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Sports and Pastimes of Scotland
Chapter X. The Highland Games


See Sport, with Exercise and Health cornbin'd,
In happy union.

Mrs. Grant's "Highlanders."

HIGHLAND GAMES! What son of the "Land of brown heath and shaggy wood," on hearing these words, will not feel the perfervidiem Scotorum ingenium stir within his breast, and exclaim :-

"Up wi the bonnie blue bonnet,
The kilt, and feather, and a'?"

In dealing with the Highland Games, we shall begin with Camanachd, or Shinny, which is the same as what the Lowlanders call Shinty', and the English Club-ball; but it is not so often played among grown-up Highlanders as it was formerly, being now left much to the youth. About Christmas-tide it was wont to be in high popularity, —the contest generally, lying between the men of adjacent parishes; and pipers were always present, who "skirled" all the time, with might and main, to inspirit the competitors. The prize was a keg of genuine mountain-dew, which, when won, was broached and drunk out on the field by both sides. In some parts of the highlands the ball is formed of wood, and in others of hard-twisted hair. Camac has been honoured in song; and dignified in the heroic verse of The Grampians Desolate:

The appointed day is come—th' eventful day,
When on the snowy field, in firm array,
Glen meeting glen—(yet not with tempered blades,
But sapling-oaks cut from the neighbouring glades),
Engage with ardour keen—in jovial guise,—
A cask of whisky strong, the victor's prize
'Tis noon, but half the narrow plain is bright,
The sun just tips the southern hills with light
The mountains gleam that shade the vale below,
Calm and reflective with encrusted snow.
Now Derniid, dexterous in manly art,
And Douglas of the dale, with dauntless heart,
Lead to the contest fierce their marshalled ranks;
To wield their weapons—namely, shiny-shanks.

Now front to front the armies in array,
Await the signal to begin the fray:
Hark!—'tis the signal —an ear-piercing smack,
Which bending echo peals as briskly back
The well-struck ball whirls whizzing thro' the air,
While each keen combatant, with eager glare,
Is on th' alert to hit it ere it fall,
And to th' destined goal urge home the ball
Sheer in the centre of the hostile train,
The orb now rolls along the glittering plain
How brisk the onset —fearless man meets man
In kindling ire, of old as clan met clan,
Aims at the globe, as swells the bickering din,
Yet hits it not—but hits his neighbour's shin
Club rings on sapling-oak,—or shin, or thigh,
As in the Contest champions keenly vie.

And still they urge the dubious on) along,
Till Sol declines the Atlantic waves among;
When, with a powerful arm and sapling oak,
Lo, Douglas to the gal, with giant stroke,
Home sends the ball!—high peals the joyous "Hail!"
While Dermid and his heroes gnaw the nail!
Thus ends the contest—but not so the play,
Our jovial frolicks close not with the day.
Behold the victor, with joy-beaming eyes,
Triumphant marches with the well-won prize,
And in the ball aloft 'tis placed with care,
That all anon may drink a liberal share.

An aptitude for athletics seems inherent in the Highlander. His forefathers were "mighty hunters;" but, in strange contrast, they disliked fish and fishing —a dislike attributable perhaps to the fact that fish had some place in the Celtic mythology. Their pastimes were feats of strength and agility, most of which have descended to the present day. Putting the stone, throwing the hammer, and tossing the caber, are amongst the oldest of the Highland games. Tossing the caber is a difficult feat in which few excel. The caber is the branchless trunk of a young tree, which is balanced perpendicularly in both hands, and then suddenly propelled upwards with a jerk, so as to make it describe a somersault before touching the ground. As to the putting stone, we are assured that in former times it was the custom to have one of these lying at the gate of every chieftain's house, and on the arrival of a stranger, he was asked as a compliment to throw." Another feat was to raise a stone of 200lb., at least, from the ground, and deposit it upon the top of another, four feet high. The stripling who could accomplish this was thereupon dubbed "a man," and allowed to wear a bonnet: and he attained to the higher dignity of "a pretty man," when he evinced due dexterity in wielding the claymore. hammer- throwing must have been an every-day recreation at the Highland smiddies or forges. The Vulcan of the clachan was an important personage among the primitive society of the glens : and in the Popular Tales of the West Highlands, collected by Mr. J. F. Campbell—the familiar stories of the peasantry, recited for generations at the winter hearth and in the summer shealing—the smith occasionally acts a prominent part. The antiquity of two of the games spoken of appears from "The Story of Conall Gulban." This hero, when on his travels, was asked by " the high- ruler" of a place he had reached, what were the customs of his own people, and if they tried to do any feats? Conall said that they used to try casting the stone of force (clack-neart), and hurling the hammer. The high-ruler asked Conall to come in, and he set some to try cutting the stone against Conall. Conall could throw the stone farther than any of them, and they saw that he had no want of strength if there were enough of courage in him" The editor adds in a note to this passage —'Such games prevailed in ancient Greece long ago, as they still do in the highlands and Lowlands of Scotland.* Another feat, once common in the Highlands, and originating obviously among the loungers at a smithy door, was to turn over a thick bar of iron lying on the ground by placing the foot under it.

