For those who only know me as a distant presence on the internet, you will probably not know that I grew up in a small town in the North East of Scotland called Aboyne. I am here in the summer and like many small towns in the north of Scotland we have our own highland games. Highland Games are traditional events in Scotland where they have strange sports, dancing, bagpipes, food, drink, sometimes livestock, that sort of thing. I was there with my grandparents and I drew and drew and drew until I ran out of pages in my sketchbook- indeed, this is far from a comprehensive survey of the games because there is a long list of things I didn’t draw, but at least it gives up a flavour of an event centred around large men in kilts. There are fewer silly things to write about an event like this because highland games are fundamentally silly things.
I will show you the drawings and describe what actually happens. First off there are sports, divided into light events (running, jumping, boring sorts of things) and heavy events (throwing rocks and trees and other forest objects). I didn’t really draw the light events because you all know what men running in a circle looks like. The men above are at the heavy events, watching or judging or something.
This is the hammer throw. It involves large men throwing an iron ball on a chain as far as they possibly can.
This is the really famous highland games event, tossing the caber. The caber is a big treetrunk and you have to run with it vertically and then throw it end over end. Contrary to popular belief the aim is not to throw it as far as possible, but to have it land pointing as straight as possible. But I swear seeing it in real life is so impressive because it just looks impossible.
The events also feature the number-one-Scottish-tourist-baffler, the bagpipes. You have bagpipe competitions where people have to play a tune and march around in front of a judge, and you also have a lot of people practising their bagpipes in the carpark, which I always think is quite funny.
This is the actual competition: he is standing on a little stage.
But the most impressive bagpipe events in the marching bands. They get the pipe bands from a couple of local towns and they all march in together in a sort of military parades, all in full costume. There are several hundred people playing, which is more than I could draw quickly. But this is what they looked like at the start of the procession:
It reminds me of a Nicholas Bentley cartoon where some tourists are looking at a piper in his big hat and there is a grouse sitting on top of the hat. One of the tourists is saying to another “Is that part of it, or do you think we should tell him?”
After the pipe band marches in the Clan Chieftain comes in and gives a little speech. He may be a Earl of Aboyne or the Marquis of Huntly or some similarly Scottish noble, but his accent suggests he was educated at Eton. He made a very nice speech about the importance of tradition and how good it was that his grandson will one day be presiding over an event indistinguishable from this one. And it’s true, it is authentically timeless and traditional and you can tell because everyone has flags and coats-of-arms, everything is measured in feet rather than metres, the heavy events are still men-only and the after-games disco still exclusively plays Queen, Abba and Van Morrison. I didn’t get to draw the Chieftain but his wife walked around with a little dog.
After all that had subsided we went back to the regular events, more sports and competitions and things. There is also highland dancing.
I was at the opposite end of the arena from the dancing stage so I didn’t really see any of it, but these are some dancers relaxing and warming up, which I think is quite nice to draw; there’s always something nice about drawing people standing around.
That’s actually my favourite thing about these sorts of events: as well as showing everyone running around doing serious things it’s quite nice to show people relaxing. As well as a lot of men formally dressed in kilts there are hundreds and hundreds of locals in jeans, drinking Tennants and eating burgers and spilling ketchup down their shirts. There are chip vans and ice cream vans and there’s a fun fair where threatening looking men watch over children on dodgems and all that sort of thing. For proper traditional Scots wearing a kilt is similar to wearing a suit for the rest of the world, so a lot of people with no specific role wore their kilts and just mingled because that’s what you do on a day out like this.
But as I say, I ran out of sketchbook pages so you’ll just have to imagine that all and cope with all the pictures from the regular events. And men in kilts standing around. One of my favourite scenes. I might even develop it for a mailout or something, watch this space. Until next year!