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Highland Gatherings
Chapter X - The McCombie-Smiths

By C. D. McCombie-Smith

To those who have followed the course of athletic sports in Scotland, the name of McCombie-Smith is probably the most familiar one of all those who have climbed to the top of the tree. But still the following contribution from the pen of the head of that family at the present time may not inaptly form the concluding portion of this work.

W. McCombie-Smith was born in Aberdeenshire in 1847 and first competed in athletic sports at the age of nineteen. Up to the end of 187o he confined himself mostly to local meetings, but in 1871 travelled to other counties, for instance to Dalbeattie in Kirkcudbrightshire, where he won seven first prizes, and during that season won sixty-three first, one hundred and sixteen second, and thirty-seven third prizes, a total of two hundred and sixteen, of which number ninety-five were won in the fifteen days ending 12th August.

At that time he was 5 feet 7 inches in height and about 11 stones in weight and was undoubtedly the best all-round light-weight in Scotland, winning competitions at hammer and ball-throwing, tossing the caber, wrestling, high leap, long leap, hop, step and jump, pole leaping and running. He was a first-class distance runner and hurdler and had no superior at his weight at caber-tossing, a sport distinctively Scottish, and requiring perhaps a higher combination of concentrated strength and skill than any other field sport.

In the summer of 1873 he won a total of two hundred and thirty-five prizes, including one hundred and nine firsts, forty-one seconds, and eighty-five thirds.

During the following three years, he was engaged in fitting himself for his life's work as a teacher, but competed regularly in the summer months at all the leading meetings. His first appointment was as English Master at High Harrogate College, Yorkshire, but he disliked the work, and soon returned to Scotland where he was appointed Headmaster of Blackwater School in Perthshire, at which he spent the remainder of his life.

For the long period of thirty-five years he was a successful competitor at various meetings, and in 1901 had won one thousand and twenty-six prizes in athletics. Good as his athletic record was, it was as an author and supporter of Highland games that he was best known in Scotland and beyond it.

Besides contributing endless articles to various newspapers and periodicals, he published during his residence in Perthshire, "Landowners and Landowners' Laws," "Memoirs of the Family of McCombie and Thorns," "The Athletes and Athletic Sports of Scotland," "The Romance of Poaching," and "Men or Deer in the Scottish Glens." The last named book caused something of a sensation at the time, and has been quoted in the House of Commons within recent years, although published in 1901. As an authority on Scottish games, he had no equal, and deserves to be remembered by all athletes for his efforts to push the cause of real Scottish sports.

For many years he endeavoured to obtain what no one had troubled to get previously, viz., genuine records of distances accomplished by the best athletes with hammers and balls of certified weight on ground certified level.

Dinnie, Davidson, Tait, Fleming and other great athletes of the past laid claim to various records, some of them of astonishing magnitude, but none of which could be substantiated.

With the aid of several games' committees, notably Pitlochry, Aberfeldy, and Fortwilliam, and the able assistance of Mr. T. Michie of Cluneskea in Perthshire, himself a notable athlete and a capable judge, he eventually succeeded in obtaining records of performances which are undoubtedly genuine and cannot be confuted.

G. H. Johnstone was the first to set up a genuine record of 119 feet 2 inch with 16 lb. hammer on level ground, and a few years later A. A. Cameron had the chance at Pitlochry to set up records which still stand unbeaten.

Unfortunately, so far as the writer knows, there is at present no games ground in Scotland where an athlete has the opportunity to set up a genuine record at any event, and this is the more unfortunate as we have an athlete, in James Maitland, of Deskford, Cullen, who is as good a hammer-thrower as ever lived.

Mr. McCombie-Smith married the youngest sister of the world-famous Donald Dinnie, and in 1880 his son Cuthbert Dinnie was born. From infancy he came in contact with the best athletes, such as Davidson, MacRae, Johnstone, Anderson, etc., and naturally his earliest ambition was to be an athlete.

He first competed against all comers in 1902 after returning from the South African War, and was fairly successful against perhaps the strongest opposition ever known in Scotland. From 1902 till the Great War, there was an unusual number of first-class competitors at all branches of sport.

In 1910 C. D. McCombie-Smith putted the ball on level ground at Alloa 43 feet 10 inches, and the same week tied for first at high leap with 5 feet 52 inches, besides getting well over 100 feet with the 16 lb. hammer and about 10 feet with the pole.

He was also a successful competitor in Cumberland wrestling both before and after the Great War.

Since the war he has thrown a hammer over 114 feet, and won the all-weights wrestling at Bridge of Allan, the caber at Oban, and hammer, ball, and caber at Glenisla, besides putting up a good fight against men such as Starkey, Nicholson, and Graham at various meetings.

He has been competing in open competition for twenty-five years, and has, like his father, won over one thousand prizes. So far as the writer knows, no other family can claim a like record.

"The land o' heather, hill, and glen,
The bagpipe and the bonnet,
The country o' the kilted clans
A blessing be upon it.
And, friend, my toast this festive time
Is ' Health to thee and thine,
Long life and all prosperity,
For the days o' Auld Lang Syne.' "

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