The play’s the thing

The Highland games on a remote Scottish peninsula unite young and old.

The Morvern peninsula in Scotland. Photo: Philip Capper on Flickr via Creative Commons

For such a large area of Scotland – and 250 square miles is a lot of land by British standards – the Morvern Peninsula is not very well known. People know about Skye and the outer isles; they may be familiar with Mull and Kintyre; but a mention of Morvern often brings blank looks. This is perhaps because in those hundreds of square miles there live no more than 350 people: it has a population density of less than two people per square mile. To put this in context, the south-east of England has over 800 times as many people per square mile.

I am fortunate to have a house on the shores of one of Morvern’s sea lochs. From my window, I look out to the hills of Ardnamurchan, on the other side of Loch Sunart. The largest mountain in that direction is Ben Hiant, the Gaelic for “holy mountain”. In the morning, it is often wreathed with clouds but then it reveals itself in those shades of attenuated blue so characteristic of Scottish uplands. It is holy, I imagine, because some Scottish saint lived there a long time ago. Early Scottish saints, by the way, were often just the local missionaries; their wives were saints, too, as were their children – a nice idea.

At high tide, the sea is 20 feet or so from my front door; ebbing, it exposes a swath of foreshore covered with salt-resistant grass. On this shore, hidden among the shells, there are sprigs of samphire and wild flowers, plants that do not mind being inundated by the sea twice a day. Deer graze there in the evening: shy creatures, watchful, easily panicked.

Morvern is unhurried, which is an important part of its charm. There is one main route through it – a single-track road with passing places on which the sheep congregate and only reluctantly give way to cars. This road leads to the village of Lochaline and the ferry that crosses the sound to Fishnish.

People pass through it on their way to Mull and Iona. They are moved, no doubt, by the empty hills, the high, tumbling waterfalls and the sheer wildness of the landscape. This is the Scotland that is portrayed in the Ossianic ballads.

In July, things get going in Morvern, the highlight being the Highland games. Morvern is very proud of these games and with good reason: of all the games that take place in Scotland during the summer, there can be none with quite as magnificent a setting. A gently sloping field above Lochaline is set aside for the purpose; behind it is a sharply rising forest, dark and impenetrable, but when you look to the front, you have a heart-stopping view of Mull and its mountains. You can see fairly far down the sound – towards the point where the shore turns west and the seaway leads to islands such as Jura, Islay and Colonsay.

Everything is softened in this light, as if portrayed by a watercolourist who has then applied a delicate wash. Often there are veils of rain that drift across the sea and shroud the shores and the hills beyond. Every few minutes, it seems, the sky changes; white light suddenly becomes silver, fades and then reintensifies.

Everybody turns up at the games, as they do in small towns across the Highlands. They are generally undeterred by the two enemies of any outdoor activity in north-west Scotland: the weather and midges. This year, the weather was benign – as it has been, atypically, for the past few games – and the midges were discouraged by the sun. Most of the people present were local, although visitors are always warmly welcomed. This year, we went with an Australian guest – of Scottish ancestry – who was in transports of delight when the Mid Argyll Pipe Band marched into the field in a flurry of kilts. The band sets the comfortable, family-friendly tone for the whole event: it includes ten-year-olds and 60-year-olds, the youngest, tiniest drummers taking their cue from the older drummers beside them.

Then the fun begins. Most people associate Highland games with what are called “heavy events”. These are in essence feats of strength in which kilted figures throw heavy objects as far as they can manage. You can spot these contestants very easily, as they are all built like oxen, have low-riding kilts and look as if they could toss anything, including you, a good distance without undue exertion.

The traditional throwing objects are great ball hammers of the sort that must have had an industrial use in the days when the Scottish economy made such things as ships and chains; today, I suspect that their principal use is at Highland games. These hammers are whirled round and round in a sort of dervish dance and then, if all goes according to plan, are let go. Occasionally one of these mighty men fails to let go and can travel some distance through the air with the hammer before regaining his footing.

Then there is shot-putting, which consists of throwing a cannonball as far as you can and hoping that it does not hit one of the judges. Cabers are also tossed – usually retired telegraph poles. There is an art to tossing cabers, as the contestants need not only brute strength, but also a good sense of balance. This is not a sport for those whose experience is limited to, say, tossing salads; cabers can go in unpredictable directions. At this year’s games, the heavy-event judge unfortunately slipped and could have found himself prostrate in the path of an incoming caber. Fortunately that did not happen.

There is vertical throwing, too, in which people throw a 56-pound weight over a bar that is raised progressively higher. It is important to remember to step aside after you have thrown this weight. One of the heavy contestants told me that at a recent games elsewhere, a thrower forgot to move away. Staring up at the descending weight, he decided to catch it, which was not, it was explained, a good thing to do.

However, these competitors are not easily damaged; this one, I was reassured, had no more than a sore chest for half an hour or so. Scotland is still making these men, it appears, and they move around from games to games throughout the summer, picking up prize money at most of them.

The same contestant told me that he would be taking part in something like 15 games this season. His proudest moment recently was to attend the Scottish games in, of all places, Hawaii. He won. Now he would like to compete in Canada or even Japan. In his youth, he was a regular competitor in the Morvern games in the athletics events. “Then,” he said, “I became stronger.”

The games were about much more than heavy throwing. There were races in which anybody could enter – and did. There was high jump and tug of war. And in a well-known feature of the Morvern games, there was the annual appearance of the members of the Lochaline belly-dancing club, who dance with exposed midriffs to what can only be described as Egyptian-Scottish fusion music. This is not a good idea if the midges are out in force, as midges love exposed stomachs. For other stomachs, there was home-made marmalade to be bought, and rickety tents sold this natural larder’s bounty – venison and seafood.

It would be easy to sneer at Highland games and some do. They are wrong: for most people at this little set of games in Morvern, it’s all about community and tradition and a vague sense of belonging to something. If it affirms identity, with the pipe bands and the tartan and the caber-tossing – Caledonian clichés of the most resounding variety – then it does so in a way that is gen­erous and unthreatening. It is also about how a rather fragile society, far from the opportunities of the Scottish cities, can enjoy itself and remind itself of the advantages of being in an intimate place, far away from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Identity is a crucial issue in contemporary Scotland. Next year, this country will cast the most important vote for it in many centuries. That has nothing to do with this innocent afternoon of play, this celebration of Homo ludens; or perhaps it has everything to do with it. But that was not on anybody’s mind that afternoon, and understandably so.

Alexander McCall Smith’s new book, “Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers” (Polygon, £16.99), is published in August