A Rough Guides Readers’ Poll has just voted Scotland the world’s most beautiful country. There’s no argument about that. The mighty mountains, forests and lochs are unparalleled. The only problem with Scotland, is there’s no accounting for the weather. Brilliant sunshine can turn to torrential rain, as suddenly as though someone in the heavens were flicking a switch. And drizzle often drags on all day long – as we discovered, when we went to see the Scottish Alternative Games at New Galloway, in Dumfries and Galloway.
The Scottish Alternative Games celebrated their 40th anniversary this year. In 1977 Mungo Bryson was inspired by a rusty old gird ‘n’ cleek* on his farm, and decided to set up the Alternative Games in celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. As the name suggests, they’re an alternative to the more traditional Highland Games.
*Gird ‘n’ Cleek
The gird ‘n’ cleek is the centrepiece of the Alternative Games. The Games host the annual world championship of the sport. If you’re not familiar with gird ‘n’ cleek, imagine a long metal rod, attached to a hoop. The contestant runs, pushing the hoop along using the rod. There’s a real art to it – you have to crouch slightly, to get the right angle, and if you don’t manage the speed and traction properly, the hoop wobbles and collapses.
Catstrand Arts Centre
Since 2001 the Games have been held at the Catstrand in New Galloway. Catstrand General Manager Brian Edgar explained:
“Mungo asked us to host the Games here, as we have a better site. The hill over the playground gives a good viewpoint, and you can sit with a cider to watch the Games. The gird ‘n’ cleek title has only been held outside Scotland once, and it’s often New Galloway people who win the contest. Gird ‘n’ cleek has developed from the games children used to play, beating a hoop along with a stick. It was traditionally played by children here in Scotland, but you also found it in the north of England. I even saw a picture from Japan, of a child playing with a hoop and stick.”
Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of the gird ‘n’ cleek from this year’s championship, because – well, because it was rained off. After a morning of torrential downpours, the hill, so useful for creating a vantage point, became a slippery quagmire. When limbering up on a practise run, ruddy-haired young locals would reach one corner in particular, then fall and skid, along a slip-n-slide of mossy grass and churned-up mud. It was just too dangerous to hold the competition.
What you’ll find at the Games
But the show went on. Although Brian told me that on sunnier years there would have been double the numbers, the Alternative Games were busy. They opened to rousing bagpipes, played by the Lockerbie Pipe Band. Inside a marquee you could buy tea and scones, as well as ale and cider. Our prizes on the tombola included jam, a litre of squash, and a large bottle of gin. The children were captivated by archery sessions and the hook-a-duck, as well as delicious ice cream (from the local Cream o’ Galloway. We might just have gone back for second scoops….)
Brian commentated the day’s proceedings with wit and the understated energy so common in Scots. To a first-timer like me, the absence of the gird ‘n’ cleek didn’t diminish the charm of the afternoon. I tried my hand at tossing the sheaf, which apparently was a popular wind-down for farmers at the end of the day. These days, competitors toss a weighted sack, rather than a sheaf of corn. My favourite event was the tractor-pulling. Women and men both competed to drag along a rusty old John Deere, using just a rope and their own brute strength. The contestants were formidable – you’d fear for the state of your elbows if one of them ever challenged you to an arm-wrestle.
Indoors, there was face-painting, and the Catstrand Ukelele band acted as a jolly warm-up for snail-racing. Over several heats, the snails were tipped out of a tupperware box into the centre of what looked like an archery target. Snail trainers smeared beer over the racetrack, and the snails followed this tempting path to the edge of the circle. You could bet on a snail (they all had numbers chalked on their shells), or pay a little more to ‘own’ a snail, which would win you bonus cash if it came in first.
We bought number 17. Sadly, he didn’t win – and we weren’t even allowed to take him home with us. But apart from that, a good day was had by all.
The Scottish Alternative Games are held at the beginning of August at the Catstrand Arts Centre, New Galloway. New Galloway is 14 miles north of Castle Douglas, in south-west Scotland, just off the A713.
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