Birnam Games History
Birnam Highland Games is one of the oldest in Scotland. This is the history of the Games from 1865
Compiled by Bobby McGregor
Edited by D. Crawshaw
Chapter One - 1864 to 1900
In 1864, owing to the death of the Duke of Atholl, the Duchess decreed that there would be no Games in Dunkeld that year. The Duke was Patron (now known as Cheiftain) of the Games.
On the 21st July 1864, a public meeting was held in Birnam for the purpose of taking into consideration the desirability of holding the Games in Birnam during the summer. At that meeting, the following resolutions were proposed and unanimously agreed.
- Seeing that the Dunkeld Highland Games are this season postponed to the regret of most of the inhabitants of the district an effort should be made to hold the games in Birnam.
That a Committee consisting of the following gentlemen be appointed:
Messrs A. Robertson, D.K. Smith, G. Carplin, J. Murray M.D., J. Gold, I.A.Harris, W. Watson, J. Dow, J. Borrie, J. Kinnaird, T. Ellis, W. Low, W. Ellis and Sergeant Major Stewart
- with power to add seven to the Committee to form a quorum.
In order to add to the success of the Games a number of gentlemen resident in the District and connected with the District were invited to become Honorary Stewards for the occasion. The offer was accepted together with some donations. The amount is not known. The first meeting of Birnam Highland Games took place in Birnam in a field belonging to a Mrs N. Campbell on the 24th August 1864. They proved to be so successful it is recorded that after making donations of £3.3s to Perth Infirmary and £2.12s 6d to the Birnam and Rohallian curling club, £40 was left to the Committee’s credit. This was placed in the Commercial Bank. (Now the Taybank Hotel). The first Chieftain appears to have been R.S. Menzies who served in this capacity fro m 1864 to 1879. In 1865, the Committee, after talking over the subject, came to the conclusion that Birnam could afford to continue the Games every year without interfering with the success of the Dunkeld Games. Games were accordingly held in 1865, 66,67,68,69. They were always more or less successful. The Dunkeld Games appear to fade out although they were in existence until 1872 (Dunkeld Games 1822-1872). Birnam Games were held every year right up to 1914 when the Games were cancelled at the last minute due to the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. Proper minutes began to be kept in 1870. A summary of the previous year’s events is to be found in the first minute book. The Birnam Games Committee of the day started by asking prominent local people to be Honorary Stewards. A long list of notable people is given headed by the Earl of Breadalbane. It is believed, although not recorded, that the first meetings of the Committee were held under the Birnam Oak. From 1870 onwards, Committee Meetings were held in the Birnam Railway Station up to the building of the Birnam Institute in 1833-34. The Games Committee donated £100 to the building of the Institute. The Institute Committee were so pleased with the (at that time) generous donation a room was given free to Games Committee for many years. Copies of the letters between the two Committees are in both their records. (These are now kept in the Archives kept in the Cathedral). The Highland Railway Company ran special trains on Games Day, the timetable being published on the posters advertising the Games. For many years, the Games were advertised as the Birnam Highland Games and Rifle Shooting Competition. The Rifle Shooting was held in the morning and the Games began at 1pm. In 2005 a Cup awarded for Rifle Shooting was found in the projection room of an old cinema in Dunblane, it was given to the Committee and has been placed in the Archives.
