Scotsman Obituaries: Sandy Sutherland, Highland Games athlete

Sandy Sutherland, athlete. Born: 28 March 1931 in Portmahomack. Died: 19 November 2021 in Inverness, aged 90
Sandy Sutherland's prowess with the Scots wooden-shafted hammer was impressiveSandy Sutherland's prowess with the Scots wooden-shafted hammer was impressive
Sandy Sutherland's prowess with the Scots wooden-shafted hammer was impressive

Sandy Sutherland was a leading Highland Games athlete of the 1950s and 60s who specialised in “heavy events”, the best known being the caber toss but which also feature the shot putt, the Scots wooden-shafted hammer (the Scots hammer) and weight throws for height and distance. He won the highly prized Scottish heavy events championship in 1956 and ’57 at its annual Crieff venue and in 1959 claimed 3rd, the title decided on the highest aggregate of points awarded for the individual disciplines.

A talented all-rounder, he was particularly noted for shot putt and hammer throwing and had it not been for the advent in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s of two of the all-time greatest “heavies” – Bill Anderson and Arthur Rowe – Sandy may have collected more Scottish titles. After retiring from competition he maintained his enthusiasm and affection for the Games as heavy events judge at various venues, officiating as recently as 2019 at Durness.

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Not only was he the oldest surviving Scottish champion, he was the last of the old heavies to have emerged from their traditional agricultural hinterland. Farm and manual workers historically tended to dominate at a time when natural strength enhanced by demanding physical work underpinned prowess on the Games’ field, when winter training, coaching and lifting weights were yet to come.

Considered a professional as he competed for cash prizes, the world of amateur athletics was closed to him but it is noteworthy that his winning shot putt in 1956 at Crieff of 45’ 2” would have won the event comfortably at that year’s Scottish Amateur Athletics Championships.

Sandy became involved in throwing almost by chance. One night, around 1949, when attending the Ardross Games dance, near Alness, he noticed lying nearby the shot putt and Scots hammer that had been used earlier in competition and began to try throwing them. Encouraged by his efforts he started training, initially by tying a length of string to an old hammer head for practice swings before finding a wooden shaft to secure to the head to provide a proper implement.

Scots hammer throwing was a popular rural pursuit then and Sandy could recall throwing in informal competitions with several others at Ardross Mains during summer evenings. Without coaching or any systematic weightlifting, he continued improving thanks to his assiduous training.

After starting at local Games, Sandy competed throughout Scotland and by the mid 1950s was considered one of the best heavies on the circuit, among strong competition from others like Lochearnhead hotelier Ewan Cameron, Sandy Gray of Alford, Jock McLellan of Alness and Jay Scott of Inchmurrin.

In 1956, after winning all the heavy events at Aberlour Games, he enjoyed his first national success at Crieff, relegating 1954 champion Sandy Gray to second by a clear margin. In doing so he registered three 1sts, in light and heavy shot putts and light hammer, while 2nds in heavy hammer and caber helped secure the title. He won the £20 overall prize plus the individual events cash, making a total of around £45, equivalent then to several weeks’ wages.

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A year, later after winning the light hammer and heavy shot putt, he retained the title, with Ewen Cameron the 1953 champion second, while in 1959 he finished 3rd behind Anderson and Gray.

Over several years he also enjoyed success at the prestigious Aboyne and Braemar Games, collecting numerous prizes across the range of disciplines.

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In 1964 he took part in a six-week tour of North America, performing exhibitions of heavy events with fellow heavies Bill Anderson, Jock McColl, Louis McInnes and Jay Scott. It was part of The Wonderful World of Sport travelling sports exhibition which took in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto and Philadelphia among other destinations – a memorably enjoyable experience.

Once retired from competing, as a man of integrity Sandy became a highly valued and popular judge at numerous Games in the north, including Helmsdale, Durness, Dingwall, Dornoch and his favourite, Lochinver, where he held the light hammer record for many years. He used to joke that he did his best weight for height mark there, “13’6” plus two fish boxes”, the apparatus by then having reached its maximum height.

Alexander Sutherland was born on a farm near Portmahomack in Easter Ross, the second oldest of six children of John, a farm grieve, and Helen, nee Mackenzie. As his mother died when he was fairly young, Sandy went to live with relatives on a farm at Ardross.

After completing his schooling there he began working on local farms, through which he met future wife Gerlinde Koenig.

Linde, as she was known, had come over from southern Germany after the war to be an au pair on a farm and the couple were married in Dingwall in 1952. They enjoyed 63 happy years together, during which they had son David.

There were annual trips by car to Germany to visit family, when Sandy would take his Scots hammer to train, regularly to the surprise of Customs officers.

The family lived for years in Ardross, with Sandy leaving farm work for HGV driving before moving to Kildary near Invergordon in the 1990s, where he built his own house.

Away from family and the Games, Sandy enjoyed deer stalking, especially on the Wyvis estate, and was known to bring three deer down from the hill on his own.

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A modest, unassuming individual who would help anyone, he was well liked and respected, variously described as a “gentle giant” and “solid as a rock”. He is survived by son David and grandchildren Georgina and Peter.


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