Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Cowal Games

"Would you like to come to the Cowal Games?" asked my friend Andy. "I've borrowed a yacht and will anchor it off Dunoon." I certainly would! But I had another event early on Sunday morning and couldn't spend Saturday night off Cowal. "I will see you there for the day instead." I said.

Huge family crowds poured out of the train from Glasgow to Gourock, but the ferry companies had laid on extra boats, and the queues moved reasonably quickly. I had been living in Birmingham for a while, and only recently returned to Glasgow. My grandmother had lived in Cowal, but I had not been back for years and had forgotten how beautiful it was, the steeply forested hillsides dropping to a shoreline of white houses reflected in sparkling, emollient waters. I did not even know that Dunoon had a stadium. It is nestled in a hollow in a forest at the top of town, and the day was sunny enough to keep the midges off.

I found Andy and his girlfriend in deckchairs on the banking surrounding the stadium and settled down to watch. Highland Games have semi-mythical origins, dating back to Malcolm Canmore who held a contest of speed, strength and skill at Braemar in the 11th century. The current incarnation of Highland Games though is a couple of hundred years old, dating from the 19th century fashion across Scotland for tartan and other symbols of Gaeldom.

We watched towering athletes in kilts heaving hammers over high beams and attempting to toss the caber. On a stage near the middle of the stadium various groups of girls jigged away constantly, subject to the most intense scrutiny from the serious end of the stadium - the World Highland Dancing Championships are decided at Cowal, and these girls were dancing for gold. Of the Highland Games I have been to, the Cowal Games stands out as the best. And for me the highlight is the climax of the event. The World Pipe Band championships are usually held around a week or so earlier in Glasgow, and many of these bands, honed to a pitch of perfection, come together for one last hurrah at Cowal. The bands march one by one into the stadium until the whole floor is taken up with them, thousands of pipers playing the same stirring tune, and then they start to file out, playing all the time. Spectators lined the street down to the centre of Dunoon as the bands marched past, a seeming never-ending procession of them, some in fancy dress, all adding a very unScottish level of noise, colour and joyfulness to the street.

Massed bands, ©

After the bands, there was nothing else to see. We elbowed our way past a jam of thirsty pipers spilling out the pubs for a pint, and I left Andy and his girlfriend to enjoy the yacht to themselves as I queued up in the sunshine for the next ferry back to Gourock.

An incident from the games. During the last track race, two game but unfit men, a tall, thin gangly one and a fat one with an impressive beer belly, were lapped by every other runner and left to jouk it out for last place. They completed an extra couple of laps themselves, the thin one well in front, when the fat one dropped his head to his chest, and in a superhuman effort, started to gain on the thin runner. A ripple of excitement passed through the crowd. Would he catch up? A low noise started, rising to a roar as the fat man, red in the face, risking a heart attack, gained and then, just before the line, overtook the unsuspecting thin runner! I hope he survived his efforts.

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