The Tomintoul Highland Games originates from the beginning of the 1800’s. It was started up as a sort of picnic held on the second Friday in August and was always known as a Highland Games. As the name of the Association denotes the original Games were held on the Games Haugh by the banks of the River A’An (now called the Avon) in the valley known to the locals as Strathdown. This haugh is above Birchfield about two and a half miles from the village.
These Games comprised friendly competition between locals and people from neighbouring communities such as Nethy Bridge, Strathdon, Lonach, and The Braes of Glenlivet.
The Games consisted of races, jumping events and challenges to test the strength and stamina of the competitors. Putting the Stone was one of these latter tasks and simply required a stone of suitable size and weight straight from the river. The virile young men would compete against one another to see who could project the stone furthest with one hand. Other events included throwing of the Scots Hammer and tossing a tree trunk. All these activities remain vital components of the Heavy Events to this day. It remains uncertain if Tug-O-War was included in the early Tomintoul Games, but the Swingle Tree would certainly have featured (two competitors pulling the ends of a Swingle Tree, part of the wooden frame harnessing horses to a cart, in opposite directions).
Families would gather to watch their men folk competing in these events, bringing with them a picnic to help refresh the competitors after their strenuous activities. Musicians would come to entertain the spectators by playing traditional tunes on the pipes with both piobaireachd and light music. The lighter footed would get up to dance the traditional highland dances like the Highland Fling mimicking the antics of deer in the hills. Local families like the Frasers from the Gaulrigs, Ballintomb and Auchnachile and the MacGregors from Delavorar and the Keppoch would have, in the past, been stalwarts of the Games just as their descendants are in the present Games Committee.
Around 1880 the Games moved down into the village of Tomintoul. The Square, being the market stance, became the obvious venue. Competitions were held on two of the four grassed areas and the traditional events continued to play a large part in the proceedings.
There have always been athletes of renown competing at Tomintoul Games along with the many local lads who gave a good account of themselves. This resulted in fierce - but always friendly - competition. The Games proved a great attraction for both locals and visitors, young and old alike, with Games Day as one of the few recognised local holidays. This allowed the inhabitants in and around Tomintoul to spend a day away from their work, enjoying themselves with their families. People staying at the shooting lodges in the area would all turn out to view the occasion with guests and servants attending to make it a day out for everyone. There were occasions when the Duke of Gordon himself attended the Games. The fact that the Games were held in August was to catch the guests who had come to the area for the shooting.
Around 1922, the venue for the Games moved from the Square to the Public Park at the top of the village where it has been held ever since. The reason for the move was that a competitor in the Heavy Events, Jim Maitland, threw the hammer from one side of the Square clean across the main road to the other side! For the safety of spectators and passers-by, the venue was moved to a quieter location.
Although the Tomintoul Games has been in existence for around two hundred years, interruptions for wars and other major upheavals in village life, mean that the 175th Games will be held in 2016. Tomintoul continues to hold a very traditional programme with the emphasis on Highland Dancing, Heavy Events, Light Field Events and Solo Piping all of which are essential components of this type of gathering. Competition is open too, and we hope appeals to all ages and capabilities. We have been extremely fortunate to have seen, and hope to continue seeing the cream of Games athletes maintaining keen competition of a consistently high standard.
As well as the more serious events there are “fun events” that include flat races and sack races along with the pillow fight, barrel race and tilt the bucket; these are for the more adventurous who wish to join in the fun. Visitors are also encouraged to participate and usually enjoy themselves - although watching is often just as rewarding as participating (especially when, for example, tilting the bucket goes askew and the participant gets a soaking!).
Originally the Tomintoul Games were held on the second Friday in August to allow the professional competitors to have a run of games: Ballater was, and still is, held on the second Thursday in August, then competitors then moved on to Tomintoul on the Friday and finished up at Nethy Bridge on the second Saturday (still their Games day). In the mid 1950s Tomintoul Games moved to the third Saturday in July when it remains. This change allowed locals living and working in ‘exile’ in Glasgow and Aberdeen to benefit from the traditional Trades Holidays and return home for the Games. At the time, a decline in the local shooting meant that waiting for the shooting season no longer made sense.
The Tomintoul and Strathavon Highland Games Association Committee is made up of local stalwarts who willingly give of their time and energy to make the Games as happy and enjoyable an experience as possible for both competitors and spectators.
To mark the 170th Games the Lonach Highlanders paid their first ever visit to Tomintoul. This visit was very much enjoyed by spectators and The Lonach Highlanders themselves and we will no doubt repeat the exercise in the not too distant future.