From climbing poles to skimming stones, you have to be ‘a wee bitty crazy’ to become a local hero
Like Calvary it rises from the moor, a steep green hill with a tall wooden pole driven deep into the summit. The pole is smeared thick with stinking grey-brown grease and on the top, nailed fast some 35 feet up, is a huge joint of ham bound in black bin bags. This, for generations, has been a proving ground for Irvine’s young men. Can they climb the greasy pole and fetch down the meat? Will they end the day as local heroes or has-beens? “C’moan lads!”
“Gaun, big man!”
“Get a grip! Push his fit up!”
For hours the crowd has been gathering. Now, at about half-two in the afternoon, there is a great ring of people round the pole. This is the Saturday of Marymass, an annual festival which has taken place in Irvine since the 12th century. It is quite a pageant. Earlier, various big cheeses and cheesesses, high heidyins and heidyangs had processed through the town on horseback, many in medieval costume. Now, though, all eyes are on the greasy pole – a tradition said to go back 100 years or more.
“You have to be a wee bitty crazy to do it,” says Siobhan Turner, 24, whose brother Thomas is, as she speaks, grimacing in pain, having fallen from the pole and cut his foot. “It’s hard to watch your family up there.”
All over Scotland there are events like this; demonstrating feats of strength and skill barely known and scarcely reported outwith the area in which they take place, yet which afford the victor celebrity and bragging rights within his or her own patch. Each village has its Usain Bolt, each wee town its Jessica Ennis-Hill. And it is surely only right that in 2013, between the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, we sing the names of these unsung champions.
“C’moan, Kirk! C’moan, Jordan!”
“Legs straight! Keep solid! Get the knee up, young yin!”
This is how you climb a greasy pole: find the biggest, hardest guy you can, stick him at the bottom with his arms wrapped tight round it, and stack four others on top of him, the lightest at the top. You need a monster and a monkey and three strong men in between.
Today, there are ten or so taking part. Some are from the rugby club. Others seem to be more of a gang. The Irvine Toi is mentioned, and a bottle of Buckie passes from hand to greasy hand, lubricating drouthy throats. The crowd roars encouragement each time a man climbs on another’s shoulders, and abuse each time they fall heavily on to the filthy foam mattresses at the foot of the pole. The grannies are the worst. Before long, all the climbers are slick with muck, tops off, jogging bottoms ripped and stained, tattoos of red hands and Rangers crests lost beneath the dirt.
“Sixteen year I was up there,” says Rab Affleck, a big man in the crowd. “Sixteen year on the trot we won.”
Rab, a former boxer turned actor, is “aulder than God” now, but you still would not mess with him. He and four of his pals, two of whom – Davey Frew and Yakky Hanvey – are also here today, were the greatest team of climbers Irvine has ever seen, the Galácticos of the greasy pole, dominating the competition throughout the 1970s and for half of the decade that followed. Rab was the bottom man, holding 50-odd stone of flesh and bone steady on his shoulders. “What was it like?” he says, incredulous at the question. “It was f***in’ purgatory. And oh, it’s dangerous. I’ve seen folk get legs broken, ribs broken. I nearly broke my back. Trust me, it’s no’ easy.”
Why do it then? “We done it because our uncles done it, our faithers done it, our grandfaithers done it,” says Davey. “It’s Irvine tradition, you know.”
Also, the pay isn’t bad. Winning the ham gives you the right to parade it through the fair, through the streets and pubs of the town, collecting money as you go. You can earn hundreds. Cash and kudos and bacon sandwiches for a week.
Over the last few years, though, the ham has gone unclaimed. No one has been able to get it down, a fact that has Yakky aghast. “Never would have happened in oor day. And these young boys don’t look as if they’ve any chance. I can see me and Davey going up there to get it for them.”
In the end, however, there is no need for the Galácticos to come out of retirement. At eight minutes past four, 19-year-old Jordan Gray, with bloody fingers, frees the ham and then falls with it, spent, to the ground below. He is lifted in triumph and joy by big bare-chested Kirk Donaldson, the bottom man, who has returned to Irvine from Arran, drawn by the lure of the pole.
