The sun was breaking through the trees outside an historic building in the grounds of a Grade II listed 17th century manor in the Hampshire countryside.
Suddenly, the Wellhouse at Lainston House hotel near Winchester transformed into Hagrid’s Hut as two giants emerged, ducking their heads to avoid removing oak beams. I borrowed a step ladder and elbow–bumped Tom Stoltman and his “wee older brother” Luke in greeting.
They are huge men. Tom, aged 26, stands 6ft 8in, while Luke, 10 years older, is 6ft 3in. They are known respectively as The Albatross and The Highland Oak. At that size you get to call yourself anything you want.
They are strong men too. Actually, make that two of the strongest men in the world. I don’t know what they put in the waters of Easter Ross other than whisky. But, to quote Luke, “we are two of the strongest men in the world from a town in the Scottish Highlands where things like this shouldn’t happen.” Invergordon take a bow.
The Stoltmans are unquestionably the strongest brothers in the world. Luke has competed in World’s Strongest Man four times and won Scotland’s Strongest Man five times. Last year, Tom, who aged 18 finished fifth in Scotland’s Strongest Man in his first-ever competition, was second in World’s Strongest Man, vowing to go one better in June. Every elite athlete loves a title, but to be able to call yourself ‘the strongest man in the world’. Move over Atlas, this globe’s mine.
What’s this all got to do with barbecue? Well a lot actually and a lot of meat – every day. The Stoltman brothers are sponsored by Campbells Prime Meat – a Scottish family-run business, dating back to 1910 when young Thomas Campbell started out as a butcher.
The basket of a butcher’s bike wasn’t quite going to cut it, so instead Campbells hired an articulated lorry to deliver the meat to feed the 10,000-calories-a-day-each brothers. Campbells have even named a steak after them, with the Stoltman Steak weighing in at 52oz or 1.5kg. I can barely bench-press that.
The brothers had flown down from Scotland in the early hours, lured by industrial quantities of food to barbecue under the expert tuition of Weber head grill master Gyles Foster, working with Luke and Tom on a Weber GS4 and a Weber Summit Kamado.
But first and foremost, the Stoltmans are elite athletes with a strict training regime, but an equally strict diet and that consists of lots of meat, especially red meat.
“We barbecue every day and love it – everything tastes so much nicer. As for the Campbells’ meat deliveries, I’ve had to buy another freezer,” says Luke.
The nutritional value of meat, as well as boosting testosterone levels, is key. The heavy lifting in the gym is the easy bit; a lot of the discipline is in the diet and the rest and recovery, “with a few cheeky doughnuts thrown in!” laughs Tom, not looking forward to his next freezing Scottish swim, unless he can have a fire pit on the beach to return to for a feed.
They will flip burgers, sausages, steaks and pork chops on their barbecues at home (they live three miles apart) but the purpose of the visit to Lainston House – with the hotel’s Wellhouse opening as a wood-fired dining experience – was to learn how to make those meats not just functional and nutritional, but fun and delicious. If you need to consume that much barbecue, you might as well reverse sear a Stoltman steak with pink peppercorn butter or chimichurri, to the Highland warrior cry of “that’s got my name on it!”
Foster’s lollipop chicken with sticky Asian sauce was so good you expected to get arrested, while Luke politely eyed up a side dish of charred broccoli in deference to his vegetarian wife, Kushi.
“Kushi and Tom’s wife, Sinead, are hugely supportive of what we do and have our backs. Ours is a very selfish sport, which is why it is so great having each other in training and competitions.”
At every event the brothers honour the memory of their mother Sheila, who died of cancer in 2016. “She was the one who screamed loudest at competitions,” says the Stoltman’s father Ben.
There are three other Stoltman siblings; sisters Jodie and Nikki and the youngest brother Harry, who is also making a name for himself in the sport.
As well as the small matter of seeking to become the world’s strongest men, counting down to the competition in Sacramento, California this June, the brothers have a business to run, with their brand building all the time, be it their own Stoltman Strength Centre in Invergordon, or their range of clothing – tracksuits, Lumberjack shirts and other merchandise.
