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A Highlander Looks Back
Highland Games at Kingussie

THE Badenoch and Rothiemurchus Highland Games usually held on the third Friday in August was considered the day of days throughout Laggan, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Rothiemurchus and Strath Spey. Local talent in piping, dancing and athletics was equal to, and in some cases better than, that of “all-comer” competitions.

Regretfully in the year 1953, the Games were put off, I understand for lack of funds—or it may be lack of enthusiasm. When one knows of first-class Highland Games being held in much smaller places commanding the admiration of not only Highlanders, but peoples of all parts who visit the land of mountain, loch and river, with a tradition second to none, one can only hope that the committee in charge, and the public in general, will bestir themselves and carry on the best traditions of our race.

I have many happy memories of the Dell of Kingussie, and the competitors of my day. Some of the best piobaireachd ever composed were played on that lovely spot in the shelter of the Cairngorms, the Grampians, and the Monaliadh Mountains, near to the fasti flowing River Spey on its sixty-mile course to the sea. I have vivid memories of competing pipers such as the brothers Angus and George Macdonald, Arisaig; MacDougall Gillies, John McColl, Oban; Angus Macrae, Callander; Pipe-Major Robert Meldrum, 93rd Highlanders; D. A. Campbell, Glendale, Skye; William Maclennan, Edinburgh; John MacBain, Applecross; and others, including my father.

It may be said not as many as often seen at present-day Games. Nevertheless, who can dispute the quality of those great men who in their rendering of the classic music of the bagpipes, and the lighter music of the March, Strathspey and Reel, and their unconquerable styles of the jigs held one spellbound as their beautiful notes echoed through the Glen.

Of the many dancers then competing (and in those days most pipers danced as well as those who made dancing their one profession; there were no lady dancers, but never fewer than twelve men) John MacNeill and William Maclennan, Edinburgh, will ever remain as outstanding in my memory. In the Highland Fling Maclennan excelled.

William Maclennan was taught by John MacNeill, Senior, who by this time was retiring from competition and passing the art on to his son already mentioned, from whom in later years I got my tuition in the art of dancing. Of William Maclennan it can be truthfully said his deportment, hand and foot work were a picture of artistic splendour so different from the modern acrobatic stunts introduced by some dancers of today.

I cannot pass from this chapter without mentioning some of our local pipers and dancers, such as the never to be forgotten Jeremiah Macpherson (“Jerry”) and James Robertson (“Jimmy Robb”), who in their limited capacity in piping could rise to the occasion with the confidence and air of a MacCrimmon, and who, if not perfect with their fingers, had the greater merit of perfect gentlemen, and although in humble circumstances would never forget to help a fellow-man in need. Of the dancers the humorous Peter Stewart has left an indelible mark on the sands of time. Peter Mackay Kingussie, Lawson and Murray, from Grantown-on-Spey, were dancers to be reckoned with. In those days I was a local competitor, in both arts and shared an honourable place in the prize list.

In the heavy events we had such giants as Ewen Campbell, later Colonel Murdo Campbell, and others whose names for the moment evade my memory. In the running, vaulting and jumping events there were Alick Macpherson (“Post”), Bill Chisholm, Kingussie; Alick Falconer, and the Cattanachs, from Newtonmore; John Russell and Alick Macpherson (“Banker”), from Laggan, and others, who could run like deerhounds.

Those Games were held in 1885. I was a mere boy at the time, but I can remember my father playing so well and how the other competing pipers collected together to listen to his playing of the piobaireachd. I was interested at this and squeezed myself into the company of very delightful criticism. Not one of the listeners was familiar with the tune my father was playing and were amazed when I spoke up and told them that it was “The Macdonalds Salute”.

The old pipe was humming away beautifully as though telling the story which gave the great Donald Mor MacCrimmon the inspiration to compose this masterly piece of music. Every note was sounding clean and clear and I can now visualise my father as he stood up to the doublings for the variations with his eyes closed and finishing off with a crunluadhmach, repeating of the ground or theme, in a manner which I shall never forget. No striding along the platform for him as though playing a 2/4 or 6/8 March, but in his own inimitable way giving expression to the music of the celebrated composer.