Kirk is 34 with a wife and young family and considers that he is getting too old for this sort of thing. “This is ma last time,” he says, eyes glinting through the grease. “Until next year.”
One day each summer, at noon, the bunting-strung streets of Kelty ring with the thunder and pech of runners carrying on their straining backs sacks of coal. The Scottish Coal Race is run over a kilometre, uphill through the village, from the smiddy to the school, with women hefting 25 kilo bags and men double that.
The race has been going since 1994 and is regarded as a way of honouring the proud, sad industrial history of the Fife coalfield. Kelty once had 14 pits round about; now there are none. It is said that the miners would sometimes run home after their shift carrying a large piece of coal, called a “clug” or “raker”, for their own use. This story is a kind of prop on which the race rests.
Hazel Porter, a 33-year-old primary school teacher and mother of two from Dunfermline, is a star of the coal race. She has run it nine times and won it eight; she has missed it on just three occasions – twice because she was pregnant and once to attend a friend’s wedding. “I couldn’t believe he was getting married on Kelty gala day,” she laughs. “It was totally inconsiderate.”
She may owe some of her success to the advice of a local man, Tommy Hailstones, who suggested she sook a sweet on the start line. More likely, though, it is her fitness which has won through. Either way, it is important to her. “You’re at work. You’re a schoolteacher,” she says. “But somewhere in your back pocket is the fact that you’re a Scottish coal-carrying champion.”
Jimmy McIntyre from Kirkcaldy would dearly love to know that feeling. He wants to win. Everyone wants him to win, for the fairytale to come true. He is, you see, a coalman to trade, and spends his days humping 50 kilo sacks. He supplies the coal for the race and has run it five times, coming fifth, fourth, third, and second twice. He’s now 43, suffers from sciatica and worries that he might be past it. But he trains hard, on a quiet farm track known as the jaw-bane road, and feels deep inside that his day could come yet.
“I only want to win it once,” he says. “You never get remembered for being second, eh?
THE RED HOSE RACE
Scott McIntyre keeps his in the bottom drawer. Skye Dick has one of hers framed and mounted on the wall of her sister’s bakery; the other, she fears, is lost. What the winner of the Red Hose Race chooses to do with the scarlet socks they receive as a prize is entirely up to them, but in running the race they become part of a local custom dating back to the early 16th century.
“I run it because of the prize money,” says McIntyre, 26, an amateur boxer from the South Lanarkshire village of Carnwath. “It’s £100 to the winner. Easy money for three mile. I’m not quite sure what the tradition is, but there’s meant to be a bit of history behind it.”
Just a bit. The Red Hose Race is believed to be the oldest foot-race in Britain, if not the world. In 1508, King James IV granted the lands of Carnwath to a Lord Somerville on condition that “one pair of hose containing half an ell of English cloth” be given to the man who could run fastest from the village to a nearby crossroads. The point of this, it is thought, was to ensure speedy news of any invasion by English forces, and red socks were the insignia by which the messenger would be recognised.
The race is now held on the day of the local agricultural show. Anyone is welcome to take part, but only those from local parishes can receive the socks. Scott McIntyre has won five times. Skye Dick, who is 20 and studying civil engineering at Glasgow Uni, was victorious in 2012, becoming the first woman to win the red hose.
Angus Lockhart, the local laird, ensures the running of the Red Hose Race. This responsibility has lain with his family for centuries and with him for 30 years. He believes it will go on forever, though it is difficult to find anyone skilled in knitting socks. “It would be very sad if we curtailed it for any reason,” he says. “My son and his wife will be organising the race when I am pushing up the daisies.”
Dougie Isaacs, a 38-year-old van driver from Blairgowrie, is the greatest skimmer of stones Scotland has ever known. Five times he has been victorious at the world championships held each year on the tiny island of Easdale, more than any other person. Just last Sunday, he regained his crown from Ron Long, a retired fireman from Wales, in a thrilling four-way toss-off.
