The tarmac road and occasional car snaking through the winding glen is the only reminder that I'm still in 21st Century Scotland. For long periods the silence lingers and I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the timeless sprawling mountain landscape before me. Glenshee might mean the 'Glen of the Fairies' but I can't help thinking it could comfortably house a small army of giants without any trouble.
This glen has been used as a route north to the Highlands for thousands of years, and like numerous travellers before me, my journey is destined to end at a 'Gathering'. From cattle drovers to Kings and Queens, I wonder how many of them have also stood here in the same awe.
Before reaching my terminus at Braemar, I have to navigate the highest main road in the UK over the ear popping Cairnwell Pass, a route surprisingly well frequented in the winter thanks to those flocking to the largest ski and snowboard resort in Scotland. A further 9 miles of twists and turns through the wild terrain of the Cairngorms National Park brings me to its heart at the village of Braemar and the end of my journey.
Thanks to its geographical position, Braemar has been the ideal location for various 'gatherings' throughout the centuries. A strategic place in the days of clan warfare, a meeting point of cattle droving roads, the centre of the biggest deer forest in the country and a place frequented by Scottish Kings. The current Braemar Royal Highland Gathering is just the latest in a long list of local meetings.
According to tradition it is said the original Braemar Gathering dates back to the time of King Malcolm Canmore who would call the clans to the Braes of Mar and have members compete against each other to find the strongest and quickest soldiers.
Gatherings at Braemar continued until after Culloden and the failed 1745 Uprising, when they were banned by law for over 30 years and were not up and running again until 1800.
In 1815 the Braemar Wrights Society was formed to organise a welfare and social insurance system. The Wrights Society subsequently became the Braemar Highland Society, with aims to preserve the kilt, language and cultural interests of the Highlands, values which continue to this day. The Society's Annual Procession laid the roots for the current Braemar Gathering which has enjoyed Patronage of successive Monarchs since Queen Victoria.
The Cowal Highland Gathering is billed as one of the biggest and most spectacular Highland Games in the world. Staged in the west coast Scottish town of Dunoon, flanked by elevated green hillsides and the busy waters of the Firth of Clyde, the setting is certainly a picturesque one.
As I joined the meandering crowd heading to the stadium we were met with 'greeters' high fiving people with giant foam hands. This reminded me of my time at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games when I was welcomed by cheery volunteers at every venue and was certainly a first for any Highland Games I've attended. Once in the stadium I made my way around the various stands selling food, gifts and clothing although I was a little disappointed that there wasn't a wider choice of Scottish products available.
Being a Highland Games pro I whisked out my trusty picnic blanket and joined the many spectators on the hillside overlooking the main arena. Thankfully the weather was kind and this was a perfectly pleasant place to enjoy the action. Many people even more prepared than me (or maybe just more pessimistic than me!) had brought tents to keep sheltered from any rain which thankfully never materialised.
Highland dancers, pipe bands, heavy athletics and wrestling were the main activities taking place in the arena below. Personally heavy athletics is my favourite element of any Highland Games and there were some impressive competitors taking part.
For fans of Highland dancing the world championships with the best competitors from around the globe was a real highlight and the Cowal Hill Race is another draw with runners taking part in one of the toughest 5k races in the country.
The Scottish Highland Warrior is a romantic and legendary figure which conjures up images of William Wallace and fiercesome claymore wielding clansmen. Highland Games were the place for these clans to compete against each other and show off their strongest and bravest men.
Highland Games today may be less battle like but it is still a showground for not only the strongest men in Scotland to perform against each other but also against some tough international adversaries.
Highland Games season runs from May to September and I visited my first event of the year this weekend at Carmunock, a pretty conservation village on the edge of Glasgow. This is one of the smaller events but it does attract some big characters (in personality and build!!) in both international Strongman and traditional Highland Games competitors. This year Scotland's current strongest man Luke Stoltman was one of the main attractions along with some impressive international names.
The event was also being filmed by Australian TV as part of their coverage of the Commonwealth Games.
Carmunock Highland Games puts a big emphasis on both traditional events like caber toss and stone put and strongman favourites including Atlas stones and log lift. I must confess to being a big Strongman fan and getting up and close to some of my favourite events was a real highlight.
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