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Highland Gatherings
Chapter II - Origin



The standard on the Braes of Mar
Is up and streaming rarely;
The gathering pipe on Lochnagar
Is sounding lang an' sairly.
The Highland men
Frae hill and glen
In martial hue,
Wi' bonnets blue,
Wi' belted plaids,
An' burnished blades,
Are coming late and early.

Wha wadna join our noble chief,
The Drummond and Glengarry,
Macgregor, Murray, Rollo, Keith,
Panmure and gallant Harry?
Macdonald's men,
Clan Ronald's men,
Mackenzie's men,
Macgillvray's men,
Strathallan's men,
The Lowlan' men,
Of Callander and Airlie.

Fy ! Donald, up an' let's awa',
We canna' longer parley,
When Jamie's back is at the wa',
The lad we love sae dearly.
We'll go, we'll go,
An' seek the foe,
An' fling the plaid,
An' swing the blade,
An' forward dash,
An' hack and slash,
And fleg the German Carlie."

THE origin of this famous gathering has been attributed to King Malcolm VI of Scotland. In 1040 he felt the want of messengers either to carry his commands far and near, Edinburgh being one destination, or possibly his idea was to establish a regular system of post runners.

Kindrochit Castle, close to where the standard was raised in 1715, was in more ancient times a hunting seat of Malcolm Canmore, son of the Duncan murdered by Macbeth. To ascertain which of his dependents were the most capable runners for this purpose, he assembled all his tenants and subjects (so says Grant) on the mound of the plain whereon the present castle is built. A splendid baldric and sword, besides a purse of gold, was to be given to the youth who should first reach the summit of Craig Choinnich, as seen from the rendezvous. Among the assembled competitors stood conspicuous the two eldest sons of M'Gregor of Ballochbuie. The runners were ranged. The King held the glass ready to be turned. Three lord judges waved the flag on the hill to signify they were ready. The King struck his shield; the trumpet sounded ; the tartans streamed and whistled in the wind; the ground trembled beneath their tramp; the eye seemed to carry them forward, not to follow them; they rose and fell again, bounding like the motion of the swift sea. Just as they reached the foot of the hill, another young man, perspiring profusely, scarlet with heat, and breathless with haste, broke into the circle where the King stood viewing the competitors.

"Oh! will you let me run," cried the youth, "will you let me run?"

"You are too late, my good fellow," observed the King.

"Oh no, no; let me run, let me run"; and unbuckling as he spoke, he had already thrown aside his sword, dirk, and skian, tightened the belt of his kilt, and now stood leaning forward on one foot, looking imploringly at the King, and casting every moment an unquiet glance at the racers, who were now toiling up the hillside.

"Go if you wish," said the King, "but you are too late."

The youth did not wait to answer.

"Who is he?" inquired Malcolm of his forester.

"The youngest of M`Gregor of Ballochbuie's sons. His two brothers are among those that compete."

The youth cleared the plain, fleet as a stag. The foremost were hanging on the face of the hill above him, diminished to children and seeming scarce to move. Young M`Gregor appeared to leap up like the vigorous goat, now climbing on all fours, now seizing the long heather with his hands, and drawing himself up, always up. He stopped no breathing space; he looked not behind ; he never missed a step or hold. He reached the last of the line of white that marked the progress of the runners through the long heather and scattered bushes.

"The springal will beat them all," exclaimed Malcolm; "look how he ascends!"

"More power to him," exclaimed our huge old friend Allan Durward, looking as if he meant it.

The race became more and more exciting. Some of the hindermost had indeed given up; but all those who were not despairingly far behind put forth thew and sinew, and pressed close after each other ready to take advantage of every accident. The two M'Gregors had indeed left the others considerably behind, but they both might fail; now was the critical moment. Young M`Gregor sprang forward with unabated energy, passing the others one after another. They were now hanging on the brow of that steep which stands as a wall to a kind of steppe sloping from the east westwards, and from behind which rises the last elevation seen from the Castle plain. The youth was now next to his brothers. They had scaled the steep, but as the last of them was disappearing behind it, his form rose erect on its edge, then bent forward and plunged in headlong pursuit after them. Now close up behind them he cried out: "Halves, brothers, and I'll stop."

"Gain what you can," replied the hero of the boarhunt, "and keep what you gain. I will do the same."

