. When she tried to blow them out she blew them clear off the cake, setting fire to the cat and the curtains. The icing finished all over the wall and the wee decorations smashed the plates on the dresser.”
Not all contestants have been as successful as Elsie Anderson. In 1968 Walter Nesbit from Crianlarich recorded the shortest distance ever for a seed squeeze – 6 inches. His explanation was as follows “Somehow the seed moved between my thumb and forefinger so that it came out upwards rather than forwards – the seed rebounded off the end of my nose and barely made it over the starting line – I was so embarrassed.” What Mr Nesbit failed to mention was that all his previous attempts had gone up his nostrils and hadn’t registered any distance at all.
The champion flicker of all time is Jock Macduff from Strathpfeffer, who won every apple, orange, and water melon flicking contest between 1937 and 1967. He used to soak his fingernails in vinegar when he was out of competition so that they would be hard as leather during the flicking contests. He used the ‘bouncing bomb’ technique for orange pips and the high trajectory flick for apple and water melon seeds. All seeds were balanced on the right knee of his moleskin trews before the force was applied by his fingernail. The trews were his lucky charm and he never washed them from year to year, so that by 1968 they were deemed to be a health hazard by the judges and he was banned from competing.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker