This year’s revived Highland Games in Inverness – returning to Bught Park on July 16 – will be a far cry from the ‘True Highland Games’ of 1822.
Held at Dunain Croy, runners reportedly arrived at the finish line of an eight-mile race naked, while the ‘highlight’ was watching teams of men attempting to tear the legs from a cow.
As Angus Fairrie’s book, The Northern Meeting 1788-1988 which High Life Highland holds in its archives, explains, the “cow had previously been felled and stunned with a sledgehammer.
“Even with the prospect of a £5 prize per joint, it took the most expert operators four of five hours ‘in rugging and riving, tooth and nail, before they brought the limbs off one cow’.”
Author, broadcaster, and Inverness Courier columnist Charles Bannerman contacted organisers at High Life Highland, which now runs the event supported by the Inverness Highland Games Committee on behalf of The Highland Council’s City of Inverness and Area, Events and Festivals Working Group, keen to highlight the differences over the decades.
He explained to HLH: “The event in 1822 at Dunain Croy was the one-off brainchild of notorious Regency eccentric MacDonell of Glengarry.
“The ‘True Highland Games’ of 1822 – a complete misnomer – was bizarre in the extreme and something we would not want associated with one of Inverness’s most prominent institutions.”
Wading into the bygone waters of the Games and the HLH inbox was an email from another historian under the self-appointed moniker of ‘A True Highlander’.
Bewildered at how the 2022 Games could associate itself with the 1822 Games, the True Highlander went on to say were actually the seventh successive Glengarry Games.
Adding to what was fast becoming a histocial conundrum they highlighted: “The first Glengarry Highland Games were held in 1809 and were later held in 1816, 1817, 1818, 1819, 1820 and 1821. The event in 1822 was a duplicate of the 1821 Glengarry Highland Games, which were effectively, the Glengarry games on tour.
“Dunaincroy, where the 1822 Games were undeniably held, is not within the former Inverness Burgh and is in fact within the old Inverness County.
“Essentially, Inverness has to cross a historical and a geographical hurdle to lay claim the 1822 Games were theirs.
“The Inverness Burgh inhabitants were very protective of their clearly delineated boundaries, so much so, that in the past people had to pay a toll to enter the burgh.”
One thing that became crystal clear to organisers at High Life Highland was that nothing was clear – apart from the fact the 2022 Games being held at Bught Park could not accurately claim to be the 200th anniversary, and also in 2022 you can get into Inverness without paying a toll.
Some people believe the roots of Highland Games date to the 11th century when King Malcolm III organised a race to the summit of Craig Choinnich near Braemar in the hopes of finding the fastest runner to become his personal courier – but let us not digress into purported fable.
There was a further revival of Highland Games by Northern Meeting in 1835 held at Dochfour – though A True Highlander informed HLH this date and the games held there, including a boat race and pigeon shooting, irrelevant.
With High Life Highland leading delivery of the Games for this first time this year, and the fact the Highland charity also operates the Highland Archive Centre, it was time to pull the teams together to check and verify the confusion around the dates of the Games.
High Life Highland archivist Alison Mason said: “It was 1837 when the ‘first official’ Games, organised again by the Northern Meeting, were held on the Longman and open to the public.
“Events included heavy and field, wrestling, wheelbarrow and sack races with the main event a musket shooting at a 36” target at 100 yards.
“Such was the success with residents and visitors that the Games quickly evolved to include pony races in 1839 and hurdles and a steeplechase were added.”
In 1848, a year after a royal visit from Price Albert, the Games moved to the Inverness Royal Academy school yard in Academy Street and in 1863 moved to Bell’s Park – now the bus station.
A year later, in 1864, the Games moved to a purpose-built arena, the Northern Meeting Park in Ardross Street following an argument with Academy directors over rent money. Incidentally, the 2014 Games celebrated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Northern Meeting Park.
The Games of 1888 were known as the Centenary Games – though not 100 years of the Games but of Northern Meeting – the society, not the park.
The Games would continue for the next 40 years and still hold their popularity until the 1930s when their popularity waned.
Charles Bannerman continued: “The 13-year gap between 1822 and 1835 is only the start of the historical discontinuity, because the Northern Meeting Games, which had been struggling during the 1930s and went defunct in 1938 – not because of the war, but because its organisation collapsed.
“What therefore appeared in 1947 – the Inverness Highland Games – was in no way, shape or form a continuation of the Northern Meeting Games.
“The Northern Meeting event was a professional competition whereas the Inverness Highland Games, initially called the Inverness Gathering, was a completely fresh creation by the North of Scotland Amateur Athletic Association.”
That same year the Games inspired the late Councillor Tom MacKenzie when he and two others founded the Inverness Harriers. The local athletics club is now based at Queen’s Park at Inverness Leisure and will celebrate its 75th Anniversary this year.
In the intervening years, the Games have been run by the Inverness Amenities Association, Inverness District Council, Highland Council and now High Life Highland.
High Life Highland Events Manager Amy MacLeod said: “Following a two-year break due to the pandemic, we’re back with a fun-filled day out for all the family, showcasing the traditional competitive events and displays we all enjoy at a Highland Games.
“The day will provide us a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the very best Inverness and the wider Highlands has to offer,to both local and international attendees of the event.”
These revived Highland Games – featuring the magnificent heavies, track and field athletics, pipes and drums and Highland Dancing – are held in Bught Park and are supported by the Inverness Common Good Fund.
Chairman of the Inverness Highland Games Committee Angus Dick said: “I, like many others on the Committee have been involved in the Inverness Games for many years. It is clear from the research undertaken by the team at High Life Highland that Games in the Inverness area have a long, established and recorded history.
“After the pandemic prevented the Games over the last couple of years, we are pleased to be working with High Life Highland, the City of Inverness Committee and the Inverness Common Good Fund to ensure that 2022 goes ahead and welcomes many Highland Games enthusiasts back to the city, with a focus on a returning to the tradition of the Highland Games that our families and friends can enjoy.”
So, whether you celebrate the Games from the 11th Century, 1809 in Glengarry, 1822 at Dunain Croy, 1835 at Dochfour, the ‘first official’ Games in 1837, 1864 at the Northern Meeting Park, the centenary Games of 1888, or the latest revival in 1947 – the main thing is that, after the two years the world has been through, we hope locals and visitors set aside their historical differences and come along and enjoy Inverness’ Highland Games in 2022, with no milestone celebration – though isn’t this the 75th anniversary from 1947? Oh no.
For information on trading, exhibiting and sponsorship opportunities at this years’ event contact [email protected]