In another life: A wee bit of wellie among the wails

Blokes in kilts throwing roof rafters, the whine of bagpipes, the squelch of mud. The Highland gathering may be a source of amusement to southern folk. But then it's one of the least self-conscious social events in the world. Photograph by Glyn Satterley
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From behind the grandstand came a lone skirl, then another, then another, until the air was filled with the wail of two score mammals dying of a combination of melancholia and the bends. Then, suddenly, pure, lonesome notes kicked in as fingers found holes on chanters and the Lonach, Ballater and Towie pipe bands joined forces to lead the march of the clansmen. I have always wanted to play the bagpipes; that nasal wail ties knots somewhere deep in my ileum, as it does to most Celts. But the people in the flats adjoining my own seem to have enough trouble accepting the dance routines to Take That's Greatest Hits; to play the pipes, you really need a convenient patch of moorland to practise on.

The competing notes became a march, the gates swung open and the Forbeses and Wallaces and representatives of the other clans in the area, draped in tartans and swinging pikes, hauberks and other polished instruments of torture, stamped in behind the pipers. The crowd applauded these sturdy men with gleeful restraint; the English concept that pipe music should be accompanied by rodeo whoops would be given short shrift here if anybody tried it. Nobody did, though. A rumour that a couple of coach-loads of English might be turning up had been causing a few furrowed brows, but the tourists generally go to Braemar to try to get a glimpse of the Queen. The Lonach Gathering may attract a wider attendance than the residents of Strathdon - 8,000 were expected last Saturday - but they're visitors, not tourists.

This is the second event bearing the name "gathering" I've been to this year. There's a big difference between the two. The first, a New Age extravaganza, took place in Wiltshire, where those tourists who style themselves travellers can avoid inconveniences like cold and damp in their healing tents, and which looks set to go on to the millennium. This was the Lonach's 155th official incarnation, its God-knows-how-many-hundredth as a Highland happening. There are gatherings and gatherings, you know.

It was well after one o'clock by the time the Lonach Highlanders hit the showground at Bellabeg, Strathdon, a foursquare village of Aberdonian granite strung along the road to the Lecht. The weather had held so far, with just the odd minor squall. As they entered the ring, the first tropical drops of a weekend's worth of irrigation smote the feather bonnets. They had been marching since eight that morning, stopping off en route for drams, courtesy of the area's grandees. Among the houses honoured with a visit is Candacraig, once the seat of the Wallaces and now home to the Roddicks, of Body Shop fame. During a previous visit, Gordon Roddick caused some consternation by enquiring as to how many of the assembled marchers had used a Body Shop product in their bath that morning. It's still talked about.

At the rear of the procession, a brightly painted cart drawn by a strawberry roan carthorse garnered enthusiastic applause. The man next to me: grey hair, square specs, leant over. "They have to bring him down from Aberdeen, you know. They used to have an old one of their own down here, but he got too rheumaticky to make it round the showground, let alone along the march. The last time they used him, they had to stop him halfway round and wait for everyone to catch him up from behind." "What does he do? Is he there to carry equipment?" I asked. "Oh, no. He's there in case anyone doesn't make it. They've been marching since early morning and God knows what they've taken on board." Everyone looked as straight as their pikestaffs. "Oh, no one's ever ended up in the cart as far as I know. He's just there in case."

A Highland gathering is an event of unique charm. Much parodied in the Beano, they are actually a combination of pride, nobility and sports that will always remain incomprehensible to an outsider. Great sports, too: why caber tossing hasn't made it onto the Olympic list is anybody's guess, especially in the light of recent inclusions. If ever there was a sport in which the original function was indiscernible, it has to be beach volleyball. Most sports have some root in functionality, in the better training of the human animal to perform its various tasks, be they construction, dexterity, agility, running away, hunting or making war. I was never a great one for things like hockey, but at least one could see that it was excellent battle training. But jumping about in a bikini? Is this really what the Olympic spirit is reduced to?

Some countries, of course, are better than others at publicising their cultural values. This can be the only reason why games for beach bunnies take precedence over more useful skills in the sporting arena. The Afghan sport of bus'katchi, for instance, in which teams of horseback mercenaries line up to beat the hell out of each other with whips in pursuit of the headless corpse of a calf, would be extremely useful in training your menfolk to see off those Russians. And there's many a building site that would benefit from warm-up sessions with a caber of a morning. Cabers started their existence as the main rafters of houses. One can see the use of being able to chuck one of those around. According to my dictionary, a caber in the dialect of the north-east of Scotland is also a large, crude man. The advantages in being able to fling one of them over your shoulder are fairly obvious, too.

Beyond the central arena, neighbourhood life - a neighbourhood that covers a vast square mileage of places with names like Dead Wife's Hillock and Muir of Fowlis - sustained and renewed itself. Hands were shaken, gossip swapped. A second-hand stall hawked tartan skirts at pounds 4, black brogues at pounds 12 a pair. Sporrans started at pounds 15 and went all the way up to to pounds 60 for a very fine specimen decorated with the entire mane of some unfortunate pony.

Men nodded solemnly to each other. "How was your picnic?" "Rained off. I'm going to the beer tent." "I'll come with you." Stallholders raced to cover their wares with plastic sheeting as the weather intensified. Small boys clustered round the army recruitment tents asking for badges and fought duels with plastic claymores won at the fairground. A Hungarian couple, who were so impressed when the Lonach Highlanders and Pipe Band toured the country last month that they altered their holiday plans to include Scotland, sat in the covered stand. He wore a kilt and ate fudge; she beamed.

The rain gathered momentum. "It's just a wee shower," said the jocular announcer, Mr J MacGregor, over the tannoy system. "The Flood was just a wee shower as well, but it lasted a long time." As giants sweated over their girders and hammers and the clansmen lined up to be inspected by Sir Hamish Forbes Bart, MBE, MC, of Newe, aquiline 80-year-old patron of the gathering, who has been taking part in the long march since the war, a gaggle of dancers warmed up by the orange podium on which they were to perform. Its orange plastic surface had been scattered with sand to avoid slippages.

The dancers were mostly girls. Like ballet addicts in the South, boys tend to drop out early. Competitors from Edinburgh and Glasgow sported Pacamacs and see-through galoshes to protect their shiny black shoes and tartan socks. Their accompanying piper, who had looked cool in sunglasses earlier in the day, had pulled on a sweatshirt and still somehow contrived to look dignified. Done up in smoothed-back buns and French plaits, they pulled toe-to-calf plies on the spot, wellies scattering mud as they landed. This was a million light years from the elephantine clomp of the set-steps my dancing teachers attempted to instil in us as children. As a concurrent lightning bolt and thunderclap exploded over the showground, the trio on stage turned not a hair, but continued to float in the air like young gazelles. Stoicism's finest hour.

This, then, is a gathering, as opposed to a Gathering. There is a lot of sententiousness in public pastimes at the moment; the group activities of my generation seem to have become very didactic, very self-conscious and, often, very humourless. At the faux fashion parades across Britain over the last couple of summers, thousands of people seem to have convinced themselves that by taking part in drumming workshops, they are somehow changing the world. There is a lot of bleating about pride and respect, but very little commitment to anything other than the most undemanding offering of hugs and platitudes to strangers. An event like the Lonach is like a long drink of cool water on a dusty day. The essential nobility of the human spirit rarely shows itself better than in the sight of people performing demanding acts of dedicated skill with no other glory in mind than the simple pleasure of doing them well.