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Issue 15 - Fancy a fling?

Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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Fancy a fling?

The Highland Games are where storybook Scotland and the real thing meet in a spectacular coincidence of colour, pageant and competition. Simon Walton finds out that just about every other genuine Scottish community is touched by the tradition

The diminutive figure of Queen Victoria is hardly the quintessential image of the Highland Games. The toss of the caber, the skirl of the pipes, and the dervish whirling of the highland dancers could hardly have amused. Yet, without the patronage of that universally popular monarch, the games would not be the worldwide symbol of Caledonia they are today.

Almost everything we accept as classic Highland Games owes its modern incarnation to the 19th century’s adoration of the longest serving monarch in British history.

More so, with Victoria’s love of meandering Royal Deeside, North East Scotland and the Grampian Highlands are now host to the most popular games circuit in the world. The 16 gatherings each summer draw record crowds to city, town and village. In many cases they are the highlight of the civic calendar, evoking memories of the true origins of the games.

For more than 1000 years, clan chiefs and kings have presided over ‘gatherings’ where their subjects would compete in challenges of skill and physical prowess, based on their trades, designed to identify the most able warriors.

Throwing of hammers, cleaving of trees, heaving of stones, running, jumping, piping, dancing and marching – all have their place in today’s games, but owe their origins to readiness for combat and annual displays of fealty.

“The games are a modern metaphor for the ancient clan gatherings, when loyalty was publicly demonstrated to the chief”, says Jim Brown, a council member of governing body – the Scottish Games Association (SGA) and chairman of the Grampian Games Association, the regional organising body in North East Scotland.

“Of course, today the games are all about spectacle, family entertainment and sporting competition. They are also an international event, attracting competitors from every continent and games staged around the world. The games are every bit a part of Scotland – from Cornhill to California. It’s a boast we’re proud to make.” Some huge events are to be found across the Scottish diaspora, sharing affiliation to the SGA with games from the motherland. Alberta, Tokyo and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina all rub shoulders with Skye, Pitlochry, City of Aberdeen and other equally traditional locations.

Most traditional of all, Braemar, bears a special place in the games calendar.

Though the modern incarnation under the auspices of the Braemar Royal Highland Society will be held on the first Saturday of September, as they have been for the past 186 years, the event traces its origins back 900 years to the time of King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, long before this kingdom was united.

Moreover, the modern Gathering’s proximity to the newly built Balmoral Castle made it an ideal visit for Victoria and Albert. It has remained so with their descendants ever since.

The Royal Family is invariably to be found among the 30,000 or so who enjoy this finale to the Grampian games season.

With society keen to show its allegiance to Victoria, Braemar sparked a modern revival of the games. That popularity rubbed off on its neighbours and made the circuit throughout Grampian the games at which to be seen.

Clearly it’s a tradition that continues to grow today – though the emphasis is clearly more on family enjoyment than social climbing. Last year, the games circuit in the region drew all-time record crowds, in many cases attendance outnumbering the host population.

While it’s no longer high society’s duty to attend – even if Billy Connolly’s celebrity guests at the Lonach Games may disagree – it’s certainly the duty of the serious competitors to make an appearance.

While open fields, unusual events, traders’ stalls and grass running tracks may lend a air of informality to the games, let no one be under any illusion – competition is a serious matter.

Bruce Aitken, a world record holder in the formidable heavyweight discipline of Highland Light Hammer, is as committed to his sport as any other athlete.

“The heavyweight competitors are all well acquainted, but it’s very serious competition. This isn’t about just turning up in a kilt and throwing weights. There’s a season of training and preparation beforehand. When we do stand up to the mark, I assure you we’re out there to win” says Bruce.

Winning is strictly vetted by the Scottish Games Association. The modern bylaws run to 13 pages, and competitors would do well to acquaint themselves with them.

Transgression could put paid to any sporting endeavours elsewhere, as the SGA co-operates with worldwide sporting bodies and endorses the most modern of competitive policies. It’s no printing error that the rules on doping are reproduced in bold type.

Victoria, who would now be in her 185th year, would see many changes, but also many familiar sights, if she were to return to Royal Deeside on the first Saturday in September.

That Victorian invention of Highland dress is as much in evidence as ever – the tartan perhaps even more brilliant in colour and design. The competitors are bigger, stronger and faster, and their records undoubtedly greater.

In essence though, the competitions remain the same, and the purpose of the games remains the same – a day for the family and the games to indulge in each other’s company.

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