The Lonach Gathering and Games is a spectacular annual tradition in Strathdon, attracting Billy Connolly and a host of celebrities over the years.
This year, the Lonach Friendly Society marks its 200th anniversary with the 182nd games taking place today.
The pomp and pageantry, spirit and tradition, and the famous Highland hospitality has made it a popular haunt for A-listers.
Not least Scottish comedy royalty Billy Connolly, who for many years resided at Candacraig House near Strathdon.
Join us for a look through our archives of photos of the Big Yin at Lonach over the years.
Lonach: a Highland haven for A-listers
Although a proud Glaswegian, we like to think of Billy as an adoptive Aberdonian here in the north-east.
The Big Yin bought the stunning estate in 1998 for £590,000, after spotting it during the filming of Mrs Brown.
His move to the north-east started his long association with the Lonach Games.
And the property was also a Highland haven for his celebrity pals.
From Sean Connery to Judi Dench, Brian Cox and the late, great Robin Williams, they all enjoyed a warm welcome in the Cairngorms.
American actor Steve Martin was a regular guest of Billy and his wife Pamela Stephenson at the star-studded Lonach Games.
And Steve still has the kilt he wore at the games all those years ago.
He said: “I loved those Highland Games.
“Robin Williams and Eric Idle were there as well. What a group that was. They were so funny.
“Pamela bought us all kilts to make us very Scottish looking. It was a really fun time.”
Cheering on Robin Williams
In 2000, Billy’s daughter Scarlett even took home some silverware after competing in the dancing.
The Connollys joined the line up of beaming, proud parents when Scarlett, then aged 12, took home a brace of Highland dancing awards.
She was awarded a silver rose bowl for taking two first places, a second and a third in front of a 9000-strong Lonach crowd.
When she was presented with her trophies, Billy said: “It’s absolutely great. She has only been learning for a year, taking lessons from local dancers.”
Billy was also there to cheer on his great friend and fellow comedian, the late Robin Williams, who famously took part in the gruelling hill race several years on the trot.
In 2000, the star delighted the crowd and finished well up the field in the four-mile course.
He had impressed the locals at the previous year’s games, and a huge crowd cheered him all the way through the slippy conditions on his return to Bellabeg.
With no celebrity pretenses, the puggled runner would happily give celebratory hugs to fans at the finish line, and mingle freely among the crowd.
Big Yin is big ambassador for games
Billy’s presence in Strathdon also saw him made an honorary member of the Lonach Friendly Society.
The couple often said they were at their happiest in Strathdon, and were very involved in the local community.
As the laird of Candacraig, the Big Yin fulfilled the more traditional role at the gathering of providing a dram to the thirsty Men of Lonach.
Each year, the pike-carrying highlanders trek six miles through the glen to Bellabeg Park.
It’s always a stirring sight to behold, watching the magnificent men of Lonach march through the hills in Highland dress.
The parade reflects the society’s “commitment to the preservation of Highland garb and the promotion of social and friendly feelings among the inhabitants of the district”.
While Billy was always more than happy to dish out the whisky, the comic ruled out the possibility of ever joining the marchers.
Billy brought James Bond to games
2002 was a big year for the Big Yin as he celebrated his 60th birthday at Candacraig with a huge star-studded bash.
Actors Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor, and musicians Bob Geldof and Chrissie Hynde, were at his “official” party in August, although his birthday wasn’t until November.
It was a year that also saw a record number of visitors to the gathering with 14,000 people in attendance.
Actor Aidan Quinn ran the hill race that year, stumbling back into the arena to raucous applause from the VIP stand, with Connolly shouting “go on you beauty”.
And in 2003, fans were thrilled by the presence of James Bond himself, when Sir Sean Connery made his first visit to the games.
It was a roasting summer’s day, and Sir Sean chose to don slacks rather than a kilt like his fellow Scotsmen.
It proved a wise decision, as the fully-kilted Billy sought out ice cream to cool down in the blazing heat.
Asked how he enjoyed the games, he replied between licks: “I love being here. It’s a great day. The whole thing is fabulous. I just enjoy living here.”
Connolly joked: “I would take part in the hill race, if it were all downhill. Otherwise, no way. I mean, look at me with my ice cream. This is more my thing.”
Stars share Billy’s love for Lonach
Among the other stars that joined Billy in the VIP tent over the years were Succession star Brian Cox and comedian Eric Idle.
Cox made his games debut in 2005 and said: “I love it. It is a great atmosphere and I am very lucky to be here.”
Cox was less keen on the meet and greet element of the day, but Billy was more than happy to strike a pose for the camera.
Also making his first visit to the games was comedian Eddie Izzard, while veteran attendee Eric Idle wore a waistcoat he’d had made especially for Lonach.
He told fans that he was “very happy to be back in Scotland”.
While perusing the stalls, Idle joked that shopping was his “favourite sport”.
He said: “I’m a competitor but my wife’s a champion.”
But the star of the VIP stand that year was Anna Friel’s newborn daughter Gracie.
The little one made her inaugural visit to the games at just six weeks old with mum Anna and dad David Thewlis, who Professor Lupin in Harry Potter.
Proud mum Anna told fans that “it was lovely” to be back in Strathdon.
Pamela’s praise for ‘delightful games’
The following year, his granddaughter stole the show at the gathering as the Big Yin entertained the Little Yin.
The cheeky baby drew laughs and smiles all round from after pinching Billy’s heather buttonhole from his lapel.
But the glitterati stayed at home that year, as Billy was recovering from an ear infection and it was unclear whether or not he’d need surgery.
Wife Pamela said: “I was not going to have 50 people in the house if he was going to be in hospital.
“But it is all the more relaxing for me, just having the family here.
“It’s a very special time of year. It is such a joy and now part of our family history, I’m sure.”
She added: “This is the first time I’ve been able to sneak down early to walk around the stalls, which I like doing.
“I think we have the best Highland games. It’s such a sweet, relatively small Highland games. It’s just delightful.”
But despite his recent ailment, Billy delighted fans by signing autographs and posing for photos.
He also found time to joke around with nine-year-old Highland dancer Hannah Davidson from Alford.
The comedian spotted her making faces at him as she prepared to compete.
Describing her encounter with Billy, she said: “He said ‘don’t you make funny faces at me’ and then he made a funny face back.”
Big Yin still honorary member of Lonach society
Billy was back among friends at the 2012 Lonach Gathering, and even came face-to-face with King Robert the Bruce.
Momentarily speechless, the comedian was soon exchanging banter with Scottish history enthusiasts Ed and Sandra Hastings.
Earlier that day, the Connollys welcomed the Men of Lonach to their baronial home at Candacraig House, as the Highlanders staged their annual march around Lonach Society patrons’ homes.
For the first time in many years, the Big Yin was absent from the gathering in 2013 due to filming commitments.
And the following month, he put his Highland hideaway on the market because he was spending more time stateside in his New York apartment.
The 12-bedroomed property sold in 2014 for almost £3 million, but the Connolly’s ties with Strathdon remain strong.
Speaking after the sale of Candacraig, then secretary of the Lonach Highland Friendly Society Jennifer Stewart, said: “He will continue to be a supporter as he is an honorary member of the Lonach Society.
“He’s been great for the area.”
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