The sword-dance (called Gilli-callurn from the accompanying tune), as performed over two drawn swords laid down cross-wise, is held to be modern. The Germans of Tacitus' time had a sword-dance, which did not escape the observation of the historian. "One public diversion," he says, "was constantly exhibited at all their meetings young men who, by frequent exercise, had attained to great perfection in that pastime, strip themselves, and dance among the points of swords and spears with most wonderful agility, and even with the most elegant and graceful motions. They do not perform this (lance for hire, but for the entertainment of the spectators, esteeming their applause a sufficient reward." The old Gad had a dance over swords in the Pyrrhic style, and also a dirk dance; but both dropt out of fashion, and nobody, it is believed, can now describe what they were. The existing Gilli-callurn, which arose in their stead, bears, we are told, only a faint resemblance to the original sword-dance of the Highlanders of Scotland?

A Highlander's speed of foot was ever proverbial—the young men being trained to the exercise. The old Highland foot-race, Geal-ruith, always included a hurdle leap. Running up the steep breast of a mountain has long been a popular race.

Bagpipe-playing forms an essential feature in the pro- gramme of a Highland competition:—the bagpipe being now regarded as the Scottish Gael's distinctive musical instrument, though the harp once ranked higher with his ancestors. The harp has vanished from the Highlands; yet it was coeval, at least, with the bagpipe, and more honoured among the ancient Celts. "The harp," says a competent judge, "is the true instrument of Gaelic song, which we had of old in common with our brethren the Gael of Ireland, among whom the great bagpipe was never known." "The Bards of the Celts," according to Ammianus Marcellinus, a writer of the fourth century, "celebrated the actions of illustrious men in heroic poems, which they sung to the sweet sounds of the lyre." At the feast of shells, "in the days of song," Fingal "heard the music of harps, the tales of other times." And the soul of Ossian, in his age, and solitude, and darkness, yearned to his harp as the last solace: "Bends there not a tree from Mora with its branches bare? It bends, son of Alpin, in the rustling blast. My harp hangs on a blasted branch. The sound of its strings is mournful. Does the wind touch thee, 0 harp, or is it some passing ghost? It is the hand of Malvina! Bring me the harp, son of Alpin. Another song shall arise. My soul shall depart in the sound. My fathers shall hear it in their airy hail. Their dim faces shall hang, with joy, from their clouds ; and their hands receive their son." To the warrior, the harp was the voice of fame : its music was the most grateful to the people the child in its cradle was soothed and charmed by the soft melody. Trathal's spouse, in the poem, "had remained at home. Two children rose with their fair locks about her knees. They bend their ears above the harp as she touched, with her white hand, the trembling strings. She stops. They take the harp themselves, but cannot find the sound they admired. 'Why,' they said, ' does it not answer us ? Show us the string where dwells the song.' She bids them search for it till she returns. Their little fingers wander among the wires." For centuries, the accomplishment of singing to the harp was deemed an indispensable part of the education of the upper grade of Highland society, and at festivals the harp was handed round that each of the company might sing to it. Mary Queen of Scots played on the harp. During her excursion to Athole, in 1564, she is said to have gifted a harp, ornamented with jewels, to an ancestress of the Robortsons of Lude, who bore the palm at a competition of harp-players which took place in the royal presence. This precious relic of the beautiful, but ill-starred Queen, was carefully preserved by that family, along with a still more ancient harp which had come to them in 1460 through marriage with an Argyleshire lady. When the blind bard, Rory Dall, or Roderick Morison, one of the last of the trained and professional Highland harpers, visited Lude in coinpany with the Marquis of Huntly, about the year 1650, the Queen's harp was put into his hands, and he composed a port or air in honour of the occasion, which was called Suipar Chiurn na Leod, or The Supper of Lude. In the time of the rebellion of 1745 this instrument was despoiled of its precious stones, either by the persons to whose care it had been confided for concealment, or, as they asserted, by the Duke of Cumberland's soldiers. It was recently in the possession of the Stewarts of Dalguise; and the other old harp seems to have been ultimately deposited with the Highland Society of Scotland.

The last appearance of the highland harp on the field of battle was at Glenlivat, 3rd October, 1594, when the Earl of Argyll, as the royal lieutenant, encountered the rebel Roman Catholic lords, Huntly and Errol. To encourage the clansmen, of whom his army was mainly composed, Argyll brought his harper with him, and also a sorceress, who predicted that, on the following Friday, his harp should sound in Buchan and his pibroch in Strathbogie—the provinces of his enemies. But the battle took place on Thursday, the royal troops were routed, and the Pythoness herself perished in the slaughter. A writer of the end of the sixteenth century states that the Highlanders "delight much in musick, but chiefly in harpes," which "they take great pleasure to deck with silver and precious stones; and the poor ones that cannot attain heereunto deck them with cristall."