The second was too breathless to speak. The young lad never halted; even while he spoke he rushed onwards, and the first, who had taken a breathing space, saw him pass the second, and bound within a few paces of the place where he himself was. They were now engaged on the last steppe, and as they reappeared to the spectators, there were two abreast, both equally ardent, both exerting themselves to the utmost.

"Now, brother," said the youngest again, "halves and I will yield."

"No, never," returned he; "keep what you gain."

They felt their heads dizzy, their eyes dim and painful-the breath rolled quick through their nostrils like fire-their hearts beat louder than the sound of their footsteps - every muscle and sinew was tightened to breaking - the foam in their mouths seemed dried to sand-their bleeding lips, when closed, glued themselves together-the sweat pearled on their skin in cold drops-and their feet rose and fell mechanically more than otherwise. Now they come in sight of the goal-now the judges encourage them by their cheers - now they seem renewed again in vigour. The youngest put his whole soul forth; the oldest summoned up all the strength of his tougher frame. Terribly pressed, he was yet determined to gain, and stretched out his arm to impede the motion of his rival, but felt nothing. They had only four yards to go. He looked to his side, expecting to see him on the ground. At that moment the tartans grazed the skin of his knee. His brother had leaped forward below his outstretched arm. Furious he bounded on and fell, his hand clutching with iron grasp the kilt of his rival. He was yet two yards from the flag and his strength was exhausted. He could not drag the other's prostrate body one step, and now he saw the hindermost fast approaching, encouraged by this incident. Quick as thought, loosening the belt of his kilt he resigned it to the hero of the boar-hunt.

"I have yielded everything to you hitherto," quoth he, "and that I will also."

He reached the signal with three feeble springs, seized the staff and threw it into the air; then falling down, buried his face in the fresh heather and damp earth. A loud shout from the plain told that the spectators had seen someone gain. But the victor and his vanquished heard it not. They lay all three, within a few paces of each other, unable to move arm or limb, but they panted so strongly that their bodies seemed to rise of themselves from the ground. When they rose up, their faces were deadly pale, checkered with livid black lines and spots. The youngest had reached the top in three minutes. Thus the origin of the Braemar Games attaches itself to the days of Malcolm of the Big Head.

Before we leave the subject of the postal system, we note that one, Donald Brown, was the runner between Cupar Angus and Braemar, from 1780 to 1795, once a week, and paid by local landowners.

In 1795 a G.P.O. was established at Kincardine O'Neil, five miles from Aboyne. Duncan Cumming was the postman, three days a week, at Braemar, Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.

Donald Brown had a son called John, who was a quarryman, and a celebrated local personage. One year he got rather tipsy the day before the Gathering, but managed to turn up at the field at twelve midday, in his corduroy trousers, just as he had left work in the quarry.

This, of course, created comment amongst the spectators, and Mrs. Farquharson is reported to have inquired whether Lord Fife did not provide proper costume for the clansmen on his estate. Whatever the answer was, she provided him very soon afterwards with a pair of trousers of the proper Farquharson tartan!

On another occasion, at Glencallater, where he was engaged as a shepherd, he had also the vineleaves in his hair, and slept peacefully through the forenoon of the day in question.

His master came up about this time to see how he was, but John saw him coming and went out of the bothy door with his dog, and ran down to the loch adjacent to the place. After going up to his knees in the water with his dog, he returned and found his master in the house by the fire, inquiring how he got so wet. John replied, "Git oot o' the way-let me dree mesel! If you'd been oot amongst sheep, you'd be wet too."

Famous sports generally have small beginnings, and the great Gathering at Braemar, not only for the games, but also the social convivialities that keep together, should this indeed be necessary, the multi-tartaned clans of Highlanders from far and near, is no exception to the rule.

It was in July, 1800, that the Wrights' Walk, as it was called, originated, the names of Duncan Watson, Duncan Mackintosh, Malcolm McGregor, William Gruer, and Angus Macdonald being the very first recorded. To these, or perhaps more strictly, to three carpenters amongst them, with white aprons, is attributed the epigenesis of the meeting now patronized by Royalty and all the noblest aristocracy in bonnie Scotland and elsewhere.

This Society was duly incorporated and registered, and the funds allocated periodically towards the assistance of the dependents of poor members. These grants were, however, soon found to be on too liberal a scale, compared to the amount received from the contributors, and so it became necessary to curtail them to obviate disaster.