The highlight of Games Day was the procession to the Games Field. The Committee and Competitors were required to assemble at the Station Rooms at 12.45am where they would meet the Pipe Band and March to the field. At this time, the Games were held on Birnam House Park (now known as the Jubilee Park). The Chieftain from 1879 to 1882 was J. Guthrie Lornie. (He later built Guthrie Villa, which among many of its uses one was, a Temperance Hotel). Mr Guthrie Lornie appears to have had his main house in Edinburgh but he owned most of the land around Birnam. In 1882, several letters are copied into the minutes in he claims that as he is the landowner he is entitled to have a special say in the running of the Games. He wished to appoint a Secretary and Treasurer who would be answerable to him. The Games Committee were having none of this and appointed James MacIntosh of Inver as Secretary at £5 per annum. He held this position for 44years. After the disagreement with Mr Lornie, Mr John McPherson of Cluny was appointed Chieftain. He held this position until his death in 1891. About this time, The Games appear to have been moved to an area known as Terrace Park. Today this all that remains is the field just below were the sewerage Works is now. Permission for this move was given by the landowner Sir Douglas Stewart who appears to have been the Laird of Murthly. The Games were held here until 1914. The then Games Committee was in possession of a Grand Stand that, much to the annoyance of Mr Guthrie Lornie, was moved to the new field.
In 1889, Birnam Highland Games donated £150 to the laying out of the Recreation Ground. The Committee also organised a trip to the Forth Bridge that year. A train was organised and each member was allowed 10 shillings from funds. A year or two later another trip was organised to Garth Castle. It was decided to drive all the way and accordingly horse drawn carriages left Birnam at 7am. Breakfast was at Grandtully Castle Then on to Garth Castle returning to Aberfeldy for dinner. This is recorded in the minutes as a great success but no mention is made of the time they eventually arrived back in Birnam. An interesting rule becomes known about 1889 “Competing Pipers must lodge with the Judges the names of three tunes in Gaelic and English”. An entry fee of 6d was charged. In 1891, serious thought was given to the Games and, after consulting with other Games a set of rules were drawn up. These are recorded in the minutes and, with some updating, are still in use today. This was the year that the Chieftain John McPherson of Cluny died. Col. W. Steuart - Fothringham of Murthly was asked to be the new Chieftain. In a letter replying to this request, he states, “I have no idea what a Chieftain’s duties are and none I have asked can tell me but I shall be happy to accept”. He served as Chieftain for 44years being followed by his son Mr Donald who was Chieftain for 47years. The Steuart-Fothringham have been connected with the Games ever since. The great grandson of the Colonel is the fourth and present Chieftain of the Games. The minutes of 1892 record the attendance as being 5,152. It is recorded that year lunch was provided for the Committee, Judges and Reporters. The cost had not to exceed £4 but it is minuted that 3 galls of whisky, 6 doz beers and 6 doz bottles of water was provided. There is no mention of the food. In 1893, it is recorded that Mr James MacIntosh, Secretary, was presented with £5 on the occasion of his marriage. Committee Members were expected to make up any shortfall in funds to meet expenses and there are various instances of this being enforced. Sums vary from 3/9d per head to £1. This being repaid with interest when funds allowed. This rule is no longer in existence much to the relief of the present Committee. Several policemen were engaged for the Games, the numbers varying over the years. On one occasion, it is recorded that 15 was suggested, later on 1Sgt and four Constables were quite common. There is no record of a fee ever being asked for or paid. (The present Committee stopped this practice around 1985 when the fee for 4hrs was almost £100). Vandalism must have been a problem in 1890 - 1900 as two men were engaged to guard the Grand Stand overnight before the Games. It appears that for many years, a Mr J Lawrie was asked to decorate the stand and some members of the Committee were detailed to provide heather for decoration.
