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A different kind of Gathering for Games athletes
Bruce Aitken competes in the heavy events at the Braemar Gathering in Braemar. Pic: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

A different kind of Gathering for Games athletes


A remarkable, long-running, much loved athletics event that attracts thousands of spectators and enjoys Royal patronage took place in the UK at the weekend.  And it wasn't the Paralympics.

The Braemar Gathering is one of the cornerstones of the Highland Games circuit.  More than 16,000 spectators annually cram into a field in the Scottish village to watch feats of dexterity, endurance and athleticism, under the watchful gaze of Queen Elizabeth II.

The traditional, shortbread image of the Highland Games is a bunch of burly ginger bearded Scotsmen tossing cabers about with gay abandon.  But the reality is a world away from the twee Brigadoon image you might expect.

Braemar tends to get coverage because of its proximity to the Queen's residence at Balmoral.  For more than a century the Royals have extended their patronage to the games while on their summer vacation at the castle.  Some look bored stiff by the proceedings, but you can tell there's members of the family who clearly enjoy the day out in the little wooden lodge, rewarding the athletes.

I've got a confession to make.  I love the games.  I used to cover them, years ago as a cub reporter, heading round the Deeside events every summer.  Aboyne with a spectacular pipe band competition.  Stonehaven on a wet Sunday.  Ballater's odd Thursday afternoon choice, under humid skies and with squaddies from the local baracks joining in.

And of course Braemar.  The crown jewel of the Games circuit.  Other games can claim to be older, others claim to be bigger.  But there's something special about the Gathering.  During my time covering it I saw everyting from records being broken in throwing a massive rock to Hollywood star Robin Williams staggering, sweating and exhausted, over the hill race finish line.

The athletes who take part come from around the world.  Strongmen competitors looking to make their name on the Heavy Games calendar.  Top runners ready to try their hand on the gruelling hill race.

They do so not out of financial reward - the prizes for the competitions can be notably and curiously archaic - but out of a desire to challenge themselves.  In as much as the Olympic and Paralympic spirit has produced a feel-good factor towards athletics in London, the guys taking part in the hammer and stone throw events in Braemar are pitting themselves against their fellows, against themselves, and against history.

So should you ever be in Scotland during the Games season, go along and enjoy the spectacle.  The men and women taking part may not have the reptuations, the profile or the fame of the Olympians and Paralympians, but they have the same sense of competition and spirit.