The geographical heart of Scotland is at Pitlochry, a pretty village surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Their Highland Games are a celebration of Scottish culture, bringing pipe bands and contestants from around the country and further afield.
The games start with a parade of some 800 pipes and drums in 20 bands along the town’s main street, lined with picturesque Victorian buildings and several thousand spectators. It is a stirring sight, and the sound touches something almost primeval.
“No matter where I am in the world, if I hear the pipes, I have to go to where they are playing,” says Highlands guide David Withers. “Under the clan system, you went to the pipes, whether it was the music of war, the music for a gathering, or the music for a celebration. Not a lot of people could read or write, so culture was passed down through storytelling and song.”
Parade over, I watch the pipers prepare for their individual competitions, with the more experienced passing on advice to others. There is no sheet music to be seen. In the background, the announcer calls for under-tens from the crowd to take part in a race. The Pitlochry relay team, which mixes boys and girls equally, is cheered to a final lap win despite a fumbled baton change. The beer tent is doing a roaring trade and the rain that threatened at one point has thought better of it.
“The first Pitlochry Highland Games was held in 1852 and it has been held every year since except during the World Wars,” says Charles Butter, the Games Chieftain, whose father held the title for more than 60 years before him. Despite his clipped English tones, he is impeccably turned out in Highland attire and I regret I am not wearing my own kilt. However, I note that very few among the spectators are either.
On the field, the Highland dancers are displaying their skills while cabers are readied for the so-called “Heavy” events. The caber is basically a tree trunk which it tossed end-over-end. Meanwhile cyclists warm up for their own races, held on a grass track. The Heavy men wrap kilts around the shorts they warm up in, but the cyclists stick to wearing skin-tight lyric, probably a wise choice.
The caber this year is a new, heavier one as the previous one was thrown successfully by all the competitors. The Chieftain has the job of inducting it with a splash of whisky. Despite the ceremonials, it still proves too easy to toss and it is announced later that it will be soaked in a stream before next year to add weight.