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Highland Gatherings
Chapter III - Feats


LET us now pass to the hefty feats of these brawny Highlanders.

It gives us some idea how this meeting grew, if we recollect that in 1832 the events were five in number, and the prize-money 5. In 1923 they had fifty-six events and 185. Comparing this with English Sports such as, for instance, Grasmere, of which a comprehensive history exists, written by one of the collaborators of this volume, we find their prize-money is 250, but there are only about twelve events.

The competitors at Braemar go in for putting the stone, of 28 lb. (without any hop), throwing the hammer of 14, 16, or 22 lb., formerly with a 3 feet handle, later increased to 4 feet 2 inches, tossing the caber, by some considered the most characteristic and picturesque contest of them all, flat races, varying in distance from 700 to 2,000 yards, bagpipe music (introduced in 1853), sword-dancing and others of various sorts, wrestling, a fell race, length of service competition, the reading and translating of Gaelic, high leaping, long leap, sack race, hurdle 'race, and vaulting, which started in 1895.

Taking the events seriatim, the distance the stone has been put varies from 25 feet in 1838 by J. McHardy, to 32 feet 11 inches by A. A. Cameron, in 1902. The world's record is 51 feet for the 16 lb.

Prizes are given in the caber events more for general style than distance, which is not recorded. The athlete has to turn the huge plaything completely over before he qualifies, in such a way that the small end by which he held it to start is farthest from him at the finish. We treat with the possible origin of this pastime elsewhere.

Throwing the hammer of 14 lb. shows us Peter McHardy in 1838 with 87 feet and John Cutts in 1840 with 89 feet 2 inches to their credit. With 16 lb. short handle, Geo. Davidson, 1881, 99 feet 4 inches; with long handle, A. A. Cameron, 1902, 117 feet 1o inches. The world's record is 189 feet 6 inches.

The fell race was from Braemar Castle Park to the top of Craig Choinnich, for the medal, distance in 1842, 1,384 yards, time four minutes, by James Cutts. This race, as tending to shorten life or at any rate seriously affect the constitution of the competitors, was stopped by Queen Victoria.

Perhaps the most noted all-round athlete was Donald Dinnie, of whom a fuller account appears in another portion of this work. He put the 28 lb, stone 31 feet in 1867; threw the 16 lb. hammer 92 feet 4 inches in 1865; the 22 lb. hammer 84 feet g inches; leapt 5 feet 41 inches in the high jump, and 17 feet 11 inches in the broad jump, besides being a flat and hurdle race winner on numerous occasions.

Alexander Robertson, of Glenisla, was also an all-round man; his 16 lb. hammer went go feet 7 inches; he was second at the hurdles and first in the half-mile.

Up to 1906, an extra interest was added to the hurdle race, because it finished through the River Dee!

Duncan Calder was the first to win the piping, in 1853, the usual items being a march, strathspey, and reel.

For the dancing, we find the Highland Fling, Reel of Tulloch, and Seaun Truibhas.

A well-known Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, whom I had the pleasure to meet at Braemar, tells me that Highland dancing is a principal, if not the chief feature of this historic gathering, and this indeed is apparent from a glance at the programme. Out of thirty events, no less than fourteen are dancing in some one or other of its forms. We find competitions for solos as well as in groups young and old. "But," asks my friend, "is anyone really old when dancing in the Highlands is concerned?" Go to the Games and just look at those standing about the platform. Whom do you see? A fine hale and hearty Highlander, like James Michie, one of the judges for the modern Highland steps. Who, to look at him, with his erect carriage, clear complexion and eye, would think that he was over seventy-six years of age? Go later in the day to the local ball. Who are there taking their places in the centre of the floor, when the pipes strike up with the tullochgorm, but the Lamonts, the Mackintoshes, the McHardys, and such like, with the children of some of them (all keen little dancers themselves, remember) looking on or forming up in groups by themselves and dancing alongside? Then ask yourself: Is dancing the perquisite of youth? and you will be convinced that, while it may be so in some parts of the country farther south, it is not so here at all events. And for a very good reason, too, for when in Aberdeenshire one is in the very home of dancing in the British Isles, whether it be modern or Highland. Why is it? It was one of the Skinner family, the well-known dancing teachers in Aberdeen, who asked this question a hundred years ago. Why should fashionable people from London come to Aberdeen to learn their steps? He shrewdly surmised that it must have paid them to incur all this expense to do so. So we gather from the records in Badminton.

When the Royal Society was formed (our authority is the Minutes) dancing was at an early date made a feature and good prizes offered.

At the frequent local balls, held not only practically in every parish during the winter, but also during the summer months, the modern dances naturally enough take place. The waltz has always held its own, and it is real waltzing when done in competitions, though as done in the south, the foxtrot influence tells against it.