Chapter 2 - 1900 to 2000
In 1913 Mr Alex Campbell, Beechwood, Birnam, the local plasterer was appointed Treasurer, he held this position for 47years retiring in 1950. On his retirement, he was presented with a dry battery radio. Mr Campbell succeeded the position of treasurer on the death of Mr John Kinnaird who was one of the originators of the Games back in 1864. The minutes of 1919 record, that Mr Charles MacIntosh was appointed as an Honorary Steward after being on the Committee for many years. The first Games to be held after the First World War were held on 1920 and were back in the original field at Birnam House Park. This was because the Terrace Park was still under cultivation. 1922 records the sole right to supply refreshments was given to D. H. Bruce who ran the Bruce Tea Gardens. This area is now known as Bruce Gardens and is small housing estate. Four local firms of joiners were asked to submit tenders for laying out the Games Park. They were McCarrie and Black, J. McFarlane, Miller and McCallum and Clyde Dunkeld. McCarrie and Blacks tender of £10 being accepted. After 44years service as Secretary James MacIntosh retires in 1924 and is presented with a gift in the Birnam Hotel after the Games. The minutes do not record what the gift was. The minutes of 1925 record that the piping judges were to be 1Pipe Major, 1Amateur Piper and a Capt. Lyle. It was proposed to approach Setan Gordon to be the Amateur Judge. He later became famous as a writer and piper. The minutes do not record if he accepted. The Committee Members of this time seem to have had a great love for meetings and various sub-committees were formed. One typical instance is a Whist Drive and Dance that was held at the Birnam Hotel after a total of 11 sub- committee meetings had been held. 1928 sees names appearing on the Committee of people well known to the author of this history (R. McGregor, known to all as Bobby). They are Chairman Hendry Crombie (Headmaster), Vice-Chairman David Wilson (Royal Dunkeld Hotel). New members of the Committee were Alex McGregor of Meikle Lodge (Bobby’s uncle) a keen member for many years. John Brodie of the Lowes, Pat Smith of Braidstone, Murthly, Archie Buchanan, Draper of Dunkeld to name but a few.
In 1930, a sub-committee was set up to purchase a new caber. This was first used in 1931 and a newspaper cutting about the Games tells of the caber had to be cut twice on the field before it could be turned by the heavyweights of the day. No records of its actual dimensions are known. A Jubilee Dinner was held in the Birnam Hotel in 1932 to celebrate 60 years of the Games. The Chieftain, Col W. Steuart-Fothringham invited the Games to return to the Terrace Park, Which they did in 1934 on a long lease. The rent was 1shilling per annum. !934 saw the famous Pony Trot held after the Games. Col. Steuart-Fothringham, Chieftain for 44years, died in 1936 and was succeeded by his son Donald Steuart-Fothringham. (He was to serve as Chieftain longer than his father did). In 1938 it is recorded that that the first lady piper competed in the Games. She was Mrs Helen Wilson McPherson of Dundee and she just fails to make the prize list. It is minuted that the attendance at these Games was 5,000. Games were held in 1939 on the 26th August, just before the War was declared. The last minuted meeting of the Committee was in 1941. The equipment was put into safe storage although it is not minuted where that was. The Terrace Park was once again ploughed up for food production. The first meeting of the Committee after the Second World War was held on the 27th May 1946 at which John Bruce was proposed as a member. This was the beginning of a long and very loyal association with the Games. At a Committee Meeting, a few months later he was invited to take the Chair as both the Chairman and Vice-Chairman were absent. The Games in 1946 took the form of a sports day and were held in Birnam Public Park. This area is now much reduced in size due to the construction of the A9. It is now known as Torwood Park. The same format took place in 1947. There were no Games in 1948; however, the lease on Terrace Park was renewed from Murthly Estates for 1 shilling per annum. Mr Stewart Robertson undertook to plough and reseed the Park to make it suitable for Games again. A new fence was also erected.
