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Braemar Gathering: Deeside’s royal jewel in the crown of the Highland Games

This Saturday thousands of people should have been gathering in Braemar, as they have done for more than 900 years.

But coronavirus means the Braemar Gathering – climax of the Grampian Highland Games season and almost always attended by the Monarch – has been postponed, something which has happened only a handful of times since it’s modern incarnation in 1832.

However, the organisers have turned to 21st century technology to ensure the tradition and history of the Gathering is not completely lost in the pandemic year of 2020.

The Braemar Royal Highland Society hosted a special behind-closed-doors competition at its grounds last weekend, with highlights to be put online in a “virtual games”.

Craig Nisbet, press secretary for the Braemar Royal Highland Gathering said: “We have a virtual games in the can which will shown later in September. These were filmed as an event without an audience, but with a large number of competitors. It will give a feel of the games, albeit in an empty arena.

“It covers all the main events, with pipers and heavies and dancers. It’s a flavour of the Gathering.”

Mr Nisbet said everyone was disappointed at the Gathering being postponed, but appreciated why it was necessary in these days of Covid-19.

“It’s the same as every other major sporting event. They cancelled the Olympics, so we are following suit with the big guys.

“But basically people are better seeing it and enjoying it at its best, rather than trying to change it and do distancing with space seating and things like that.”

The Braemar Gathering is widely viewed as the jewel in the crown of the Highland Games, and attracts massive crowds to the Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park in Braemar on the first Saturday in September.

Bruce Aitken throwing the weight at Braemar Gathering in 2012.

The games have a long and illustrious history from their formal launch in 1832, but tracing their  roots back to gatherings of one sort of another at Braemar since the days of King Malcolm Canmore.

Mr Nisbet said: “It goes back two centuries basically, or more. In Deeside – and other parts of Scotland – the Highland Games are a massive social as well as sporting event.”

The Gathering has been attended regularly by the reigning monarch and members of the Royal Family since the days of Queen Victoria.

“The monarch is there more or less every year,” said Mr Nisbet. “Our current Queen has only missed the Gathering about six times in her reign. We are obviously proud of the fact she attends, but the monarch, from Victoria on, has always tried to take a part in the life of Deeside.

 

“The Highland Games side of it became a bit more of a court event. Anyone who was staying at Balmoral with the Queen was invited, so we have had Prime Ministers of this country or other countries.

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“The great thing about the Braemar Gathering as a royal event, is that it’s not a royal event as such. It is up to the Queen who she wants to come and who she wants to bring with her. They always have fun.

“The sun always shines when the Queen arrives. Nine times out of 10, as she’s coming to the park the sun will come out, even if it’s been a really cold morning.”

Dame Judi Dench and David Mills during the Braemar Gathering last year.

The Gathering has also been graced by some famous faces – such as Dame Judi Dench, no slouch at portraying Royals, coming along last year.

Mr Nisbet said: “Judi Dench was just spotted sitting in the audience and was having as good a laugh as the Queen, getting quite vociferous in cheering people on. People like that will turn up out of the blue and that goes right back to Sir Harry Lauder. It’s personalities who want to be there and aren’t particularly coming to be photographed.”

The Gathering has also been a star in its own right, featuring in TV programmes around the world, including the Netflix series Home Game, which highlights traditional and extreme sports across the globe.

Braemar Gathering 1897

Some of the stars of the show will feature in the virtual games, highlights of which will be hosted by VisitAberdeenshire on its website in the run-up to Virtual Highland Games Day on Saturday September 12.

While this year’s postponement is a blow, Mr Nesbit said the organisers are hoping for a glorious return next year.

“Our hope for next year is that everything is back to normal, whether it will be or not, we really don’t know,” said Mr Nisbet. “But I think there will be changes in the way we operate.”

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