But surely no ball is complete without its good old traditional "Grand March." Those who saw it in 1926 as a prelude to general dancing at the Society's Ball in the Auchindryne Hall, will not forget its stateliness and quietness (but for the skirl of the pipes hailing from the lands of Balmoral and Mar) of the movements of the dancers round the room with the pipers marching before. Then came the reels, the tullochgorms, strathspeys and Highland reels, followed by a few foxtrots (how can you exclude this?), then back again to something Highland, e.g., the "Schottische." One saw in it, the stately figure of Mr. Cumming, a Braemar veteran, who must be over eighty now, moving through the maze of dances as if to the manner born. No excitement or distress-for one must never forget that the Highlander always dances with a dignified reserve, well within his stride, so to speak.

He does not lift his arms and hands higher than his head, or shout or clap his hands except at the appointed times. Through ignorance of the rules in this respect, so much of what looks like Highland reels is spoilt by southerners making it as if it were a wild mad romp. The Highlander does not do it thus, and he does not like seeing it done so by others at a ball. Old country dances like "The Flowers of Edinburgh," "Strip the willow," and "Petronella" long held place in these gatherings and are coming back to their own again.

Naturally these native dances supply the talent shown in the flings and reels on the platform in the centre of the ring, before the King and Queen at the great annual festival of the games. Of late years, however, there has been, we think, a tendency to exploit the occasion by the influx of professional dancers from the southern towns. This is a pity, but perhaps it will correct itself in a few years, because there are evidences of a young generation of Highland dancers in the parishes of Crathie and Braemar growing up, who are quite as keen as their progenitors in acquiring the steps, and the Society is evidently confining its events more to local talent, and the encouragement of teaching of dancing which they are now giving to these young aspirants promises well for the future.

Highland dancing on the platform, as an exhibition, is best performed by fully grown men, and as explained above, they certainly keep it up to a considerable age, to their own evident enjoyment and the benefit of their health. Boys and girls shine best in the ballroom (unless under fourteen).

Where can you see smarter or more really effective Highland dancing than in the quiet, restrained style of the Aberdeenshire girls at their ordinary local dances? Having been trained almost from infancy by their parents in the foundation steps, they take to it naturally when they grow up, while their young men partners throw themselves with zest into the flings and steps, so as to accompany them in the small, almost invisible steps they take with very little body movement.

But when all is said and done, they invariably leave you with the gratifying impression that, quiet and restrained as they may appear, they are, one and all, " dancing " in the highest sense of the word, and long may they so continue.

"Revenons nos moutons," as Sir Walter would say.

It would occupy too much space to enumerate all the distinguished men who have competed at Braemar : we must always, however, remember "C. D." and his father, W. McCombie Smith, a great athlete and writer; Alexander Mackintosh, of whom a fuller account will be found elsewhere in this volume, with his portrait and some of the prizes he won (his best feat was tossing the caber, and he won prizes for fifty years); James Michie for fifteen years; and Peter Cameron of Lumphanan, who jumped 5 feet 7 inches in his kilt, and did a broad jump of 19 feet 6 inches.

The Duke of Fife's butler, John Gruer, Inverey, threw the 16 lb, hammer 87 feet 8 inches, and was also a well-known competitor at Stamford Bridge.

George Davidson, Drumoak, and Kenneth Macrae, Nairn, were famous in the heavy competitions. Mr. A. G. Cumming also stands out, having been a contestant or a judge at this gathering for the years since 1880. He kept on winning prizes year after year for the stone, hammer, caber, etc.

At Balmoral in 1890 appeared D. A. M. Ross of Philadelphia, who put the shot of 28 lb. 30 feet 9 inches.

Vaulting was introduced in 1895, the best feat being that of John Mackenzie, of Glasgow, who did 11 feet 2 inches in 1906. He also threw the 16 lb. hammer 86 feet; 28 lb. stone, 28 feet 2 inches; his long leap was 19 feet 9 inches, and he won prizes for running, dancing and wrestling.

Such splendid accounts appear in the Press every year after these games that we hesitate to offer anything in conclusion on the last time the Gathering was held. But so great was the concourse and the general tone of the proceedings that the occasion calls for comment.

The weather was everything that could possibly be desired: small wonder, then, that upwards of twenty thousand spectators assembled at Princess Royal Park for the centenary so universally appreciated.

The various clansmen first of all assembled behind the Invercauld Arms Hotel, close to the historic spot where the standard was raised in 1715 and every soul was stirred to its depths by the bright equipment and martial bearing of the descendants of those mighty men of valour who met there in the days of King George I.