The first proper Games after the War were held on The Terrace Park in 1950. The Black Watch Pipe Band, motor cycle acrobatics and sheep dog trials were the attractions. The Games Committee were very grateful to Stewart Robertson who put in a tremendous amount of work making the ground suitable. As stated before, 1950 saw the retirement of the treasurer Mr Alex Campbell. He was succeeded by as treasurer by Hugh Sim and W. D. Grant. (Bank of Scotland). It was about this time Games joined the Scottish Games Association. Motor Cycle Racing was very popular in 1952 and a meeting was arranged for the 30th July. It was an evening meeting attracting 16 riders and 1700 spectators. One of the leading racers was Jim Goglan of Bankfoot. Jim was well known in the area because until ill health caused his early retirement he was a member of the Bankfoot Road Squad. Riding a bike powered by a 500cc J.A.P engine Jim was too good for the opposition and swept the board. The Games were held on the 23rd August and as usual were a great success. At these Games, a demonstration of sheep bog trials was given by Duncan McKinnon of Riemore. Duncan was a well-known and successful competitor at local and national levels and his performance was very well received. The Shows returned to the Games in 1953 after an absence of some years. They were located in the field opposite Young’s Garage. The minutes of this year record that the admission prices were 2/6d for Park and Hill areas, 2/- extra for ringside seats and 2/- for car parking. The Games were held in good weather after a week of rain. Present was the Duchess of Atholl who graciously accepted to present the Trophies to the School Relay Race teams. An effort to regenerate this event was tried in 2004 but was meet with no interest whatsoever from the primary schools in the area. A shield for dancing was presented by Mr. D. S. Paterson of Burntisland (a dancing judge). It was to be called the Birnam Highland Games Shield. It was in use until 1987 when all the spaces for the winners were filled. Mr Ian Donald of Dunaird Cabins kindly donated a replacement.
The Committee organised a Clay Pigeon Shoot at Tullymilly Park on the 1st May1954. It was considered to be a successful event with some 30 guns taking part. This was the year that the Committee engaged James Miller of Dollar as commentator. His fee was 3gns.Thus began a long association with the Games with James continuing as commentator until1984 when ill health forced him to retire. He was an accomplished runner in his day and he never tired of telling of his exploits especially to tourists. Arriving a week before the Games Jimmy parked his caravan on the Games Park and mounted guard over the track and equipment on the field. At the games in 1954 were the Scottish Horse Pipe Band and a high-wire act by Derrico, Britain’s Wonder Boy Aerialist. There were 32 events on the programme (in 2005 there were 70 events). Another Grass Track meeting was held in September but does not appear to have been very successful due to bad weather and being too late in the season. Games funds were very low at this time and various means of raising money were tried. Part of the financial problem was the Entertainment Tax Which was levied on admission charges. Protests were made at various levels about this Tax by various other Games Committees. It appears that no tax was being levied on English Cricket Matches and Games Committees across the whole of Scotland felt hard done by. No Games were held in 1955 due to shortage of funds. A Fete was held instead to raise funds. It was opened by Mrs Leburn the wife of the M.P. A dance was also held in the Birnam Hotel on the 9th November. The music was supplied by the Debonair Dance band at a cost of £15.
Games were held again in 1956 at which the Lena Westwater Cup for Highland Dancing was first competed for. This cup is still in use and is awarded to the juvenile who accrues the most points (8yrs to 11yrs). At the AGM in 1957 Wm Campbell, Son of the late Treasurer, retired as Chairman and was succeeded by James Laird of Tarfuack. Jim is still a Committee member today having first become a member in 1954 (52yrs in 2006) The Vice-Chairman was John Bruce and the Secretary was John Fergusson of Birnam. Interest in organising and running the Games was very low at this time. John Bruce proposed that existing members try to recruit some new blood, preferably workers. By this means, the Committee was increased to 24 members. Work was required on the Terrace Park and a Road Roller was hired from the County Council to roll the track. Games Day this year turned out to be very wet but despite the rain, the Games went ahead. The Edinburgh City Police Band was the main attraction. Their fee was £30. No Games were held in 1958 but a proposal was made that the 1959 Games be held in the Recreation Park. This was accepted and the work of arranging it began. In 1959, therefore the 77th Games were held in the Recreation Park with John Bruce as Chairman. The Shows were there and as usual exceeded there allotted space. The main attraction at 1960 Games was a Helicopter Display by the RAF. There was a raffle for a budgie, which had been donated by Dougal McCallum. Looking after the budgie and the selling of tickets was left in the hands of Rita Campbell (now Murray); the winner was Margaret Jones of Dunkeld.
