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Highland Gatherings
Chapter VIII - Donald Dinnie



THE marvellous collection of medals depicted opposite this page are surely unique in the history of Scottish athletes. The actual prizes won by Donald numbered over ten thousand, so we are glad to give a few words about his victorious career. Born on the 8th July, 1837, at Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, he soon exhibited great physical strength. His father being a mason and contractor, Donald became apprenticed to this work, until after qualification, he carried on similar business by himself. His father came from Birse in the same county, and was eighty-three when he died in 1891. Donald was the eldest of six sons, and had four sisters. All the sons followed their father's occupation, except one, called Walter, who after being a bank clerk, became a clerk, and later a detective at Scotland Yard, rising eventually to the rank of inspector.

In 1869 Donald had an hotel for three years at Kincardine O'Niel, before keeping the Royal Ury Hotel at Stonehaven. Here he made money with a posting business and funeral undertaking, and subsequently bought the Kintore Arms Hotel at Auchinblae, setting up a larger establishment than was justified by the resulting business. Either the neighbours did not die in sufficient numbers, or preferred to dispense with hearse and horses when their time came. Anyhow, he was not successful, and went farther afield. He is reported to have negotiated for the purchase of a nice hotel in Dundee, and only to have given up the idea when he found it was impossible to swing a hammer in the back yard. Donald denied this story himself, saying his reason for not taking it was its only having a public-house and not a full hotel licence. In 1870 he was invited by the Caledonian Clubs in America to go over to the States, and he defeated the best athletes there and in Canada. In 1872 he paid the States another visit, this time with James Fleming of Ballingling. He remained in Scotland ten years after that, until his next visit abroad, which included Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Natal, and Cape Colony. He went into the hotel and posting business in the Colonies, and also had several prize-winning trotters. His last house was a restaurant at Auckland. His return to Scotland was the cause of great personal disappointment. The result of his appearance in many of the scenes of his former triumph was such as barely covered his expenses. For twelve months he kept dining-rooms in Crookston Street, and later on in Old Govan Road, Glasgow, within pistol shot of where, twenty-five years previously, he had won more money in one day than he then took for a whole week. Fish and chips next-but let us turn from this (although in pantomime and elsewhere the reference frequently causes a smile), to the brighter side of his history.

With a height 6 feet, chest 48 inches, and thigh of 26 inches, he had a calf of 17 inches. In proper training his weight was 15 stone. His swarthy complexion and piercing eyes were characteristic of his nature, and all his life he stuck to the kilt.

It was perhaps the irony of Fortune, if such a thing exists, that Dinnie's universal popularity and prowess as an athlete should be overshadowed by sceptical jealousy and allegations of mendacity regarding his records. In his absence abroad, the later generation could not, or did not, wish to believe that he had done things so supremely superior to his contemporaries. He could toss a huge caber, at which they failed completely, unless a piece was sawn off it. They did not like that, it made them "pygmies under a giant," as it was described by the Aberdeen Herald in 1878, when reporting the Speyside.

Luckily, "coming down to brass tacks," so to speak, we have the Aboyne Records from 1867 to 1890. Hammers, stones, and ground, all remains unchanged. Eight years he competed there, so let us see his doings, and we have genuine facts and figures. With the 24 lb. hammer he won seven firsts and one second, throwing it 81 feet 6 inches, with the old handles. Since 1890, J. H. Johnston, with new handles, threw 84 feet 3 inches. With light hammer of 16 lb. he won every time at Aboyne, throwing 107 feet 10 inches. Soon after, J. H. Johnston threw 113 feet 2 inches. Next with heavy stone of 22 lb. at Aboyne, Donald had six firsts, one second, and one third, his maximum distance being 37 feet. With light stone of 16 lb. Donald had seven firsts and one second, with 46 feet 9 inches maximum.

It was, however, in tossing the caber that Donald shone chiefly. He won it eight times, while M'Rae and Davidson only scored four and three times respectively.

