Alistair at Braemar

Alastair Macfarlane (in white) racing at Braemar in the 1960’s

The following description of the Braemar Gathering was taken from their website and details the long and illustrious history of the meeting. Maybe best known these days for the annual attendance of the Queen or other members of the royal family, it is much more than that and a meeting to see if you really want to know about the Highland Games.

Braemar has many connections with ancient Scottish royalty and it is believed that King Malcolm Canmore and his army camped here before going on to defeat Macbeth at a battle near Lumphanon in 1057. King Malcolm (III) ruled Scotland until 1093 and was king at the time of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. During his reign it is said that he called the Clans to the Braes O’ Mar that he might ‘by keen and fair contest’ select his hardiest soldiers and fleetest messengers. King Malcolm’s wife, Margaret, was well educated (and later sanctified) and it is possible that she had read about the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece.

Highland games as we know them are a more recent development. The current Braemar Gathering and Highland Games can trace its roots back to 1816 when the Braemar Wright’s Friendly Society was formed. (The society being formally registered the following year, just two years after the defeat of Napolean at Waterloo.) The entry money for each member was 10 shillings (50p) with a quarterly subscription of 1 shilling. The Society was re-constituted in July 1826 as the Braemar Highland Society. The ‘athletics’ competition was held under the auspices of the society for the first time on 23rd August 1832.

The early Games were usually held on the last Thursday in August but occasionally delayed to early September. In 1848, however, the Games were delayed until mid-September to allow Queen Victoria, coming to Balmoral for the first time, to attend. Obviously she enjoyed the event because she became Patron and regularly attended the Games thereafter and was always consulted about the date. On occasion she hosted the Games at Balmoral Castle and donated the money to be used for prizes. In 1900 she requested that no Games be held out of respect for those who had died in the South Africa (Boer) War. There were no Games the following year for she herself died on 22 January 1901, just over a century ago.

During Queen Victoria’s reign the Gathering was attended by three neighbouring clans, representing the three large estates, the Balmoral Highlanders, Duff Highlanders (from Mar Estate) and the Farqharsons from Invercauld Estate. (Other Highlanders such as the Forbes and Lonach Highlanders sometimes took part.) The site of the Games changed regularly, each estate playing host. Sites included Balmoral Castle, Mar Lodge, Braemar Castle (often the referred to simply as Mar Castle) and Clunie Park, close to Invercauld House. In 1906 , however, a site close to Braemar village centre was donated by the Duke of Fife of the Mar Estate for permanent use of the Gathering. This pretty site, The Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park, is where the Gathering is held today. It was only after this donation that an entrance fee to the Gathering was charged – to allow for the upkeep of the ground.

Century saw one of the great changes to the Gathering. The motor car now made it possible for people to travel with greater ease to the Gathering from centres such as Edinburgh and Glasgow. (Though one must be careful of the word ‘ease’ when considering the problems faced by driver’s of under-powered and poorly braked vehicles on the notoriously dangerous Devil’s Elbow, a hairpin bend about 9 miles south of Braemar remains of which are still to be seen close to where the Glenshee Ski Centre stands today.)

Throughout the 20th Century the Braemar Gathering grew in popularity and esteem. However, in many ways it emains delightfully unaffected by the changes of that century. One can still watch a scene that has changed little over the years. In this way the Gathering reflects the village of Braemar which too retains an ageless charm. But Braemar is not isolated from the outside world and in 1997 there was no Gathering as the day coincided with that of the funeral of Princess Diana, tragically killed in a road crash.In recent years, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, while visiting Her Majesty the Queen at Balmoral Castle, has taken the opportunity of attending the Gathering

On the Saturday of the Braemar Gathering the village echoes the sound competing pipe bands. The varying colours of numerous tartans are in evidence. In the arena athletes are taking part in a variety of track events and the arduous hill-run up nearby Morrone towering nearby. ‘ Heavy’ athletes demonstrate their prowess in ‘tossing the caber’, ‘putting the stone’ and ‘throwing the hammer’. The tug of war competition is always a great favourite. The expertise of the best Highland Dancers has to be seen to be believed. Those visitors making a rare or ‘one-off’ visit to the Gathering may find that their experience is heightened if they have a Grandstand ticket.