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Sketch Book of the North
In Kilt and Plaid


All dust has been swept from the causeways by the clear wind from the firth, as if in preparation for this great gala-day of the North. Unusual stir and movement fill the streets of the quiet Highland town, and the bright sunshine glitters everywhere on jewelled dirk and brooch and skeandhu. The clean pavements are ringing far and near with the quick, light step of the Highlander, and, from the number of tartans to be seen, it might almost be thought that the Fiery Cross was abroad, as in days of old, for the gathering of the clans.

Sad enough are the memories here of the last war summons of the chiefs. High-hearted, indeed, was the town on the morning when the clans marched forth under "Bonnie Prince Charlie" to do battle for the Stuart cause. But before an April day had passed the gates received again, flying from fatal Culloden, the remnants of the broken chivalry of the North, and the streets themselves shook under the thunder of the Lowland.

The wounds of the past, however, are healed, the feuds are forgotten, and the clouds of that bygone sorrow have been blown away by the winds of time. A lighter occasion now has brought gaiety to the town, and the heroes of the hour are decked with no ominous white cockade. Already in the distance the wild playing of the pipes can be heard, and at the sound the kilted clansmen hurry faster along the streets; for the business of the day is on the greensward, and the hill folk, gentle and simple, are gathering from far and near to witness the Highland Games.

A fair and appropriate scene is the tourney-ground, with the mountains looking down upon it, purple and silent—the Olympus of the North. The eager crowd gathers thick already, like bees, round the barricade. Little knots of friends there, from glens among the hills, discuss the chances of their village hero. Many a swarthy mountaineer is to be seen, of pure Celtic blood, clear eyed and cleaned limbed, from far off mountain clachan. Gamekeepers and ghillies there are, without number, in gala-day garb. And the townspeople themselves appear in crowds. On every side is to be heard the emotional Gaelic of the hills, beside the sweet English speech for which the town is famous, and only sometimes the broader accent of a Lowland tongue.

The lists have just been cleared, and the "chief-tain "of the day has gathered his henchmen around him. The games are, about to begin.

Yonder go the pipers, half a dozen of them, their ribbons and tartans streaming on the wind. Featly they step together to the quick tune of the shrill mountain march they are playing. Deftly they turn in a body at the boundary, and brightly the cairngorms of their broad silver shoulder brooches flash all at once in the sun. No wonder it is that the Highlander has the tread of a prince, accustomed as he is to the spring of the heather beneath his feet, and to music like that in the air. The Highland garb, too, can hardly fail to be picturesque when it is worn by stalwart fellows like these.

The programme of the games is very full, and several competitions are therefore carried on at the same time. Here a dozen fleet youths speed past on the half-mile racecourse. Some lithe ghillies yonder are doing hop, step, and leap to an astonishing distance. And, further off, five brawny fellows are preparing to "put" the heavy ball. Out of the tent close by come some sinewy men, well stripped for the encounter, to try a bout of wrestling. A pair at a time, they wind their strong arms about each other, and strain and heave to give their rival a fall. One man scowls, and another smiles as he picks himself up after his overthrow—a very fair index to the character of each. Most of them, however, display the greatest good-humour, and every one must obey the ruling of the umpire. Gradually the two stoutest and heaviest men overcome the rest; and at last, the only champions remaining, they stand up to engage each other. The grey-headed man has some joke to make as he hitches up his belt before closing, and the bystanders laugh heartily at his pleasantry; but his opponent evidently looks upon the contest too seriously for that. Hither and thither they stagger in "the grips," the back of each as rigid as a plank at an angle of forty-five degrees. Now they loosen hold for a breath, and again they grasp each other, till at last, by dint of sheer strength, the grey-headed wrestler draws the younger man to himself and, with a sudden toss, throws him clear upon the ground.

The slim youths at the pole-vaulting look like white swallows as they swing high into the air on their long staves to clear the bar; and a roar of applause from the far end of the lists, where the dogged "tug of war" has been going on, tells that one of the teams of heavy fellows straining at the rope has been hauled over the brink into the dividing ditch. The brawny giants who were throwing the axle a little while ago are just now breathing themselves, and will be tossing the mighty caber by and by. And ever and anon throughout the day there float upon the breeze the wild strains of the competing pipers—pibrochs and strathspeys and "hurricanes of Highland reels."

Meanwhile the grand pavilion has filled. Lord and lady, earl and marquis and duke are there. And beside these are others, heads of families, who count their chieftainship, it may be, through ten centuries, and who are to be called neither esquire nor lord, but just — of that Ilk. Chiefs by right of blood, they need no other title than their name.

The presence of so much that is noble and illustrious lends a feudal interest to the games, and imports to the rivalry something of that desire to appear well in the eyes of the chief which was once so powerful an influence in the Highlands. The young ghillie here who has outstripped all but one competitor at throwing the hammer feels the stimulus of this. He knows not only that his sweetheart’s eyes are bent eagerly upon him from the barrier at hand, but that he has a chance of distinguishing himself before his master and "her ladyship," who are watching from under the awning yonder. So he breathes on his hands, takes a firm grasp of the long ash handle, and, vigorously whirling the heavy iron ball round his head, sends it with all his strength across the lists. How far has it gone? They chalk the distance up on a board—95 1/2 feet. There is a clapping of hands from the crowd, and a waving of white handkerchiefs from the pavilion. He is sure of winning now, and the shy, pretty face at the barrier flushes with innocent pride. Is he not her hero?

There, on the low platform before the judges, go the dancers, two after two. They are trimly dressed for the performance, and wear the thin, low-heeled, Highland shoes, while the breasts of some of them are fairly panoplied in gold and silver medals won at former contests. Mostly young lads, it is wonderful how neatly they perform every step, turning featly with now one arm in the air and now the other. Cleverly they go through the famous sword dance over crossed claymores; and in the wild whirl of the Reel o’ Tulloch seem to reach the acme of the art.

But in the friendly rivalry of skill and strength the day wears on. The races in sacks and over obstacles, as well as the somewhat rough "bumping in the ring," have all been decided; the "best-dressed Highlander" has received his meed of applause; and the sun at last dips down behind the hills. Presently, as the mountain-sides beyond the river are growing grey, and their shadows gather upon the lists, the spectators melt by degrees from the barricades, and in a slow stream move back into the town. By and by the Assembly Rooms will be lit up, and carriages will begin to arrive with fair freights for the great Caledonian Ball. But, long before that, the upland roads will be covered with pedestrians and small mountain conveyances with family parties—simple folk, all pleased heartily with their long day’s enjoyment, and wending their way to far-off homes among the glens, where they will talk for another twelvemonths of the great feats done at the gathering here by Duncan or Fergus or Hamish.


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