The first Saturday of September is always a key date in the Highland Games calendar as it is on this day that The Braemar Gathering - the most famous of all Scotland's games and gatherings - takes place and so it was that after a two year absence (due to covid) that this most esteemed event made a welcome return last Saturday.
For those unfamiliar with this very Scottish event - Braemar (Bràigh Mhàrr) is an idyllic town nestled in the heathered Deeside hills with the Games held at The Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park. The town can have extreme weather; it holds the record for having been the coldest place in Britain, however, as is often the case, the gathering is blessed with a warm late-summer sun and just a faint hint of Autumn in the air. The green hues of the surrounding countryside combined with the warmth of the tartan & tweed clothing on show provide the visitor with the full Scottish experience.
And of course Braemar has a Royal presence too - since 1848 ruling monarchs and members of their families have regularly attended the games with the current Monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, always a keen supporter of the event throughout her reign last having attended the games in 2019. Late last week it was announced that the Queen would not be able to attend this year, however her son and heir Prince Charles, referred to at the games as The Duke of Rothesay, his official title in Scotland, would maintain the royal tradition and would also take on the duty of officially opening the splendid new Queen Elizabeth Platinum Jubilee Archway at the entrance to the ground, bearing the English translation of the traditional Gaelic greeting: "Ceud mìle fàilte" - "A hundred thousand welcomes." As the Royal motorcade arrived at the entrance to the ground the new President of the Braemar Royal Highland Society, Mr. Peter Fraser, invited the Duke to cut the heather rope to officially open the archway.
The arrival of the Royal party only occurs at 3 pm but the Games have already been in progress since 9.30 am. There are 80 different events taking place during the day and a large number of Kilted stewards, officials and judges ensure that the programme and all the rules are adhered to as well as ensuring the security of the participants and visitors at all times. Within the U.K. Braemar offers a quite unique experience, one where Royalty, dignitaries, local and international visitors feel quite at ease in the laidback and friendly atmosphere. It is little wonder the Royals feel at home here as witnessed by the loud cheer that greeted them on their arrival in the Park on Saturday.
Whilst the visit of the Royals is an attraction in itself the main purpose of the day is of course the games and the events themselves. The events range from athletics - for all ages - Highland dancing, the ever popular traditional heavy events: weight over bar, Caber tossing and hammer throwing, tug-o'-war competitions and all these accompanied by the sound of the pipes and Drums as the very best of Scotland's Bands take it in turns throughout the day to perform and parade in the arena. As the day progresses and the crowds of visitors from all over the world continue to fill up the Memorial Park, the individual events succeed one another non-stop with activity occurring in every corner. The competitors are all amateur or from the armed forces and whilst there are money prizes for all competition winners (and down to 4th place even) the real value you feel is quite simply being able to compete and be a part of the unique atmosphere generated during this event.
At 1.30 pm one of the main events - the famous Hill race - spills out of the arena as competitors, from all over, leave to run the 3 miles and 1200ft climb to the five cairns overlooking the town. In wetter years this is a grueling and muddy race but with the dry summer of this year, Saturday's race was all about speed and slight of foot.
And away amongst the trees, away from the hurly-burly of the crowds and the arena, the solo pipers compete in the Piobaireachd (Pipe music) events. The very best Pipers, at the very top of their art, perform Strathspey and reel from whom only the discerning judges listening on intently are sufficiently able to nominate a winner.
The sound of the Pipes is at the heart of the games. From the moment you arrive in the town the swirl of the bagpipe is everywhere. Parading through the town starts at 9 am and this year 11 different bands vied for the coveted "Shield" presented at the end of the day to the best performing one and this year won by the 4 SCOTS Pipes and Drums. But the main attraction is the Massed Pipes & Drums Parade, when all the competing bands combine to perform around the arena at various key moments throughout the day. It is a stirring sound and sight to behold as the Drum & Pipe Majors lead the parade of Pipers and Drummers around the arena several times during the day and in salute to the Royal party on their arrival mid-afternoon. On Saturday the Band of the Parade of Gurkhas were specially invited to perform to the delight of the audience.
As the afternoon winds down, the Royal party are led out of the ground by the Massed Pipes and Drums and the visitors wander into the town or start to head home. The Heavies are still finishing their hammer throwing and the Irish Jigs are still being danced. The day has been a memorable one again and perhaps the slight chill in the air is a signal that the Highland Games season is drawing to a close and the shorter days are on their way. But no one leaves Braemar without a smile and with fond memories of a great day out. Haste ye back!
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