I have always quite fancied seeing some of the highland games, so when we knew we were going be in Scotland for the Fringe, we decided to go. The best known is probably the Braemar Gathering largely because, being close to The Queen's summer hideaway of Balmoral Castle, Her Majesty pops in for a while each year. If it's good enough for HM then it must be good enough for us, so this is the one we chose.
There was no mega bus to Braemar, so we paid quite a lot more for our bus journey here, but at least the scenery was nice as we passed through the Cairngorms. Being used to city living where public transport has standing room if you're lucky, we got a reminder of how different it is to live in a sleepy rural place like this.
The coach we were on must have seated around 55 people, and because a number of other people were heading to Braemar for the Games too, it was busier than usual. The driver was getting terribly worried because she had to pick up some schoolkids and wasn't sure she'd be able to because the bus was 'really busy and almost full'. In fact there were at least twenty seats still available and plenty of standing room - let's hope she never has to drive a London bus in rush hour!
After a quick shop for food and wine at the little Co-op, we walked the short distance to the hostel. We had booked months ago, but some were turning up now on the off chance - which turned out to be no chance within about a forty mile radius.
In the morning we had a good Scottish cooked breakfast to fortify ourselves for the day and then headed off to the show ground where the pipe bands and Scottish dancers were already in full swing. Whilst these were good to see, especially when the six pipe bands massed together and paraded around the arena, they weren't the main draw for us. Somewhat predictably, I wanted to see the heavy weights, and in particular the tossing of the caber.
There are no Olympic standard bits of equipment for the weights throwing here. The hammer really is a huge Thor type hammer. There is a big old fashioned weight with a ring handle, and the stone is exactly that - a big lump of rock weighing 12.7kgs. Some of the throws were pretty impressive, although one cameraman was nearly rueing the day that he left a large and presumably very expensive lens near the edge of the field. The hammer just missed smashing it into pieces.
One man did very well in the throwing events, walking off with three trophies. I guess at least he wouldn't have found them too heavy to carry!
Kilt wearing is compulsory for the throwing events, and with all that twirling and the gusting of the wind, it is just as well that the men are allowed to wear a pair of shorts underneath! Perhaps this was a special request from Prince Phillip because he doesn't want The Queen getting an eyeful!
And it is all men in the heavy events; women are only allowed to compete in the light events such as the running and jumping. Most running events are also handicapped, which can make it a bit confusing to work out who is doing well when there are such big gaps in their starting positions to reflect their various genders and ages.
But the main running event had no handicaps and was certainly not for the feint hearted. The 5.3km hill race did allow women, and had its fair share of somewhat older competitors, but everyone started together. And it wasn't joking about being a hill race. After a lap around the arena, they set off on the 390m climb up the Morrone hill behind the show ground, disappearing into the trees at the base and reappearing some ten minutes later as little specks halfway up.
When the first person made it to the top, they set off a beacon and then turned around and ran back down, with one final lap in the arena before they could finally finish and collapse in mud splattered exhaustion. The arena lap was good as it meant everyone got a good cheer for their efforts, wherever they finished. Some seemed to be far too fresh long, as if they hadn't really tried hard enough, while others clearly had legs that had long since turned to jelly and were lucky to make it across the line.
The winner finished in around 28 minutes, some way behind the under 25 minutes record, but then there had been a lot of rain this year which had made the trail pretty even rougher going than usual. Some of the stragglers were still finishing around 20 minutes later. Personally, I think I would still have been trudging my way up that hill as everyone was leaving in the evening.
But it's not all hard work. There was time for a bit of light entertainment when the drum majors competed to see who could be the best at throwing the mace over a twenty foot high banner. Some showed off their twirling skills on the walk up, but the real test was to get it over the banner and catch it again without breaking time with the marching step. The wind wasn't on their side at all, and there were a few drops and running catches, but one emerged victorious with all but one of his catches just about making the grade.
A surprising favourite of the day was the inter services tug'o'war. Various military teams from the area made strenuous efforts to win this event and whilst some ties were over very quickly, others were a real battle.
The royal party turned up at about three o'clock and stayed for about an hour. Prince Philip had rallied from his recent illness to make it here with The Queen, and they brought with them the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and Princess Anne. All seemed to enjoy the event, and like the rest of us, they weren't able to prevent themselves from laughing at the atrociously bad childrens' sack races.
You would think that, knowing that they would be racing in front of royalty, press and 20,000 others, they would have had a bit of a practice first. But no, some of them clearly idea at all how to race in a sack. Some tried a little shuffle, others went for huge leaps and fell straight away, while one reason did lots of tiny hops that at best moved them forward a few millimetres at a time! They were truly terrible, but at least it was funny.
And then we got to the main event of tossing the caber. For those that don't know, the caber is a huge wooden pole that is about nine inches at one end tapering down to about five inches at the other. The famous 6m long Braemar caber is a relative lightweight at only 59.9kgs. They tend to be on average slightly shorter, but around 8kgs heavier.
Competitors hold the caber upright, with the smaller end down, take a run up and then throw it. The aim is to have the top end of the pole hit the ground with the pole vertical, and then for the pole to fall in a perfect straight line. Imagine that the pole is thrown from the six position on a clock face, the tip of the pole when it falls should be at the twelve.
This is much easier said than done. Many don't even manage to flip the pole over, let alone hit the right position. But some did very well, and when they did, they got a huge roar of approval.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day at the Games, and we also managed to meet up briefly with one of our fellow Antarctica shipmates who happened to be over from the States visiting family in the area.