The Vale of Atholl Pipe Band had at the shows for many years but at one Committee Meeting, it was decided that the Band was not a sufficient attraction and that a more attractive Band be engaged. Times have changed and the Vale of Atholl Band is one of the best there is, Birnam Games cannot afford them. In 1961, Wm Rattray of Lettre Farm presented a Cup for the most points in the Open Heavyweights events. Called the Rattray Cup it is still competed for today. The first winner of the Cup was A. Sutherland of Alness. Well-known Heavyweights to win the Cup in latter years were - Arthur Rowe, Bill Anderson, Geoff Capes and Charlie Allen. In 1962 the Games were Held on the 1st September and the main attraction was Bobby Watson and his Deeside Dancers. Committee Members are generally long serving and 1962 the name of Ian Lamb first appeared in the minutes. (44yrs in2006). The AGM of 1963 recorded the sudden death of the Secretary and Treasurer John Fergusson. John Bruce assumed the mantle of these offices for an interim period. The minutes of 1963 record that the main attraction at that years Games was Jimmy Shand Jnr. and his band. The 29thAugust 1964 was the Centenary of the Birnam Games. It was again held in the Recreation Park. It is minuted that admission to the Park was 3/-, ringside seats 2/- extra and Car Parking was 2/-. The main attraction was once again a Helicopter Display by the RAF. George Robertson took over as Secretary followed in 1965 by Sandy Spence. To mark the Centenary Year a Cup was presented for Local Dancers by Bill Johnson, Showman. Called the Johnson Trophy it was first competed for in 1966and the first winner was Heather Stewart of Stanley. This cup is still competed for today. In 1969, Major Charles Macauly was appointed Chairman, a post he was to fill very ably for the next 20years until ill health forced him to retire. The Games Committee then unanimously appointed him Hon. Life President. John Bruce was formally made Secretary and Treasurer.
In 1970, the Games were held on the 29th August, at which there was a very large entry of Highland dancers, over 150, resulting in the Games not finishing until 8pm. The numbers of classes were reduced after that and more dancers were to appear on the platform at one time. The Games continued in the Recreation Park until 1974. The building of the A9 bypass took some of the Recreation Park and caused disturbance to the surface of the remaining area. The Games for 1975 were cancelled to allow the grass to grow in the new field the construction had created. The first Games in the new Recreation Field were held on the 28th August 1976. The new field was found to be rather narrow and over the years several changes have been made to the layout of the Games to make the best use if the space available. In 1979, two new members joined the Committee, Dave Shilliday and Bobby McGregor (the author of this History). Therefore, much of the information given after that date is from first hand experience.
In 1981 Queen Anne Scotch Whisky who had sponsored the Tug -of -war at several different games for a good few years withdrew their support. As Birnam was the last venue for their league we were always sure of a large entry for the event. At least 10 teams would turn up (in 1992 this number dropped to four, now it is not on the event sheet). The Lord Selkirk Pipe Band from Canada was touring Scotland in 1981 and asked if they could play at the Games. A return visit was arranged in 1989 but due to a double booking we lost out. In the local Fire Service asked permission to attend the Games and make a collection for their Benevolent Fund. The Games Committee were pleased to welcome them and they became a ‘Fixture’ for many years. 1982 was the year Bobby McGregor took over as Competition Secretary from Peter McDonald who had held the post since 1975. Peter painted all the road signs that were put out prior to the Games. John Bruce donated a Cup for the Best Dressed Dancer and Mr Walter Steuart-Fothringham donated a special Cup for Caber Tossing. 1983 was the 100th Gathering. A grand parade was held led by Mr Donald Steuart-Fothringham deputising for his uncle who was unfortunately indisposed. Geoff capes and another heavyweight carried the placard. At the AGM in 1984 the Games Committee held saddened to here of the death of the Chieftain, Donald Steuart-Fothringham of Murthly. He had been Chieftain for 47years. Mr Robert Steuart-Fothringham was appointed to succeed him. Also recorded at that meeting was the death of Mr George Halley of Blackford, a Heavy Weight for many years and a good friend of the Games. He was succeed by another well-known heavyweight, Mr Ian Brown of Murthly. At the 1984 Games Mr Walter Steuart Fothringham presented a shield in memory of the last Chieftain. It was to be presented to the best player of Piobaireachd. It is still competed for and is a much sought after trophy by the pipers. In this year the Committee were offered the use of the old football hut to store equipment. It was used for this purpose until 2003 when it was replaced with a new one. After a wet summer in 1985 the Games Field was saturated but with a few dry days before Games Day the Committee decided to hold the Gathering as all the SGA officials were booked up until the end of the season. The park ended up like a ploughed field and the Committee were indebted to Peter Drysdale who used his tractor to pull almost every car out of car park. This was the last Games for Jimmy Miller, the commentator. He had been commentating since 1954 and he was presented with a small momento by the Committee. Jimmy was succeeded by Tom Paterson of Alva.
