Tales from End to End
The Yorkshire Highlander’s Tale
by Colin Howell
The bagpipes were skirling; the bands were playing; the Scots lassies were dancing and the Highland Games were in full swing as we ended the day’s walk at Helmsdale.
What a great opportunity to finish the week by sampling some real Scottish culture. Wondering how my pigdin Gaelic would cope in such auspicious surroundings, I nervously practised my ‘Och, Jock!’ salutation as I approached the gate man. I needn’t have worried.
‘Welcome mate,’ he said in impeccable West Yorkshire, ‘I see y’re pensioners so you get the concession entry rate. And you’re walking for Christian Aid; have a free programme!’
Colin explained that he had worked in Bradford as a civil engineer and then in 1997 he had come to the Highlands to bring up his family in a safe rural environment. He, his wife Rose and the three children love the life. Colin works for the Highlands Council with special responsibility for building piers. He was involved with the pier on Rum Island. ‘Spelt R.H.U.M?’ I asked, thinking to show off my geographical atlas knowledge. ‘No,’ replies Colin. ‘That’s how the toffee noses used to spell it but when the island changed ownership and was gifted to Scottish National Heritage the spelling went back to its original (and correct) spelling: R.U.M. Without an H.’
Suitably admonished, Nancy and I made our way to the main arena – dare we think of entering any of the activities? We glanced quickly down the programme of 102 different events. ‘Hey, John,’ said N, ‘here’s one just up your street. How about trying the Over-16s Dancing Section? There’s the Highland Fling, or the Sean Truibhais or even the Irish Jig – yes – the Irish jig at the Scottish Games!’
Desperate for a get-out clause, I managed to spot the ‘Notice for Intending Competitors’. It read: ‘All competitors must be dressed in Highland Costume for Piping, Dancing and Heavy Events.’ Phew! I was safe. ‘Och, lassie,’ I said, ‘I’ve left my kilt at home; terribly sorry but they won’t let me enter.’
And that rule also meant that I wasn’t eligible for any of the Heavy Events either. So there was no chance of my competing in the ‘Throwing the 56 lb Weight (for height)’ or even the ‘Throwing the 56 lb Weight (for length)’ Events. I was gutted.
Apparently a group of heavy guys do the rounds of the different Highland Games during the summer season, so they know each other well. They had come to Helmsdale from as far away as New Jersey and Los Angeles. Looking at the value of the prize money in each of the events, it seemed that it could be a reasonably lucrative way of spending your summer holiday.
So, for a change, Nancy and I just had to sit and watch the spectacle before us. However, we needed to leave before the end of the afternoon and as we were going, I asked Colin if he had any particularly memorable impression from the Games. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you could tell your friends how the police closed the main A9 road through the village twice today. The first time was to make way for the four Pipe Bands that were marching along the main road. And the second was to allow the Air Ambulance helicopter to land. Normally it drops into the Games field but today it had to land on the A9 road instead. All in a day’s work I suppose.’
‘Do you think you’ll be able to come back again next year?’ asked Colin. ‘You’ve got twelve whole months to hone up your Haggis Throwing, Besom Throwing and Wellie Throwing skills. And remember: you don’t have to wear Highland Costume for these events!’
Now there’s a real challenge.
Editor: This was the 31st Helmsdale Highland Games since its reintroduction in 1980. Entrance to all the competitions is free and the funding for the games is entirely dependent on the generous support of numerous benefactors together with the proceeds from one Hoolie (marquee dance) held earlier in the summer. The programme lists a total of 84 different sponsors.