“It is pretty surreal that a couple of ‘daftys’ from the Highlands are selling T-shirts to people in Japan, but we want to keep growing the business, setting our families up. We are so humbled by all the support we’re being given along the way,” says Luke.
They are social media stars too, with huge followings on Instagram and YouTube. Their content is incredibly natural, fun and engaging, while communicating the power of sport and fitness as a power for good in so many ways.
Highlighting the importance of mental health and well-being is a crusade for both of them. Tom has autism and the gym and the road to World’s Strongest Man didn’t just bring him out of his silent shell, it literally brought him out of the social isolation of his bedroom.
“The transformation is incredible. Tom doesn’t realise what he was like when younger. We were not sure he’d be able to be a functioning member of society. But look at him now. He gets more confident every day – a blossoming flower!” says Luke, proudly and emotionally.
“Tom is now the second strongest man in the world and the raw potential to be the best who ever lived.”
Tom says the day he first walked into the gym with his brother, picking up those weights aged 16, changed his life. Before that, football was his game – he is an avid Glasgow Rangers fan – and, hard though it is to believe, he was once “a stick insect, a Scottish Peter Crouch!”
He stuck with the gym and it crucially gave him a routine and a balance, enjoying the repetition and following his older brother’s lead and inspiration.
“I could have quit and gone back to living in my room. But my brother didn’t let me quit and, as he says, I have fully blossomed now!”
These lads don’t just lift weights; they lift hearts and are evangelical about young people grabbing a passion in life running with it and enjoying it, regardless of whether you’re gifted academically or physically.
They are having a proper cooking education that’s for sure, more and more assured under the Weber tutelage. Grilled T-bone steak anyone? Cheeseburgers with pickles and relish, pork and grilled pepper skewers, lemon, salt and pepper chicken thighs and sausage and onion buns.
When Foster slices the Stoltman steak, I swear I hear angels sing. The brothers certainly shout ‘hallelujah!’ for school is out and it is time to eat, salivating in the knowledge that this BBQ bounty is the fuel to help them to the summit of their sport.
Before these gentle giants head back to the Highlands, we need to see whether they are as strong as they claim and look.
There are no Atlas Stones to hand. Tom is the world record holder in this event and can lift a 286kg stone – you need the wingspan of an albatross just to get your arms round it.
There are no fallen trees in the Lainston House grounds for a log press. Luke is the British record-holder here at 221kg and has unofficially broken the world record in his Invergordon gym.
So we, rashly as it turns out, decide on a barbecue – a very heavy Weber. The idea is simply to lift it off the ground. But no, these are competitive beasts, so they decide to hoist the big grill above their shoulders. Strong Man is about technique, not just brute strength and suffice it to say if the BBQ lift is an event in World’s Strongest Man the brothers may struggle.
Tom allowed himself just a few beers to celebrate his beloved Rangers wresting the Scottish Premiership from Celtic.
“But when I win World’s Strongest Man there is going to be a very big party – a barbecue naturally!”
Luke laughs at his brother’s confidence; after all, he instilled it in him.
“I am one of the world’s strongest men, but not even the strongest in my family! I have given up that title. I had a few sleepless nights over it, crying and punching the pillow, but I’m okay now.”
It is Tom’s turn to laugh. Sibling bonds are natural, but this is off the chart, so tangible and a delight to behold 310kg – over 50 stone in old money – of mutual love and ambition.
Tom’s Achilles heel? Spicy food, with nothing stronger than tomato sauce. A fellow competitor handed Tom a T-shirt saying ‘Spicy Stoltmans’, which is now a brand in itself.
World’s Strongest Man should be on Channel 5 screens in its usual Christmas slot – that tradition of watching huge men lift, pull and carry huge things at that time of year when most of us struggle to get off the sofa.
If the Stoltmans triumph, I’ll lift the sofa over my head nae bother. That’s how inspirational these brothers are. Good luck boys. Bring it home.
Pictures: Angela Ward-Brown www.feastsshootsandleaves.co.uk
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