In 1819, the funds were invested in oatmeal, owing, it is said, to the famine resulting from the Waterloo Campaign.

Lord Fife became a patron, and the Society gave him a grand ball as an official celebration of the event. The total cost of this ball was 3s. 6d.! Some ball, I imagine. I wish these things were as cheap nowadays!

The national costume of kilts is soon after made compulsory, a room is engaged for the meetings under the presidency of the Earl of Fife, and a proper festival was held on 13th November. The funds seem to have been 66, and this was deposited with Mr. Peter Farquharson, to bear interest at 3 per cent., and a dinner is inaugurated at the Invercauld Arms Hotel, at is. 6d. per head, drinks optional, date 1824.

Revision of the rules occurred, the name "Royal Highland Society" being adopted.

In 1828, two girnels are bought, each to hold about a hundred bolls of meal. For those who, like myself some years ago, never heard of either a boll or a girnel, I hasten to say that a girnel is a huge chest, or square wooden box, made of pine or spruce. A boll is a measure of meal up to six bushels, or sometimes described as ten stones in weight. The price of a boll was not to exceed 16s.

Three hundred copies of the revised rules were printed for circulation. In 1831, one of the founders, Duncan Watson, died, and we notice that the list of vice-presidents included Lord Elcho, Sir David Kinloch, Sir Thomas (not Harry) Lauder, Sir William Cumming, Messrs. Farquharson Innes, Archibald Butter, Robert Sutton, and Henry Foljambe.

1832 sees the first games, the prize-money being 5, on the last Thursday in August. The Marquis of Caermarthen (later Duke of Leeds) became an honorary member and presented all his retainers with full Breadalbane tartan costumes. This good example was soon followed by Queen Victoria with Royal Stuart tartans, and other local chieftains according to their clans.

One interesting event in 1842 was a competition for the reading of the Gaelic language and its translation.

In 1847, the purchase of meal is stopped, owing to the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Queen Victoria being now interested, her late Majesty invited the Society to Balmoral on the 22nd September, 1859. A silver snuff-box is the first prize for tossing the caber, a shoulder belt was given, and a medal for the race up the fell.

1865, King Edward was present, and the word "Royal" was applied to the games. They had to be cancelled, of course, on numerous occasions, such as the death of the Prince Consort, the Earl and Countess of Fife, the Duke of Albany, and later still, in recent times, the Duke of Clarence.

In the years 1887 and 1890 Her Majesty again invited the clans to Balmoral. In 1891 Sir Algernon Borthwick has them at Cluny Park. The next three years they are at Mar Castle, and in I896 the meeting was held at the Victoria Hall, Auchindryne : in I897 the Diamond jubilee put off the festival, but in 1898 and 1899 it took place again at Balmoral, enhanced by more prizes and the great hospitality of Queen Victoria, luncheon and dinner being provided for all the Fife, Invercauld, Lonach, and the Queen's own Balmoral Highlanders.

The South African War and the lamented death of Her Majesty in 1901 made still more cancellations, and His Majesty King Edward VII became a patron.

In 1902 a return is made to Cluny Park, a truly beautiful spot and close to the River Dee. The last event to be recorded before coming to the actual sports is the gift by the Duke of Fife in 1906, of twelve acres of ground, on which over 1,000 was spent in that year in improvement for the purpose of the games. A charge for admission was then started, and with permission from the Duchess of Fife, the ground was christened "The Princess Royal Park."

The foregoing account has been offered in some brevity, as my friend, Mr. G. B. Lowe, in "The Book of the Braemar Gathering" gives us annually all the information that can be desired, and we cordially recommend everyone to have a copy of this invaluable souvenir, in which, year by year, new features are introduced, and articles contributed by litterateurs of world-wide reputation, eminently qualified to handle the subjects upon which they write. Copiously illustrated, this booklet makes a most acceptable present for those of whom force of circumstances deprives the opportunity of being personally present on the occasion, a volume of incalculable value in clubs and hospitals, and one of the strongest links forged in that great Caledonian chain that binds the clansmen on their native heath to their countless compatriots across the cosmic continents. Just as the tune of John Peel is their anthem to hunting men and women in the whole universe, so the name Braemar is never absent from the thoughts of the Scottish sportsman and athlete all the world over. Long may it remain thus.


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