At Braemar Dinnie's winning putt, with the 28 lb. stone, was 31 feet 7 inches in 1867; his other performances were 92 feet 4 inches with the 16 lb. hammer, 84 feet 9 inches with the 22 lb., high leap 5 feet 4 inches, and long leap 17 feet 11 inches. It is recorded by Mr. A. G. Cumming that he threw the 16 lb. hammer 94 feet 4 inches at Braemar in 1865, in which year Wm. Cattenach beat Dinnie by 2 inches with the 28 lb. stone.

In 1871 he threw the 16 lb. hammer 138 feet 8 inches at Coupar-Angus.

I cannot refrain from quoting the late Mr. Charles Donaldson's anecdote of Mar Lodge, on the occasion when His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (later His Majesty King Edward) was present. The games were almost over when the Royalties arrived, but the Committee simply had to prolong them. They besought Donald to go out and show his prowess with hammer and caber. "Ay," said Donald, " I'll gang oot, but I want twa pound." "But it's for the Prince of Wales, Donald," they said. "Ye ken it's an honour tae throw before the Prince." "I dinna gie a d--- ," said Donald. "I pay me taxes, and I'll tak no less." Eventually the other competitors took the field without him, and like the Sergeant-Major, "carried on," until the caber event was reached. On seeing the failure of all the others, Donald rushed into the arena, and gave a tremendous toss. He denied he wanted the 2 otherwise than as a prize open to all the competitors, but the story stands for what it is worth.

Napoli, the Italian Hercules, once visited the show grounds at West End, Aberdeen, when Dinnie chanced to appear. With practice, he soon lifted a bar bell of 250 lb. with both hands, above his head, and also 168 lb. in his right hand. Not many Scotsmen try this.

Turning to wrestling, we note that in 1882 at Plainfield, New Jersey, he won the mixed styles championship of America, and a massive gold medal given by Mr. R. K. Fox of The Police Gazette.

On another occasion William Muldoon, the champion Graeco-Roman wrestler of those days, agreed to have a match with Donald for 50 a side and half " gate." In this match Donald undertook to throw Muldoon twice for once, the former in the Cumberland and Westmorland style, and the latter in the Graeco-Roman. Muldoon regularly applied the strangling hold, and thus won his portion, because Donald could not avoid it, nor did he know he could break fingers, thumbs, or wrists, and so lost.

Muldoon thus had five falls in his favour, and Donald began on his task of gaining ten in his own style.

It was unfortunate that the gong for "time" sounded just as Dinnie won the ninth fall, so he was defeated by one fall.

At San Francisco Dinnie lost to Farrel in the wrestling and McMillan in the putting, but won the hammer-throwing, and in fact, all the heavy events. His winnings totalled 350, as well as half the " gate " in another match with Muldoon the same night.

In a wrestling match in Australia he met Professor Millar and made quite sure of his victory this time, his opponent sustaining a broken leg. This was the consequence of the referee giving a "draw" in his weight-lifting match with Billy Hudson in New Zealand.

At the height of his career, Donald proved a great attraction to thousands of folks in the country districts. One old woman once tramped from up Deeside to Braemar just to get a glimpse of him. After much jostling and pushing she eventually got within sight of him, and inquired which competitor he was.

"That's him with the tanned skin," said someone (regardless of grammar).

"Ay, ay," said she, "he's a braw chiel. Aweel, I'll awa' hame again; I'll dee happy noo, noo I've seen Donal' Dinnie."

'This occurred years ago, but Donald kept up his proud and independent character long after he left the ring, preserving a pugnacity similar to that of an old chief, who, on being asked on his deathbed to forgive his enemies, replied he had none, because he had killed them all. Such indeed was Dinnie. Undiplomatic, unlucky, uncompromising, unbending, yet he was as true as steel, and honest and straightforward to a fault.

It is pleasant to be able to find his cheery son still in Scotland, as the writer can testify from personal experience. One sunny Sunday, Mr. Smith, whose guest I was at the comfortable White Hart Hotel at Arbroath for several days, most kindly motored me over to the Commercial Hotel at Brechin in Forfarshire, where we found Edwin G. Dinnie in the best of health and spirits. Though very busy, he entertained us in his sanctum, and to his kindness and courtesy is due the insertion of two of our illustrations, namely, those of some of his father's medals and the ancient group taken at the Aboyne Gathering on pages 183 and 173.

