Somewhere in his journals Evelyn Waugh mentions a visit he made to Scotland, during which he happened to pass by a place where they were holding the Highland Games. He was not very impressed. The men tossing the caber, he reported, did not seem to be very good at it; hardly one of them managed to throw it right over, and most could only land it on the end.
As one of the main ideas in caber–tossing is not to throw it right over, but to land it on the end, this must go down as yet another example of an English writer getting the facts about Scotland wrong. But I know how he felt – I was equally ignorant of Scottish life, sport and culture when I was sent from south of the border at the age of thirteen to spend five years at Glenalmond. I simply had no idea what games or sports they played up here, except for a vague notion that when it got cold people went curling.
I soon started learning. Not long after I arrived at Glenalmond I made the acquaintance of a Perthshire farmer’s son called Sandy Thomson. The way I made his acquaintance was by him setting on me and trying to beat me to death with his fists.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I exclaimed, not unreasonably.
“Because you’re English,” he growled.
Thus it was I came across my first Highland sport: beating up the English. Of the other games I had played down south – hockey, soccer – there was no sign. Glenalmond was strictly a rugby school during the winter (which lasted a lot longer than down south) and during the summer there was a brief interval while people pretended to play cricket. Rugby seemed to be rather like beating up the English, but more broad-minded; you were allowed to beat up the Scots as well. Cricket should have been a sophisticated oasis in all this, yet I had the feeling that nobody took it very seriously. I soon found out why. It was seen as an English game. Not only that, but it was a colonialist, imperialist game, as it had been introduced to Scotland after 1745, when the English soldiers had taught the game to Scottish prisoners of was at Perth. On the North Inch, if I recall correctly. At any rate, you were allowed to opt out of cricket at Glenalmond and do something else, which you were never allowed to do with rugby unless you had a broken leg. Two, preferably.
I started my cricket career quite well at the school by hitting a ball for six over a hedge. It took ten minutes to find. The next ball I advanced down the pitch to do the same to, when the umpire, a teacher, cried: “For God’s sake, Kington! Not into the Mad Wifie’s Cabbage Patch again!”
I was so startled by this unsporting, most unumpire-like intervention that I missed the ball altogether, was bowled and promptly opted out of cricket for athletics. And this is where I should have been inducted into the delights and mysteries of Highland Games, so that in later life I could have earned a bob or two putting the shot, heaving the hammer and tossing the sword dance. But it was not to be. The kind of athletics they had there was the kind you got everywhere, with javelins, and discusses, and pole vaults, and stuff you would never get at any Highland Games seen by Evelyn Waugh.
Which is odd, when you think about it. The only reason we do all these strange Olympic things is that they did them 2,000 years ago in Greece, which is no reason to do them now. The old Olympics in Greece, after all, were not international. They were local. They were, if you like, the Greek Highland Games, and no more universal than the modern Scottish Games. If Evelyn Waugh had gone on a motor tour of Greece in 400 BC, he would have seen all these contestants hurling things that look like 12’’ LPs or throwing spears immense distances without hitting anyone, and he might have written in his diary: “Passed Sparta Highland Games, saw men attempting to vault over a hedge with a pole, but they were all terrible: not one of them managed to get the pole over the other side”, because it would all have looked terribly parochial and foreign to him.
If things had turned out differently, discus- throwing and javelin-hurling might now be something you only saw in Greece, whereas the main Olympic events could be the caber, the hammer and so on. There might be Olympic curling, or hunting, shooting and fishing, stalking and poaching. Munro-bagging could be an international sport…
But I think things turned out for the best. The Greeks, after all, have gained nothing from giving birth to the Olympic Games, except the occasional nod of thanks. They do not get royalties on their invention. If you want to see some foot-racing and discus-hurling, do you go to Greece? If you want to see a marathon, do you go to Marathon? Whereas, by cleverly refusing an export licence to Highland Games, Scotland has ensure that anyone who wants to see them, or partake, has to come to Scotland and swell the Scottish coffers. It would be nothing less than a tragedy if the marathon was named after some Scottish battle, Bannockburn perhaps, and the result that everyone who ran the Bannockburn went everywhere to do it – except in Scotland.
Incidentally, Sandy Thomson and I became great friends after he had beaten me up once or twice. This was partly because I joined in alliance with him against another Scottish boy, who came from Kirkwall and was a bit of a Bible-puncher. Sandy was against organized religion. I encouraged him in this, if only to deflect his energy away from me and against the boy from Kirkwall. This is technically known as dividing the Scots against each other, and conquering. But that is an old English game.
Photography - David Anderson