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Braemar Highlands
Part the Second - Chapter II

Kenneth the Hardy—Malcolm Canmore—Origin of the Gatherings, etc.

THE Pictish period (from 446 to 843) was not only marked by the introduction of Christianity by St. Columba, but also by the arrival and settlement of the Dalriads, or Scoto-Irish, on the shores of Argyle. Hence ensued a series of conflicts, which issued in the complete downfall of the Pictish monarchy, when in 843 Chionaisith Chruaidh, i.e. Kenneth the Hardy, placed the crown of both kingdoms on his head.

This Chionaisith Chruaidh had a residence at Braemar, though all traces of it have now disappeared; the only memorial of him in the locality being that beautiful hill called Kenneths Craig, which took its name from him.

Passing over a period of somewhat more than 200 years, we come upon the nineteenth king of the united kingdom of the Picts and Scots — Malcolm Canmore. And now the mist of antiquity clears away a little, and he appears before us a sort of central figure round which many of the Braemar traditions culminate. In this and the next few chapters I intend to notice some of his doings, as they are still in traditional existence.

Most people have heard of the great annual gatherings of the clans at Braemar, under the auspices of the Highland Society, as they have a kind of celebrity, especially since Her Majesty the Queen has been pleased to honour them so often with her presence. According to tradition, these gatherings, races, etc., date their origin as far back as Malcolm Canmore. The first of them is said to have taken place in the following manner:—

Having a mind to establish a sort of post system by means of foot-runners, Malcolm summoned his subjects to meet him in the plain where the present Castle of Braemar now stands. When assembled, a purse of gold, with a full suit of dress and arms, were then offered to the man who first reached the summit of Craig Chionaisith,, i.e. Kenneth’s Craig, as seen from the place where the king and people were assembled.

Many competitors at once entered the lists, and were placed in readiness for starting. Judges were appointed. All being thus arranged, the king gave the signal, and at once they bounded across the plain towards the hill. They had almost reached its foot, when another competitor, breathless with haste, came, pleading for leave to run also.

‘You are too late, my brave man' said the king.

‘No, no! only let me run' he cried imploringly, throwing aside his arms and upper garments as he spoke.

‘Go, if you wish' was the king’s answer; ‘but you are too late.’ But the youth had almost cleared the plain while the words hung on his lips.

‘Who is the stripling?’ inquired Malcolm, charmed with his eagerness.

‘Macgregor of Balloch-bhuis youngest son' was the answer. ‘His two brothers are already up the hill before him.’

The foremost of the competitors were indeed far up the hill in advance, but young Macgregor seemed as much at home on the hill as a frolicsome goat.

‘That springal will beat them all' said Malcolm, as he saw him, now climbing on all-fours, and anon seizing the long heather and swinging himself forward.

‘ More power to him!’ cried Allen Durward, of whom we will hear more presently.

Thus the race became more and more exciting. Many had given up, yet numbers were pressing forward. Foremost of these were the two eldest Macgregors, while Macgregor the younger was still springing forward with unabated energy. Passing the others one by one, he reached one of his brothers.

‘Halves, brother' he cried, ‘and I’ll stop!’

'Gain what you can, and keep what you get; I’ll do the same,’ was the answer of one, while the other was too breathless to speak. Up and up the springal bounded, until within a few paces of the foremost.

‘Halves again, brother, and I’ll yield.’

‘Never!’ replied the other. ‘Keep what you get.’

Now they were in sight of the goal, but every muscle and nerve was already tightened to breaking. Terribly pressed was the eldest brother ; but, determined to gain, he put out his hand to impede the progress of the younger. Feeling nothing, he looked round, expecting to see his brother on the ground, while at that moment the youngest leaped forward below the outstretched arm. Furious, the eldest brother bounded on after him, and fell just as his hand clutched with maddened grasp the kilt of his rival. Encouraged by this accident, those in the rear came pressing forward, when, quick as thought, the youngest Macgregor unbuckled his kilt, saying as he did so, ‘I have yielded all to you hitherto: take that also'. Then springing forward, he seized the signal-staff, and throwing it up in the air, sank down on the earth beside it.

A loud shout rose from the spectators below; but the victor and his vanquished brother heeded it not, as they lay on the ground in a state of complete prostration. Nor could it be otherwise, if what the legend says be true, that the youngest reached the top in three minutes.

Now, assuming that this legend possesses just the slightest possible degree of veracity, how interesting to read in connection with it (after a lapse of 800 years, fraught with change and countless blessings to our country), an account from the pen of Royalty of similar races over the same ground, and as witnessed from the same point of view :—

‘September 12, 1850.

‘We lunched early, and then went at half-past two o’clock with the children and all our party, excepting Lady Douro, to the gathering at the Castle of Braemar. . . . The Duffs, Farquharsons, Leedses, and those staying with them, and Captain Forbes, with forty of his men, who had come over from Strathdon, were there also. There were the usual games of “putting the stone,” “throwing the hammer and caber,” and racing up the hill Craig Chionaisith, which was accomplished in less than six minutes and a half; and we were all much pleased to see our gillie Duncan, who is an active, good-looking young man, win. He was far before the others the whole way. It is a fearful exertion. . . . Eighteen or nineteen started; and it looked very pretty to see them run off in their different coloured kilts, with their white shirts .(the jackets, or doublets, had been taken off for all the games), and scramble up through the wood, emerging gradually at the edge of it, and climbing the hill'.

Soon after the gathering thus described, to the great joy, not so much of the runners themselves as those connected with them, the racing up the hill was discontinued. Some had died in former years from the effects of the exertion, and many had been injured : the victors especially had won their prize dear.

In 1850, as in former years, it was the same. ‘One of our keepers (the victor in the race), like many others, spit blood after running up that steep hill in this short space of time, and has never been so well since. The running up the hill has consequently been discontinued/ says Her Majesty in her footnote to the account of this gathering. Thus we have the traditional account of the first of these races, and an authentic one of the last.

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