As tossing the caber was the chief event for which Dinnie was celebrated, it may be of interest to trace the origin of this feat. Some hold that it originated during the felling of timber, and that when burns or rivers had to be crossed, the workmen threw them across to the opposite bank. It could hardly be said that bridge-building gave it its origin. We must remember that a caber does not always fall in the required direction, so this theory does not find universal acceptance.

A facetious friend of mine (a prominent judge at the Northern Gathering) ventures the idea that frequently these Highlanders had fractious wives to control at home, and practised throwing trees about to keep their muscles in good form for the enforcement of love, honour, or obedience that might be required in the domestic circle. Prayer Book revision was not then under ecclesiastical consideration, but wives probably never intended obedience then more than they do nowadays.

In a delightful volume published some years ago anonymously under the title of "Pages from a Private Diary," one of the entries relates to the author visiting Highland Games in the company of a learned professor, who waxed very eloquent over tossing the caber. He had no doubt that the sport, like the word, was originally Norman, and had come to Scotland with other essentials of civilization, such as "napery" and "carafes," in the days when French and Scotch were brothers in arms. The diarist doubted this. He quotes the description from the "Voces Populi" of Mr. Anstey, a gentleman whose pen was as accurate as it was facile. The caber-a rough fir-trunk 21 feet long-is tossed, that is, lifted by six men, set on end, and placed in the hands of the athlete, who, after looking at it doubtfully for a time, poises it, raises it a foot or two, and runs several yards with it, after which he jerks it forward by a mighty effort so as to pitch on the thicker end, and fall over in the direction farthest from him. We Southerners, he adds, very much resented the introduction of hornpipes into the dancing competitions. But on reflection, he did not see why Highlanders should not be sailors as well as soldiers.

There are those, too, who think that the bagpipes were introduced from France, being the original "cornemuse."

When we realize that the clansmen were mainly addicted in bygone days to cattle-lifting and sheep-tending, we can understand them having plenty of time to spare for recreation. They would naturally turn to such sport or exercise for which the implements lay most conveniently to their hands. Thus they would hurl great stones and trees about, and so in course of time came into existence putting the weight and tossing the caber. It seems fairly certain that throwing the hammer originated from men meeting at a blacksmith's shop to have their horses shod. As they waited time would hang heavy, but some energetic youth would seize the blacksmith's hammer and throw it some way, for his companions to follow suite, and thus start a diversion, which has never since been discontinued. Long may it remain, as its spectacular interest is enormous.

Before I leave Donald and his exploits I must include an ancient anecdote regarding the "putting of the stone."

On the eve of Culloden the combatants indulged in various athletic pastimes, and one particular Lowlander challenged all the others at this feat of strength. It was not long before the Highland officers discovered the intention of their men, and got the wind up properly, especially as the slaying of the Lowlander would naturally cause his colleagues to desert in a body. Search was therefore made throughout the camp for the most powerful Celt that could be found.

By good luck it chanced that M'Grigor of Inverigny had in his company a man called Malcolm Durward of Mullach. He, however, had a boil on his thigh, and was lying in his plaid on the heather, as ferocious as a wild bull; with much trouble they persuaded him to go with them.

The most prominent gentlemen of the army had by now gathered at the scene of the contest, for general uneasiness had been caused by the untoward affair. The arrival of Durward, therefore, with the stone, caused breathless excitement in the rapidly increasing circle of spectators.

"Keep back," cried Lewis Gordon, "and let our champion of Mar have free room."

The stone went hurtling through the air, and cut the turf a yard beyond the mark of the Lowlander's best throw.

"Mar for ever," shouted Lewis Gordon, while loud applause rent the air. This feat caused Malcolm to burst the boil on his thigh, but after treatment he was himself again by next day.

Next day! ah, what a day of woe and terror! Since that fateful 16th of April, 1746, no more will the banner of the Stuarts spread its ample folds to the breeze amongst the mountains of Caledonia.


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