The Games over, the next consideration was our ten mile walk home. Even after the strenuous day this did not dampen our enthusiasm in the least. Mother Mo Chridh (“Mother of my Heart”) was there, who had already done her ten miles walk to the Games, and she must be brought home in state. I will always remember the Games of this year. My chum of all chums, Alick Macpherson, my brother Malcolm and myself counted up our drawings for the day and yes, we made up our minds nothing but a hire is good enough for the occasion. But to lessen the expense, all agreed to walk the first three miles to Newtonmore, and there get our conveyance, which we did at the Balavil Inn, which was not then the majestic hotel it is today. Mr Robert Forbes was the genial proprietor, and ungrudgingly and at a price to meet our meagre purse, he himself with a slow-going white horse and dog-cart of rather antiquated appearance drove the gentry the seven miles to Catlodge.

As we drove along we could hear the good old folks by the way say: “My word, Benn a Phiobar (The Piper’s Wife) is ‘doing the grand’ (to use the more expressive phrase of the Gael) today.” Before leaving Kingussie I had my heart’s desire fulfilled, I bought from the comer shop then owned by the Macfarlanes of Highland sporran fame, my first real fishing rod, reel and line, and all for the sum of 2/6d. What a joy! little thinking then that one day I would be fishing for salmon on that great river, the Shin, in Sutherland.

In the beautiful glen of Sherrabeg, when I was about 12 years old, I saw and took part in the junior shinty team. The battle for honour was waged between the North and South side of the River Spey. The men from the North side were captained by that delightful gentleman farmer, Mr Donald MacKillop, Blargie, and the team from the South side by Mr Gilbert, factor for Sir John Ramsden, a shinty enthusiast to the backbone. The younger generation contest comprised the lads from the Gergask and Kinlochlaggan schools and were captained by a lad Macrae and myself.

On a cold winter’s morning with snow on the ground, the horsehair balls were set in motion, the caman or shinty stick was thrown in the air between the opposing captains and caught in the descent, then hand over hand the caman was gripped and the one who last could swing the caman round his head three times without losing his grip won the choice of hail or goal to play to. My father was on the field to Cheer the teams to victory and when the sound of his bagpipes echoed through the Pass of Corrieyairack there never was a finer Balaclava fought; many of the seniors played in their stockinged feet; cuts and bruises were the order of the day; no referees, but catch as catch can, and beat your opponent at any cost.

After an hour and a half of strenuous action the battle ended all square with one goal each. Tempers were forgotten, first-aid applied, and then all marched, to the tune of “Highland Laddie”, to the farm steading at Sherrabeg where a team of willing ladies had hot coffee ready for us and a plentiful supply of bread and cheese, and of course for those who cared to indulge a bountiful supply of the ‘ wine of the country”, which in those days could be bought for 2/6 per bottle. Some of the “bodachs” (old men) may have had difficulty in their homeward trek, but what mattered, it was a day to be remembered, and a time when Laggan could produce men of calibre and strength who knew nothing of present day illnesses, who never saw a dentist, and preserved their natural teeth in many cases to a ripe old age—four score years and more.

Writing of the grand old game of shinty brings to mind the annual Cluny Ball play. This was one of the great events of the year when all comers were welcomed by the Chief and his Lady. The Castle Party headed by the family Piper, marched to the scene of the contest. All who brought a caman were expected to take part in the game. Jackets were laid down for goal-posts at the full length of the field—a very long one with no out of touch line, and no referee, but the Chief shouting in pure Gaelic to encourage his own chosen team, in opposition to that of one chosen by a neighbouring proprietor. After the game was over the time-honoured custom was resorted to, and who could ever forget the after-speeches from the worthies of the Glen—Charlie Oag and his contemporaries. Since those far-off days, I have played shinty in most of the crack teams including the Kingussie team, and in finals and in semi-final matches. In the year 1889 (I think it was) the until-then unconquerable Kingussie team fell to the gallant men of Ballachulish, Argyll by the one and only goal. I shall never concede that we Kingussie men were truly beaten for the match was decided by what would be today an infringement of shinty rules. Otherwise the result would have been different and at least a draw. I shall, however, think of the men of Argyll as gentlemen and true sportsmen; few are now left to tell the tale of that great match fought on the historic battlefield of the North Inch at Perth.

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