Isaacs, lugubrious and diffident, is at a loss to explain why he is so good at skimming stones. He shrugs the question off. “I’ve just got the bionic arm sort of thing, eh?”
In part, of course, it’s practice. Kitted out in Happy Mondays T-shirt and Adidas trainers, stones in a Tesco bag, hands like shovels, Isaacs allows Scotland On Sunday to join him on the River Ericht, near his home. “Good bit for practising,” he explains. “It’s 97 metres from the bank to the bridge.” The disused slate quarry on Easdale used for the world championships is 63 metres long, and only the best skimmers can hit the back wall with a stone. Distance is what counts, not number of bounces, though Isaacs reckons he can make a stone skip 80-odd times.
He skims a few. “Awful,” he says as the first goes plop. “I’m throwing them like a five-year-old.” He has been suffering from tennis elbow and his latest victory at Easdale was all the more remarkable for that he was, as he says, winging it. “I’d not really thrown in four months.”
Isaacs was schooled in the art of skimming by his grandfather, Jim the Skim. “Five year auld, he took me to Nairn beach, and that was it from that day.” Growing up, he was always the best out of all his pals. “I was renowned in the town, you know, for being the stone chucker guy. Ridiculous.”
He is interesting on technique, if you can get him talking, and will explain in detail about the wrist-twist, the finger-tweak, and the need to get your whole body behind each throw. He considered a career in America as a professional baseball pitcher, but finds the game too boring. “So I’m stuck on the one thing that I can’t make any money at.” He likes the idea that stone-skimming might one day become a legitimate sport, even part of the Olympics. For the meantime, however, he contents himself with making the annual pilgrimage to Easdale. Sunday was his tenth appearance there, and he has been victorious in exactly half of his attempts.
Although he enjoys winning, he does give the impression of being a little reluctant to make the sacrifices that his gifts demand.
“It is,” he says, mournfully, “a long way to go to chuck three stones.”
Neal Robertson rolls up his sleeve to show the tattoo on his right bicep: “World Porridge Champion”. His mother doesn’t like it, his wife isn’t keen, but for him it’s a matter of pride. This is the arm that stirred the porridge that won a world title. It deserves the ink.
The World Porridge Making Championships take place, each autumn, in the Highland village of Carrbridge, competitors vying for the near legendary “golden spurtle”. Robertson, 56, the proprietor of the Tannochbrae Tearoom in Auchtermuchty, won in 2010. Whether he has triumphed again in 2013 was unknown as this magazine went to press; the contest took place yesterday. Whatever the latest result, Robertson’s legacy is safe – he is one of very few competitors to have also won the speciality category; indeed, for this year’s event, he had pondered doing something with liquid nitrogen or perhaps porridge with a Buckfast coulis.
He puts his success down to two factors: first, his invention and use of a double-backed spoon which he has named Spon; secondly, he uses water drawn from a hillside well near his home, a well in which – during the 19th century – a great deal of illicit hooch was once spilled and which is said to flavour the water even now.
Robertson learned to make porridge from his mother; Elizabeth would cook a pot each morning for her boy, an aunt, a granny, and the brace of lodgers who shared the flat. He himself cooks and eats it every day; on the run-up to a competition he will make porridge three times daily, refining his technique, deepening his obsession, looking for an edge.
Having conquered the world of porridge, Robertson has his eyes on other food championships. Last month he won gold for his raspberry at the Jampionships in Dundee, which will no doubt help with his seeding next year, and was sorry to have missed the recent World Stovie Championships in Huntly. “My stovies were considered too exotic because I put peas in them.” In January, he will have a crack at the World Mince and Tatties Championship held in Tobermory. He might need to put that tattooist on speed-dial.
Nothing, though, surely will surpass his victory in Carrbridge. “It just felt like such a momentous thing to have done,” he says. “When I got the trophy in my hands I almost burst into tears.”