For 40 consecutive years, the centrepiece of the Clan Hay Society’s activity in Scotland has been the Aboyne Highland Games, which takes place on the village green of Aboyne, on Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire. Aboyne is one of the bigger events on the Highland Games circuit, which sees events happening all over Scotland, every weekend throughout the summer months.
The earliest record of this kind of event can be traced to the reign of King Malcolm III (1058-1093) and throughout the era of the clans, it was usual for chiefs, at least once a year, to summon their clansmen for a day (or days, even) of hunting, athletics and military exercises, to ensure their fitness, skill with arms, and that their weapons were in good order. The military element ended with the abolition of the chiefs’ power in 1747, but the sporting activity remained and went from strength to strength.
The modern day Aboyne Games began in 1867 and we were privileged on the 150th anniversary in 2017 to be joined by Her Majesty The Queen, who travelled the few miles from Balmoral Castle for the occasion to present Aboyne with a new caber, but from The Queen’s own forestry on her estate just up the River Dee.
This is in the heart of Clan Gordon territory. Every Highland Games has a Chieftain, and Aboyne’s is the Marquis of Huntly, Chief of the Name and Arms of Gordon, who resides at Aboyne Castle. It is noteworthy that during its 155 year history, the Aboyne Games has had only three Chieftains: the 11th Marquis, who presided for 70 years until his death in 1937, his nephew the 12th Marquis, who served 50 years until he died in 1987, and his son, the 13th and present incumbent.
Clan Hay will take its place in the clan village, alongside around a dozen other locally based clans, where we will host a hospitality tent to welcome members and visitors. The Games has something to suit all tastes, including trade stalls selling everything from Highland dress to artwork, food, drink, sideshows, fairground rides and much else besides. However the centrepiece of the day is the activity on the Games field itself, including music, dancing, and trials of strength, speed, agility and stamina.
Most people associate Highland Games with the heavy events, notably the uniquely Scottish activity of tossing the caber, where the objective is to turn over a tree trunk, in a straight line. The heavy and light hammers, traditionally deploying a blacksmith’s hammer, differ from the Olympic event in that a wooden shaft replaces the flexible wire, although the traditional blacksmith’s tool has been replaced with a steel ball. Other events include putting the light and heavy stone, and throwing the weight over the bar, an activity that has been compared to “throwing a 10 year old child over a double-decker bus!” (Not something the person who wrote that description was recommending; the analogy of the child was used to give an indication of the weight, and the bus of the expected height.)
Light events are equally prominent, including running races of the usual lengths, and the famous Aboyne Hill Race, where the most intrepid of competitors run to and from the summit of The Fungle, a steep, thickly wooded hill on the edge of the village. A peculiarly Scottish version of the long jump, known as Hop, Step and Leap, is a favourite event.
A wide range of music and dancing also feature. Competitions in Highland Dancing continue throughout the day, and a fiddling competition takes place in a nearby church, under the direction of the great local fiddle maestro, Paul Anderson. Competitions among individual pipers are a major attraction, and we may see anything up to 10 pipe bands, all from the county of Aberdeen. A great spectacle of the day is the parade of the Massed Bands round the ring. The pipers signal the end of the proceedings with the ceremony of Beating Retreat, late in the afternoon.
But above all, Aboyne is a social activity, where friends from home and abroad to foregather and enjoy each other’s company. We look forward to welcoming Hays from across the world on 6 August, for the first time since 2019.