Heart and soul of Scotland's Highland Games still stirs despite heavy losses

The Lochaber axes lay at rest, the giant cabers not tossed for some time. Starting pistols remain in their boxes and stopwatches stay still for another summer.

The march of the Lonach Highlanders, the climax of the Lonach Highland Gathering and Games in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire. PIC: Contributed.

All across Scotland communities are counting the losses for a second year as the Highland Games circuit stalls once again due to the pandemic.

Around 60 games are held each summer, every one of them a whirl of organisation, spectacle and, of course, income for many.

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From the athletes who travel from across the world to compete for a prize pot of around a quarter of a million pounds, to the food vans and the craftsfolk who rely on trade at such summer gatherings, much has been lost.

Around 20 years ago, it was estimated that Highland Games were worth £25m to the Scottish economy. Now, games leaders believe it is tens of millions more.

The kinship that underpin these annual events is too missed. It is these connections, it is believed, that will drive the return of the games.

Jennifer Stewart, is the chief executive of the society that runs Lonach Highland Gathering and Games in Belabeg, Strathdon, Aberdeenshire.

It peaks with the march of the Lonach Highlanders, when 200 local men parade with eight-foot long pikes and Lochaber axes through the villages, their places usually secured by family lines.

Leading the march is Sir James Forbes, a wine entrepreneur from California. He is far from the only one to travel back to his roots every August.

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Ms Stewart said: “Everyone is disappointed that the Lonach Gathering is not taking place this year, it is plays a huge part in the local community.

“Many people I have spoken to, had until recently underestimated the positive social power that events like Lonach provide to our communities. This is something which will help sustain Highland Games going forward.

“Highland Games have been forced to pause before and have returned and flourished."

At Lonach, people have already committed to travelling from overseas for 2022.

Likewise at Braemar, the 2022 event looks in good shape given tickets sold back in 2020 still stand.

Gary Nisbet, spokesman for the Braemar Gathering, where around 40 per cent of the crowd is from overseas, said: “As soon as one Braemar Games is over, we start planning for the next one, but this year we knew there was no point.

"The supply chains have been hit really hard for two years. The fish and chip people, the marquee people. Many of them rely on the games. Some of them did get Government grants to cover some of their income –but they would rather have been at the games.”

Iain Watt, president of the Scottish Highland Games Association, said getting the heavy athletes event ready will be a priority.

"For the games to be interesting, you need a reasonable number of competitors, including international competitors. We know the athletes will need support to get back into condition, so we will be looking at doing things like training camps.”

Some communities will honour games weekend this year in a small way, including North Berwick and Mull.

Mr Watt said: “For a lot of communities, the games is the only event for the whole town. There’s people who get quite emotional about it. It’s about coming home – and coming together.”

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