At noon the procession started for the Park. First came the Balmoral Highlanders with their Lochaber axes, in command of Major D. W. A. Mackenzie, D.S.O., M.C. The pipers, under Pipe-Major Forsyth, the King's piper, played the "Cock of the North," and afterwards "Highland Rorie." The standard-bearer was Mr. James Abercrombie, head keeper and stalker. The badge was of thistle and royal oak, and the tartan the Royal Stuart.

Next came the Duffs, with Mr. William Mackintosh at their head, carrying pikes, to the strains of "The 79th's Farewell to Gibraltar." The standardbearer was Mr. Charles Grant, and the badge of holly.

Then followed the Invercauld men in Farquharson tartan, under Colonel Gregor, and the standards borne by Messrs. Duncan Dewar and Alexander Mackintosh. With claymores held aloft, their badge was of fir, and the music that of "The Invercauld March."

During all this, no time is being lost in the athletic part of the meeting, and the various events continue amongst the competitors with the greatest possible punctuality as the items are tabulated to occur.

A novelty this year was the inclusion in the parade of the Australian Ladies' pipe band by special command, and well indeed did they deserve the cheers that greeted their appearance, so many thousands of miles away from their homes.

Attention is naturally about this time focussed upon the arrival of Royalty, and all eyes turn with loyal expectation to the tasteful pavilion that will presently welcome its distinguished occupants. The Royal Arms, heather chains, rowan berries and evergreens, festooning the erection under fluttering flags, all combine to beautify the scene and deck the arena in a manner fitting for the Monarch it will soon contain.

Even now, as we wait, there is a stir at the entrance, and though not the Royal Party, a pleasant diversion was caused by the arrival of a carriage containing Mrs. Farquharson and her daughter, Mrs. Robin d'Erlanger. Premature cheers gave way to amusement when it was seen that a mistake had been made.

All the notable personalities arrive before three o'clock, and everyone is waiting for His Majesty the King. Meanwhile arrives the party from Mar Lodge, including Prince and Princess Arthur of Connaught, Lord and Lady Maud Carnegie, the Countess of Londesborough, and Major Alexander.

And now appeared the two scarlet-coated outriders who precede the Royal carriage, drawn by four perfectly magnificent grey horses. Tremendous cheers from every one of probably twenty thousand throats and the sounding of hundreds of motor-horns, provided such a demonstration of faithful loyalty as can only be accorded to a sovereign of the personal prestige and popularity of our noble King, George V.
The Marquis of Aberdeen, Lord-Lieutenant of the County, Colonel Farquharson, and Captain Mackintosh receive the Royal party, who walk up the gentle green slope to the pavilion, and there witness the feats of the brawny athletes and listen to the pipers in the midst. In attendance on their Majesties were Lord Claud Hamilton, Lady Bertha Dawkins, Sir John Gilmour, General Sir William Peyton, and Miss Agnes Keyser, for so many years closely associated with the intimate inner life of the Royal Household. It was noted with great regret that Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal was unable to be present, but as the foreword to this volume comes from her ever kindly and gracious hand, we are assured that her interest in the Gathering continues as heretofore.

His Majesty then took the salute of the Highlanders as they marched past, and the galvanizing spectacle this ceremony provides will never be forgotten by the thousands of His Majesty's subjects who were fortunate enough to witness it.

Presentations follow through the afternoon, and include the Marquis and Marchioness of Huntly, the Baroness Bentinck, Lady Burnett of Leys, Mr. C. M. Barclay-Harvey, M.P., and his wife, Mr. John Gauld, Chief Constable of Aberdeenshire, and Mr. Seton-Gordon, the well-known naturalist, author, and judge of piping, with whom His Majesty had a long conversation. It is said Mr. Seton-Gordon accomplished a walk of forty miles on this occasion, coming as he did with Captain WolrigeGordon, from Kyle of Lochalsh, by way of the Cairngorms, and over Ben Macdhui, to the Games and back again.

With Captain William Mackintosh His Majesty had also a long conversation, who on this occasion appeared for the last time at the head of the Duff Highlanders, owing to his imminent retirement from the office of Commissioner to the Fife estates. He had marched past three sovereigns, and bade farewell to his clansmen at the close of the day's proceedings. In his concluding remarks he assured them that the Princess Royal every year complimented them on their splendid turn-out at the Gathering.

The heat of the day gave a good deal of work to the detachment of local nurses and Boy Scouts, and numerous cases of injuries to the eyes were dealt with, caused by the emission of petrol vapour from motors. Ladies fainting from the heat were promptly restored.

Appended is the list of prize-winners :

BRAEMAR GAMES WINNERS, 1926

Bagpipe Music. - Piobaireachd - 1, Pipe-Major Ross; 2, P.M. Reid; 3, P.M. M'Lellan; 4, P.M. W. M'Donald.

