IT was, of course, all rather a mystery to a non-Scot like myself -- and really it was an armchair-by-the-fire sort of day, not a hard-damp-bench-up-in-the-Highlands one. But perhaps that mist, resting softly over the scene and changing itself sporadically into downright rain, was all part of the required atmosphere of the annual Braemar Gathering. Nobody was bothered: Umbrellas simply went up and down around the broad grass arena. Outside spectators stood or sat on knolls for a good view, or even climbed trees. They couldn't have been less damp than the flags sticking with accustomed wetness to their poles. A man scattered sawdust over the little platform just in front of our seats, so that the reelers and flingers and hornpipers could dance away as sure-footedly as ever. The dignified, but apparently absent-minded row of judges, sat on, undeterred. . . .
The Braemar Gathering always takes place on the first Saturday in September, a date that, if it isn't the beginning of fall, is certainly the end of summer. I'm sure it doesn't automatically rain. But anyway, this is ``Royal Braemar,'' and a wee touch of weather is hardly going to be allowed to interfere with the annual acclamation of the Monarch as its Chieftain.
There are other Highland gatherings and games in Scotland. They say, for instance, that the one at Dunoon is much nearer the ``real thing,'' patronized by native Scots. But the Braemar, after more than 160 years in its present form (and 900, since the days of King Malcolm Canmore, in one form or another), has achieved international status and appeal. Its reputation led me to expect a slickly polished affair, pleased with its own professionalism. I was wrong. The Gathering was not over-organized -- though it ran smoothly -- and is in many ways surprisingly unselfconscious. It almost, in fact, has the improvisatory air of a Victorian garden party (with a distinctly tartan tinge), except that the scale of some of the ``heavy events'' -- such as ``putting the heavy stone,'' ``throwing the hammer,'' and a continuous stream of inter-service ``tugs of war'' -- might be a little too heroic for a country house front lawn.
Of all the events at Braemar, nothing competes with the heaviest of all -- tossing the Braemar caber (a long, heavy pole). This strikes the uninitiated as an event of almost sublime impossibility. Only one competitor last year seemed to have the least notion how to do it, and presumably in the spirit of internationalism, this big man was not a Scotsman at all but an ex-policeman from Lincolnshire. His name is Geoff Capes. In 1984 he became the ``strongest man in the world.'' And in his enormous kilt he looks like everyone's idea of a Scottish caber tosser.
The foreground dancers, their toes pointed, calves crossed, hands and arms poised aloft, are light and lively enough. Many are youngsters, dancing with engaging skill such dainty items as ``Flora MacDonald's Fancy'' or ``Will You Go To the Barracks, Johnnie?'' to the strains of one indomitable piper. But as soon as Mr. Capes cups his hands under that 19 foot 9 inch tree trunk over at the other side of the arena, and, after scarcely a totter, accelerates forward with more balance than most of us muster pushing a wheelbarrow -- the neat little waistcoated dancers are completely upstaged, forgotten. The effort to heave the 132-pound pole, timing it to make maximum use of its forward fall, seems both marvelous and comic. The crowd holds its breath (``Ooooh!''). Will the toss (as it must to qualify) pass the perpendicular? Or will it just miss, and fall back thunderingly to the earth, as we all groan sympathetically (``Aaaah!'')?
The Gathering seemed to build into a more or less simultaneous medley of events. Everything was backed by a loudspeaker commentary -- though this was not entirely effective. From our benches only about 2 percent of the echoing words were comprehensible. A few extra words were picked out by some local Highlanders along the row, who translated them to my Glaswegian wife, who passed them along to her English husband, who spelled them out to the couple next to him from Tucson, Ariz. But this technological primitivism didn't mar the spirited mystique of it all, and may even have added to it.
And then came the Chieftain herself, in a large black limousine with an impassive chauffeur -- in fact, a whole entourage of limousines purred into the arena, circled it, and then emptied their royal passengers into the awaiting Royal Pavilion, where they all sat down and had a royal chat. Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles, Prince Edward -- you name them, they appeared to be there -- except for the Princess of Wales, whose absence may well have been connected with the imminent arrival of her second child; although this didn't entirely satisfy my wife, who had come to see her if she had come to see anyone. The couple from Tucson observed all these royals with republican (or democratic?) noninvolvement -- she commenting that the Queen was not even Scottish, was she? But the loudspeaker-man was -- without reservations. He almost became intelligible in his overjoyment at the royal turnout (they pop over from Balmoral Castle after lunch) and launched into a speech of admiration, allegiance, and several thousand welcomes. We all got the idea and applauded agreement.
The Gathering then slipped into different gear for a while, the competitions pausing while pipe-and-drum bands surged with emotive splendor and pride around the periphery, and the hills were alive with that undeniable music of boom and screech which, wherever heard, brings out the Scotsman in all of us. First came the pipes and drums of the 10th Princess Mary's Own Gurkha Rifles -- small Nepalese Hindu warriors of legendary courage. Presumably they are honorary Scotsmen. Then came the ``Massed Bands Display'' -- all plumed busbies and sporrans and kilts and white leggings. This display was the afternoon's climax. And even to this skeptical Sassanach it seemed quite magnificent.
After a while, the Royals departed, in the same slow style, waving and smiling from their limousines -- and then the gentleman of the speaker system discovered he had a problem on his hands. I suspect it happens every year. There were still sack-races to be run and Irish jigs to be jigged, even hammers to be thrown. The Gathering, he announced, was not over yet. But it was a losing battle. The audience had decided to leave at once -- all anxious to avoid the traffic jam in Braemar village inevitably caused by everyone leaving at once. In the parking lot, a young man with a camera said, ``Aye, well, that's it -- over for another year.'' Evidently he was an old hand at the Braemar Gathering. But I believe his apparent overfamiliarity was just Scottish understatement. The sound of those pipes and drums reverberating in the hills would have stirred the stoniest heart. Even the rain had stopped at last. Practical information:
The 1985 Gathering will be held Sept. 7. Solo Piping from 9:30 a.m. Other events from 10. Even if you arrive at noon, you will still see the main excitements. Book seats as early as possible with: The Bookings Secretary, BRHS, Society Office, Braemar, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, U.K., who will supply information about the price of seats.