The harp-keys or wrests were also richly adorned: one, which had belonged to Rory DalI, and was kept at Armidale in 1772, when Dr. Johnson and Boswell were in the Hebrides, was finely ornamented with silver and gold, and a precious stone, and valued at more than eighty guineas." Every chieftain kept his hereditary bard, who celebrated the honour and renown of the sept ; but this fashion, together with the use of the harp, gradually declined—that instrument being apparently superseded by the violin, which became fashionable in the seventeenth Century ; though, we must remember that the violin's precursor, the viol or crziit, was known in the north perhaps as earls as the harp itself. The harp was finally discontinued in the Scottish Highlands about 1734, leaving the bagpipe master of the field.

The high antiquity of the Highland bagpipe is indisputable; and the pipe-music is endeared to the people by the stirring memory of a thousand years." Many of the airs, though seeming rude to a polished ear, are peculiarly plaintive, and exert an influence over the unsophisticated feelings of a Celt similar to that of the Ran. de Vaclics oil Swiss mountaineer. How often have the salt tears hailed down the cheeks of the expatriated Gael when Lochaber no more " brought back to his mind's eye the never-to-be-forgotten mountains and vales, the rolling rivers and the clashing cataracts, the rocks of the eagles, and the forests of the Deer! Each clan had its own Piobrachd—a war tune, savage and shrill," which incited to the fray or celebrated a victory: and each clan had likewise its own Cum-badh or lament for the dead. One piece of pipe-music is said to (late from 1314, and was played before the Clan Donnachy or Robertsons of Athole when they marched to Bannockburn. It is named Theachid Clann Donnachaidh—The Coming of the Robertsons. But the most ancient tune known is Comha Samhare—Somerled's Lament—which was composed on the assassination of that leader at Renfrew, in his own camp, in 1164. "The bagpipe is sacred to Scotland, and speaks a language which Scotsmen only feel. There is not a battle that is honourable to Britain in which its war-blast has not sounded. When every other instrument has been hushed by the confusion and carnage of the scene, it has been borne into the thick of the battle, and, far in the advance, its bleeding but devoted bearer, sinking on the earth, has sounded at once encouragement to his countrymen and and his own coronach." Highland music, moreover, is widely diversified, giving expression to all the varied moods. Look at the festive gatherings where

Native music wakes in sprightly strains,
Which gay according motion best explains
Fastidious Elegance, in scornful guise,
Perhaps the unpolished measure may despise
But here, where infant lips in tuneful lays,
And Melody her untaught charms displays
The dancers bound with wild peculiar grace,
And Sound thro' all its raptur'd mazes trace
Nor awkward step, nor rude ungainly mien,
Through all the glad assemblage can be seen.

What can be more spirit-stirring and mirth-inspiring than the strathspcys and reels," which put life and mettle in the heels" of a population exceedingly fond of saltatory diversion?

It is on such an occasion as a Gathering for competition in Highland games, that Donald Macdonald is sects in all his pride and glory. He then struts forth in holiday Spirits as well as in holiday attire, resolved to do his utmost to impress favourably the minds of those Sassenach strangers, who throng northwards in autumn with the same regularity as the Highland reapers used to descend in bands to the golden-waving plains of the Lowlands. Idstone," an English sporting svnttcr, who was present, at a meeting among the Grampians, about a dozen of years since, paid a generous compliment (in the columns of The Field) to the Highland character :-

On two sides ran a rapid winding hill-stream ; on the third side was a mountain—according to my Lowland views ; and on the fourth were the marquees, the refreshment-stalls and the judges' tent. The mountain-side was occupied by a motley assemblage of gay colours—kilts, pipers, and competitors. In the circle where the games were to take place a chosen circle chatted together beneath a large flag, bearing an inscription which "no fellow could understand." The benches for the ladies were gradually filling, for it was just twelve o'clock, and the assistants were fast bringing in the various impletnents necessary for the games.

One could not help contrasting this scene with English ideas of athleticism as they did exist—the "stakes," the "referee," the "cinder-path," the "beer," the impudent landlord and his gate-money, the long pipes and pot- stained tables of the past, the sham Indian runners, the professional ped.," or (save the mark by the pigeons, and the professional pigeon shots wrangling over guns and charges, sweepstakes and distances.

The scenery, the picturesque effective northern garb, and the national character of the gathering, had much to do with the general effect of the meeting ; and the superior education of the Scotch peasant decidedly influenced the proceedings. You heard no coarse language—least of all profane oaths—from the competitors. There was no "(log trial " wrangling as to the awards The defeated piper appeared equally pleased whets lie was adjudged second or third rate as a player of reels; the marksmen at the rifle- butts were polite and self-possessed whether they lost or won.

Long may Donald retain the simple, decorous, manly manners, and the independent self-respect, which merit such encomiums


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