May 2024
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Great Days of the Scottish Highland Games ..

Blackford, near Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland
Blackford, near Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland Source: Spooky67 Flickr

Hello again from Scotland, Janice, Marie-Agnes et Jean-Claude!

With summer almost upon us, the first Highland games of 2010 has already taken place; next on the calendar is the gathering at Blackford (near Auchterarder, Perthshire) – the 141st Blackford Highland Games, scheduled for Saturday, 29th May.
(Update: A complete list of Highlands Games of 2015 can be found at the following webpage:  Scottish Highland Games and Gathering 2015. )

Originating in the clan system of over 300 years ago, more than 90 Highland games and gatherings survive today. Unusually, one or two – such as Bearsden and Milngavie Highland Games – date from more recent years. A local committee organises each gathering, minimising expenses (and maximising the use of volunteers!) so that as much as possible of the money taken at the gate can be redistributed as prizes. Community involvement is strong, and a healthy prize-fund ensures a large field of competitors.

A first prize in one of the glamorous ‘heavy’ events (caber, hammer, weight or shot-putting) can be as much as several hundred pounds. There’s a programme of lighter track and field events too, and competitions for piping and dancing. To appeal to families, most gatherings have entertainment specifically for children; and what one might call the ‘novelty events’ have a long history – in the early 1900’s, one games committee organised a visit to the field by a small aeroplane; and, more recently, Bearsden and Milngavie Highland Games has offered helicopter trips.

Killearn , Scotland

Killearn, Scotland Source:Wikipedia


Marie-Agnes, Janice, Jean-Claude, did I ever mention that I had a family connection with one of the famous athletes of the old Highland games? This was James Morrison (1874-1945) of Killearn, who won the Scottish Heavy Championship in the year 1901 – an uncle of my mother. I never knew my great-uncle – he died two years before I was born – but my mother, of course, has passed stories and memories down to me.

James Morrison Men of Muscle Scottish Highland Games

James Morrison – Men of Muscle


Morrison features in a splendid old book, ‘Men of Muscle’ (by Charles Donaldson; published by Carter & Pratt, Glasgow, 1901) – which appears, over the years, to have become extremely rare. (The full title is: Men of Muscle and the Highland Games of Scotland, with brief biographies of the leading athletes of the last fifty years. It’s a relatively short book, of 138 pages, including some advertising. But there are chapters on each of about two dozen athletes; the features had originally appeared in the sports columns of the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper, during the winter of 1900-1901.)


I’d guess that most surviving copies of  Men of Muscle are now in the hands of relatives and descendants of the athletes, such men as – in roughly chronological order – John and William Tait, James Paton, Donald Dinnie, John George, James Fleming, Owen Duffy, Kenneth McRae, George M Ross, George H Johnston, Alex McCulloch, Matthew Marr, Donald Ross, Charles McLean, A A Cameron and Alex Munro.

The frontispiece to Men of Muscle is a fine photograph of the great Donald Dinnie ‘at 61 years of age’. Dinnie was born in 1837 at Balnacraig near Aboyne, Aberdeenshire. An impressive figure, to be sure, his chest literally covered in his many medals won in competition. Dinnie earned a great deal of money in prizes and set records which were not to be fully equalled or surpassed for a hundred years – a legendary athlete.

Donald Dinnie Men Of Muscle Scottish Highland Games

Donald Dinnie at 61 years of age – Men of Muscle


(Writing in 1901) Charles Donaldson says:

” Among all the famous Men of Muscle of any time, Donald stands at the front .. .. In appearance, Donald is the beau ideal of an athlete. He is just six feet in height, with a chest measurement of 48 inches, a thigh of twenty-six and a half inches and a calf of seventeen and a quarter, while his weight in condition was about 15 stones. He is dark in complexion with an eye as sharp and piercing as the king of birds, which can gaze at the mid-day sun without blinking. Whether on foot, driving, or on horseback, the kilt and nothing but the kilt is the covering of his stalwart limbs.