Heavy Stone (Society) - 1, D. K. Michie, 25 feet 2 inches; 2, J. Davidson, 24 feet 6 inches; 3, Ian Grant; 4, F. Grassick; Strathspeys and Reels (open) - 1, P.M. M'Lennan; 2, P.M. Ross; 3, P.M. M'Donald; 4, P.M. Reid. Throwing 16 lb. Hammer (Society) - 1, J. Davidson, 100 feet 11 inches; 2, J. Kennedy, 99 feet 4 inches; 3, J. Gilbert; 4, Ian Grant. HalfMile Race (open) - 1, B. Smith; 2, R. Bennet; 3, J. Drummond; 4, J. Edward. Tossing Caber (Society) - 1, F. Grassick; 2, D. K. Michie and Ian Grant (equal); 3, J. Davidson.

Putting 16 lb. Ball (open) - 1, R. Starkey, 40 feet 9 inches; 2, M. Michie, 39 feet 8 inches; 3, J. Graham; 4, J. Maitland. Throwing 16 lb. Hammer (open) - 1, J. Maitland, 112 feet 10 inches; 2, R. Starkey, 105 feet 10 inches; 3, G. Clark, 104 feet 1 inch; 4, W. W. Ferguson, 101 feet 2 inches. Sword Dance - 1, S. Black; 2, J. J. M'Kenzie; 3, J. Beattie; 4, R. Cowan. Putting Stone (28 lb.) - 1, R. Starkey, 28 feet; 2, J. Graham, 27 feet 5 inches; 3, J. Nicholson, 27 feet 1 inch; 4, M. Michie, 26 feet 91 inches. High Leap - 1, J. Edwards, 5 feet 6 inches; 2, W. Lenie, 5 feet 5 inches; 3, G. Aitken; 4, J. Gilbert. Highland Reel (open) - 1, R. Cuthbertson; 2, S. Black; 3, J. L. M'Kenzie; 4, C. J. Milligan. 200 yards Race - 1, J. Edwards, 22 seconds; 2, G. Taylor; 3, R. Bennet; 4, J. Drummond. Throwing 28 lb. Weight - 1, J. Maitland, 62 feet 8 inches; 2, R. Starkey, 61 feet 9 1/2 inches; 3, W. W. Ferguson; 4, J. Graham, 55 feet 6 inches. Vaulting with Pole-r, J. Cameron and A. Sinclair (equal), 10 feet 3 inches; 3, D. Tulloch and A. Lawson (equal), 10 feet 1 inch.

Dancing Highland Fling - 1, R. Cuthbertson; 2, J. L. M'Kenzie; 3, S. Black; 4, J. A. Gordon. Tossing Caber - 1, J. Nicholson; 2, R. Starkey; 3, Maitland and Mitchie (equal). Bagpipe Music-Marches - 1, P.M. Reid; 2, P.M. M'Lennan; 3, P.M. Ross; 4, P.M. M'Donald. Throwing the Hammer (22 lb.) - 1, J. Maitland, 90 feet 6 inches; 2, R. Starkey, 83 feet 7 inches; 3, G. Clark, 83 feet 4 inches; 4, W. W. Ferguson. Hop, Step, and Leap - 1, J. Edwards, 41 feet 2 inches; 2, W. Lenie, 41 feet; 3, Hector; 4, Cruickshank. Dancing, Hulachan - 1, Cutlibertson; 2, S. Black; 3, J. L. M'Kenzie; 4, J. Beattie. QuarterMile Race (local and society) - 1, W. Gray; 2, W. Croll; 3, R. Milne; 4, J. Gilbert. Throwing 56lb. Weight 1, J. Maitland, 32 feet 1 inch; 2, W. Ferguson, 31 feet 3 inches; 3, R. Starkey; 4, J. Nicholson. Two Miles Race - 1, B. Smith; 2, R. Bennet; 3, F. Tate; 4, Hector. Dancing, Seann Trubhais - 1, J. L. M'Kenzie; 2, Cuthbertson; 3, S. Black; 4, Cowan.

Wrestling (Cumberland style) - 1, J. Nicholson; 2, R. Starkey; 3, G. Clark; 4, Ian Grant. Clansmen's Race (over 55 years) - 1, J. Duncan; 2, G. Beddie; 3, D. Grant; 4, C. M'Intosh. Best Dressed Highlander - 1, W. Collie; 2, W. Duncan. Oldest Clansman on Parade - Arthur Grant, 76 years. Length of Service - John Lamond, 40 years.

- Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 10th Sept., 1926.

NOTE re LOCHABER AXES

It is on record that the Town Guard of Edinburgh were, until a late period, armed with this weapon when on police-duty. There was a hook at the back of the axe, which the ancient Highlanders used to assist them to climb over walls, fixing the hook upon them and raising themselves by the handle. The axe, which was also much used by the natives of Ireland, is supposed to have been introduced into both countries from Scandinavia.


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