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Tradition, spectacle and Hollywood legends at Ballater Highland Games

Eva Gabor brought Hollywood glamour to Ballater Highland Games as a guest celebrity in 1978.
Eva Gabor brought Hollywood glamour to Ballater Highland Games as a guest celebrity in 1978.

Ballater Highland Games has a long and illustrious history of tradition and spectacle – with a dash of royalty and Hollywood glamour thrown in.

Over the years, Ballater’s annual event has been graced by the likes of Prince Charles and has also hosted stars such as film legend Eva Gabor, Robin Williams and Steve Martin.

And Billy Connolly has also been known to join in the atmosphere of one of the most successful Highland Games on the circuit.

Billy Connolly enjoying the atmosphere of the games in 1978.

Other than in wartime, Ballater’s games have never missed a year since they started in 1864 – until 2020 and the grim toll of coronavirus.

But, undaunted, the organisers are taking a 21st century approach to keeping the spirit of the games alive, by taking them online next Thursday on August 13.

Prince Charles attended the Ballater Highland Games last year and is a frequent visitor.

“We came up with the idea of the 2020 Vision Games,” said Scott Fraser, the games’ vice-convener.

“We are going to have an online games on our Facebook pages, with a programme of events starting from 10 in the morning.”

Arthur Rowe thrills the crowds during the open heavy stone event in 1971.

That will include pipe bands, Highland dancing, a tug-of-war, track events and even the raising of the standard at noon to officially open the games, at a spot close to the games field at Monaltrie Park.

The Strathdeveron tug o’ war team from Huntly in action at Ballater Games in August 1964.

“We made contact with folk and asked if they would be happy to do what they normally do on games day… but in their own garden or that sort of thing,” said Mr Fraser.

One special addition will be some ex-pat pipers based in Tokyo, playing Invercauld House online, to add an international flair to the day.

Dancers in the Open Highland Fling back in 1971. Pictured are, from left, Lynne Reith of Aboyne; Deborah Cowie from the USA; Margaret Morrison, also from the USA; and Anneliese Stellmach of Ballater.

Mr Fraser said the games have been hugely popular over the years and had an enviable track record for attracting famous faces.

“There are lots of black and white photos of Eva Gabor with some of the heavies,” said Mr Fraser.

“Billy Connolly also came quite often.

“Robbie Williams was over, with Steve Martin.

“That was really because of Billy, I think, when they were at Candacraig.”

All the thrills and spills of the Ballater donkey race as six-year-old Audrey Simpson, right, of Ballater takes a tumble after being unseated by her mount, Bouncer, during the Royal British Legion Trot at the Ballater Games in 1978.

Another frequent visitor is the Prince of Wales, or the Duke of Rothesay, as he is known in Scotland.

“We have consistently had royal visitors throughout our history, but not on a regular basis,” said Mr Fraser.

Alan Sim, of Fettercairn, sets off to toss the caber in 1983.

One of the best known faces at the Ballater Highland Games is Chieftain Captain Alwyne Farquharson, the 16th Laird of Invercauld. The 101-year-old, who was awarded the Military Cross for his role in the Normandy Landings, has never missed a game since he took on the role 71 years ago.

Mr Fraser said: “We don’t know if he can come this year or not, with the restrictions in place for coronavirus, but I can’t see him coming.”

Captain Alwyne Farquharson, second from left, turned 101 this year.

Mr Fraser said the games were a key part of the life of Ballater.

“The games mean everything… it’s the biggest day of the year for bringing the economic benefit to the village. But apart from that, it is totally being missed this year.”

And they’re off…the start of the hill race at Ballater in 1978, which was won by English hill racing champion Fred Reeves (fifth right). He knocked one minute off the record.

One silver lining to the games not going ahead this year is the chance for the games ground to be expanded.

“We have secured an extension of the park from Invercauld Estate. We will use it for the crowd size now that social distancing is here to stay for a while and we will need all that ground.

Captain Farquharson raises the new standard in 1992.

“We are just looking forward to being back next year, bigger and better than before.”

To find out more about the Ballater Highland Games and its online events programme, you can see the 2020 souvenir brochure here.

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