Dinnie attended all the principal games throughout Scotland, and sometimes competed across the Border as well, until 1870, when, on the invitation of the Caledonian clubs in America, he sailed to the States, where he defeated all the best athletes both in the USA and Canada.” Dinnie spent much time also in Australia and New Zealand, countries for which he had a great fondness.

To quote Donaldson again :

“In hammer throwing and at putting Dinnie has made better distances than any other athlete ever did. The pity is that the missiles were not weighed at the time, and the ground was not surveyed before the events .. .. His best throw with a 16-pound hammer, 138 feet 8 inches, was made at Coupar-Angus in 1871. He has putt a 24-pound ball 37 feet 9 inches, a 22-pound ball 39 feet 9 inches and a 16-pound ball 49 feet 6 inches.

It is absolutely impossible to deal with even the half of Dinnie’s victories. He has defeated all the best men of his time in almost every branch of athletics .. .. He is the greatest athlete of any time.”

Dinnie excelled in wrestling too, and even in jumping – an outstandingly versatile athlete.

We’ll go now, Chers Amis, to the summer of 1901, a most successful season in the career of my great-uncle, James Morrison. Morrison was now 27, having been born on 7th July 1874 at Drumore Farm, Killearn, Stirlingshire, where his father was employed as a ploughman. (The original Drumore Farm has now been divided.)

As a young man, James Morrison had worked briefly with a blacksmith, before joining Partick police (Glasgow) in 1897. ( A quite remarkable number of athletes were serving policemen; the police held their own annual sports and gave every encouragement to their men to compete at athletics meetings.)

Cowal Highland Games Hammer Throwing Dunoon

2008 Cowal Gathering, Dunoon, Scottish Highland Games Source: Wikipedia


Cowal Highland Scottish Highland Games Hammer Throwing


I recall, when very young, the first time I saw my great-uncle’s dark green kilt – some games committees insisted that the tartan be worn. As I peered into the back of a wardrobe, a glassy eye looked back at me, for this kilt had a fox’s head sporran!

A A Cameron (1875-1951) named the Mighty Muccomber – a reference to his farm, Mucomir, at Gairlochy, Inverness-shire – was for a time colleague of James Morrison in the Partick police. One of the strongest men that Scotland has ever produced, Cameron excelled in the throwing events.

A A Cameron Scottish Highland Games Famous Athletes

A A Cameron – “The Mighty Muccomber” Scottish Highland Games


Donaldson writes: “At the great Aboyne Highland Gathering (1901) Cameron made a new record with the 22 pound stone. In 1879 Donald Dinnie (had) putted the same stone 37 feet, and two years later George Davidson made 37 feet, one and a half inches – a record which stood for 20 years. Then Cameron made the exceptional putt of 38 feet, 9 inches, which distance will probably stand longer than even Davidson’s distance has stood.”

We read of “heavy” stones and stones of 22 pounds; balls of 16 pounds, 22 pounds and 24 pounds – quite confusing. But don’t let’s forget that what mattered most to these athletes, many from quite humble backgrounds, was to come first ‘on the day’ – with the same weights and under the same conditions – and win the prize. As Morrison said, it would be the same for everybody. The setting of records was almost incidental.

Aboyne Highland Gathering - 2007 c Scotiana

Aboyne Highland Gathering – 2007 copyright Scotiana


Let’s come to a more modern period now, to the 1960’s ; years of tremendous interest in the Scottish Highland games, dominated by the clash of two truly gigantic figures, Bill Anderson ( born 1937 at Greenferns Farm, Bucksburn, Aberdeenshire ) and Arthur Rowe (from Barnsley, Yorkshire.) Yes, an Englishman, but one of the greatest stars of the Scottish games!

I’ll quote just a sentence or two from David Webster’s excellent modern book, ‘Scottish Highland Games’ (Reprographia, Edinburgh, 1973. ISBN 090306510X ).


Scottish Highland Games by David Webster


” From 1959 until 1962 Bill Anderson was invincible, and while his performances attracted a lot of attention it was just possible that his great superiority could have killed interest in heavy events as the results were foregone conclusions.

” Suddenly at the end of the 1962 season something happened which changed the whole scene and gave Scottish Highland games a real shot in the arm. Arthur Rowe had arrived.”

