The most famous of all the Highland Games.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to some of my friends (one of whom is Scottish) and telling them how excited I was to be going to Scotland to see the Highland Games. I told them that I had always wanted to see the men “throw the big stick”.
“What are you on about, mate?”
“You know, that thing where they throw that stick that looks like a telephone pole.”
“For the love of God, Bohner. It’s called tossing the caber. Please promise us that you’ll get the terminology right before you turn up.” I promised that I wouldn’t embarrass them.
Up with the birds as I did not want to miss a minute, I had to stop for petrol. I went into a town called Ballater, the next one over from my hotel. What a pleasant surprise. Absolutely lovely old station town, with shops that carry the royal warrants. Turns out that when the Queen is at Balmoral, she uses the local shops. I asked the woman at the petrol station how close Balmoral is. She asked me if I was going to the games. When I told her I was, she told me to
Crossing the bridge into town.
take the back road and I would pass right by the palace. Cool!
I jumped on the road she had told me about and eventually got to the front gate. Because the Queen is in residence, there were about a dozen policemen outside. I decided not to stop….
I arrived at the games and had to park about half a mile from the games themselves. Not a problem, except that it was COLD today. Only a little rain, but the wind was howling, and considering it was coming off the North Sea, it brought down the temperature significantly. My first stop was to the official merchandise booth. Luckily, they were selling fleeces, so I bought one to wear under the one I already had on. Everyone was very bundled up, so I didn’t feel too out of place and bulky. Plus, now I have a new fleece that announces to the world that I have been to the games.
The games are like a big carnival or circus. There are several things going on at any one time, including music, dancing contests, races, and all the other events that make up the games. In no particular order,
The field of play.
the parts I loved most.
At any given time, there is a pipe band playing on the field. One knows one is in Scotland when a score of pipes and drums are cranking out the tunes.
An “open” sack race where any child under the age of 12 could compete. They ranged in age from 12 to about 4. One little girl was smaller than her sack, but bless her heart, she struggled through until she crossed the finish line. She got one of the biggest cheers of the day.
Of course, tossing the caber. This is truly quite impressive and very different from what I thought it was going to be. The cabers are 19’ 9’’ long and weigh 132 pounds! It takes three men to stand them upright. At this point, the competitor picks it up, balances it, runs and tosses it hoping that it will go end over end and land properly. It is quite impressive when done correctly. The best bit? Can’t wait to tell my friends that the winner of throwing the big stick was a Yank!
There was a Tug of War competition that went on all day. I know
The pipe bands would take turns standing on the field and playing all day long.
it sounds silly, but it became quite exciting. The teams were made up of different parts from the armed forces and was won by a submarine crew.
One race was run by men in kilts and ties. Not a very long one, but great to see.
At the end of every event, the competitors would shake hands with each other and congratulate the winner. It really added to the spirit of the games.
I spent the day drinking tea to keep warm. At one point, I was sitting next to a Scottish couple, in their kilts, who come every year. I was huddled over my cup of tea when the gentleman asked me what I was drinking. I told him that it was tea.
“That willna keep you warm. Give it here.” I did so, at which point he poured in a wee dram from his flask. I thanked him profusely and ended up talking to them for quite a while.
The Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles turned up for about an hour. Great fanfare and cameras flashing.
The very best part of the entire day was as the Queen was leaving. All
The Royal Enclosure. It sat empty for most of the day.
eleven of the pipe bands joined together to pipe her out. What a sight! Literally hundreds of pipes and drums, each in their tartans making a sound that echoed off the hills. Worth the price of admission on its own.
The day came to an end and I made my way back to the hotel. Several years ago, after a very wet and cold sail in Cornwall, I learned the secret of warming up when one is cold to the bones - a hot bath and a double whiskey. I treated myself to both before heading down to dinner.
I decided to have a proper meal tonight as I hadn’t really eaten all day. The hotel has a restaurant called The Oaks that is relatively famous in this part of the world. They do a five course tasting menu with wine. I indulged and loved every bit of it.
I woke up early on Sunday and debated what to do with the day. The original plan had been to drive back up and finish the Whiskey Trail, but the weather was dull and damp and I didn’t really feel like backtracking only to have to repeat the
The sack race.
process to get to Edinburgh for this evening. I decided to head south and see what the world had to offer.
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