In 1986 the Committee were saddened to hear of the death of a very popular member and Vice - Chairman Bob Shilliday. Bob greatest interest was the heavyweight events and his widow, Mrs Margaret Shilliday presented a trophy in his memory to be competed for by local heavyweight competitors. The first winner was Rab Simpson of Kirkmichael. Tom Robertson of Birnam won the Cup several times. Also in 1986 Mrs Nan Campbell Mulholland of Ballincreiff House, Birnam (better known to locals as Lochgreen) presented a Rosebowl for Junior Pipers. Mrs Jean McDonald presented the Games with a new Tug - of -War rope in 1987. It was in memory of her husband Alex McDonald who was a Committee Member for many years and always be depended upon to bring his lorry to transport all the equipment which at that time, before the Committee took over the old football hut, was stored in the Birnam Hotel. In 1988 the SGA insisted that we have a member attend their meetings. We were lucky to have Walter Clancy from Cowdenbeath volunteer to represent us. Walter had come to Birnam as an SGA Official for many years. New flags and bunting were purchased to help brighten up the field. Major Macualy retired as Chairman through ill health in 1989. He was made an Honorary Life President. His successor was Dave Shilliday of Inchewan and John Pattillo took over as Vice-Chairman. To go back a few years is now necessary in the story of the Birnam Games. After the 1986 Games a certain well-known heavyweight borrowed the Birnam Caber to yes at the Highland Games at Meadowbank the following day. Despite repeated queries and help from the SGA the caber was never returned. Our Chieftain kindly donated a new caber that had to dry out for 2 years. It was first used at the Games of 1989
The Games of 1990 were a success except for one small incident. A piece of the caber had to be cut off one end as no-one could turn it. This had happened once before with old caber. In 1931 it had to be cut twice by George Laird. This time Ian Lamb did the needful. Mrs Steuart-Fothringham of Kennicoil took the cut piece to place at her front door. 1991 was a year of presentations. John Bruce retired as Secretary, an office he held along with Treasurer for 26 years. In all John ha 46 years service to the Games. A secret meeting of the Committee was held to consider hoe to mark this occasion and it was decided that a Rosebowl from Caithness Glass be purchased. The bowl was suitably inscribed on one side and a Games scene was inscribed on the other. This was duly presented to him at the Games and Mrs Bruce was presented with a bouquet of flowers. In his speech of reply John said it was the first time the Committee had done something without his knowing about it. The Showman, Bill Johnson, handed in an envelope containing a substantial sum of money from the Show people to add to John’s presentation. The Chieftain was presented with a sporran flask to commemorate 100 years of the Fothringham family being Chieftains. His Grandfather from 1891 to 1935, his Uncle from 1935 to 1984 and then himself. As Mr Robert Steuart-Fothringham Chieftain was also President of Blairgowrie Pipe Band the Pipe Major presented him with a certificate making him a band member. The Committee was indebted to the boys of the local Fire Service who, during all these festivities, guarded the various tents containing the trophies, the Treasurers tent and the Beer tent.