Throughout the 1960’s Rowe and Anderson had many a tussle, their duels adding greatly to attendances at games all over Scotland. Doug Gillon , athletics correspondent of the Glasgow Herald newspaper, takes up the story : “At Lochearnhead in 1969 Anderson became the first man to hurl the hammer 150 feet. Rowe had beaten Anderson’s ground record ; Anderson took it back only for Rowe to regain it in the next round. Left with his final attempt, Anderson responded with a world-best : 151 feet, 2 inches. He also set a Scottish best in the 56 pound weight and ground records in the heavy hammer and 28 pound weight – the greatest day of his throwing career.”

Mr Gillon – then a young ‘cub’ reporter – had every reason to remember that summer day in 1969. Not only had the sport been tremendous, but the weather had been foul – a day of torrential rain, at the end of which Doug’s car was stuck in the mud. Arthur Rowe and Bill Anderson were quickly on the scene, however, and , taking a corner each, soon lifted the wee Morris on to dry land !

Highland Fling by Jack Davidson

Highland Fling by Jack Davidson


A biography of Bill Anderson came out in June 2009, ‘Highland Fling – Bill Anderson’s journey from farm boy to World Champion’ (by Jack Davidson. Argyll Publishing, ISBN 1906134227).

Surely, Bill Anderson of Bucksburn is the true inheritor of Dinnie’s crown and Scotland’s greatest athlete to date, Arthur Rowe only a hair’s-breadth behind. It’s sad to record that Mr Rowe died of cancer on 13th September 2003, at the age of just 67.

But what great days those were at the Scottish Highland games!

A Bientot!

5 comments to Great Days of the Scottish Highland Games ..

  • Jack Davidson

    Thanks for giving my book a mention and I hope you enjoyed it.In addition to being a biog of Bill Anderson,it does of corse contain a lot of general info about the Games and their history;I enjoyed your article and am pleased to say I am proud possessor of a copy of Men of Muscle´Regards,Jack Davidson

  • Iain McEwan

    Hello, Mr Davidson –
    Thank you for all your hard work on ‘Highland Fling,’ and for your interest in our website. I’m glad you enjoyed our feature on the ‘Great Days’ of the games; there are still more great days ahead of us, I’m sure!

    Have you seen Scotiana’s latest post (10th January)? It’s fascinating – a list of the Top 15 most popular stories we’ve done so far, with an easy link to each one. You may prefer the lovely colour photos that illustrate the Charles Rennie Mackintosh posts, or the beautiful pictures in words that Mairiuna and Janice paint for us!

    On behalf of everyone at Scotiana, may I send you our very best wishes for 2011?

    Kind regards,

  • owen duffy

    If anyone has a copy of “Men of Muscle” for sale please contact me
    Thank you Owen Duffy

  • Iain

    We note with sadness the passing of Mr Bill Anderson MBE of Aberdeen, Scotland’s greatest Highland Games athlete of modern times. Mr Anderson died on 12 August, in his 82nd year.
    His career in competition began at the age of 18, at the Alford gathering of 1956; and his last appearance on the field was at Sydney, NSW, Australia in 1988 – a span of 32 years.
    Bill Anderson won the Scottish Heavyweight Championship on 16 occasions, and on two further occasions shared the honour with his keen rival, the Yorkshireman Arthur Rowe. Without a doubt, each man spurred the other to still greater achievements.
    Anderson achieved a distance of 123 feet, five inches with the 22lb hammer in August 1969 at Crieff, Perthshire, a record which stands today, 50 years later. This, I think, gives us some measure of his greatness.

    The link below is to a Tribute published in the Herald newspaper on 22 August. It’s by Bill’s friend and biographer Jack Davidson QC, the eminent defence advocate.


  • Iain

    Some years ago, I came across an excellent website dedicated to the literature of Track and Field Athletics. ATHLOS focuses on historic books (from 1800), many of which have never been reprinted. Charles Donaldson’s ‘Men of Muscle’ may be read here in its entirety, and there are long and informative essays on both Donaldson and on James Morrison of Killearn, the Scottish Heavy Champion of 1901.


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