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Sunny Games draw record crowds

By David G Scott

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GLORIOUS sunshine was the order of the day at the John O’Groats showground on Saturday as record numbers of people travelled from far and wide to attend the Mey Highland Games.

It may be debatable as to whether the sunshine was by royal command but certainly it had HRH Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay, donning his sunglasses as he sat back to enjoy the sound of the massed pipe bands of Wick, Thurso and Kirkwall followed by the Military Wives Choir who sang a series of popular Scottish songs.

Taking on the driver's role, Prince Charles arrived by car around 3pm. He was greeted initially by Lord and Lady Thurso and then by other local dignitaries who joined him in the royal tent to watch the games.

Help for Heroes team take the strain for the tug of war.
Help for Heroes team take the strain for the tug of war.

The new chairman of the games, Councillor Andrew Sinclair, said: "Organising this year’s Mey Games has been a challenge but our organising committee has been absolutely fantastic and has really risen to the occasion. We are delighted at how successful the day was.

"The athletes and crowds were absolutely brilliant, and the weather couldn’t possibly have been better. The feedback we’re getting from many who attended is that this was the best games yet."

Murray Lamont from Mackays Hotel offered the royal party a tipple and, as a member of the Mey Games committee, he also affirmed that it was "one of the best games" he had attended and a "really perfect day all round".

As chieftain of the games, Prince Charles said he was proud to be following in the footsteps of his grandmother, the Queen Mother, who had served that same role.

"Mey Highland Games take their name from the castle my grandmother bought in 1952," he said. "In her annual visits, she became so incredibly fond of the north Highlands of Scotland and the lovely people who she simply treated as neighbours and friends."

Captain Ashe Windham, a trustee of the Castle of Mey Trust, said he was particularly pleased at how the day went. "The weather was fantastic and the crowd very enthusiastic. His Royal Highness was delighted to attend as chieftain and he always looks forward to coming every year."

Lord Snowdon and Lady Sarah Chatto, the son and daughter of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, were part of the royal retinue.

Lord Snowdon said he was a reader of the John O'Groat Journal, as was his grandmother, the late Queen Mother. "I remember your paper was always sitting by the fireside at the castle [of Mey]. I love your paper and always read it when I can."

Though his mother, Princess Margaret, was said to have disliked visiting the Castle of Mey, Lord Snowdon said he had always enjoyed coming to Caithness. "I always loved coming here, even as a child, to see my grandmother at the Castle of Mey."

After watching various events and musical performances from the royal tent, Prince Charles took a walkabout tour of the games field, talking to competitors, organisers, traders in their tents and many members of the public.

Paul Cannop from Thurso managed to take a quick video of the prince as he shook his hand. "I told him about the work I've done in the community and he'd heard about it. It was fantastic and I'm over the moon about it all."

On his walk around the grounds, Prince Charles watched a strongman contest in which Luke Stoltman triumphed by lifting huge stones, known as Ardblair Stones, on top of whisky barrels.

After receiving a trophy from the prince, Mr Stoltman said: "It was good to have a bit of friendly banter with him. He asked me why I was so big and I told him I also compete in the World's Strongest Man competition so do a lot of training for it."

Councillor Sinclair said he was pleased that event had gone so smoothly and with record numbers of people in attendance. "HRH the Duke of Rothesay was in great spirits and seemed to really enjoy getting out and meeting the crowds," he said. "He took the time to talk to so many people as we made our way around the park and stopped by a number or craft and charity stalls to hear about some of the great work going on in Caithness."

The final tug-of-war contest, at the end of the afternoon, is a highlight of the event and teams from Help for Heroes (HfH) – comprising serving soldiers and veterans recovering from major physical injuries or mental trauma – and Police Scotland battled it out in a nail-biting finish. The HfH team eventually took the crown and the chieftain awarding them a crate of beer for their efforts.

Throughout the day, and long before the royal party arrived, 50 athletes including many disabled veterans competed in a variety of traditional Highland sporting activities including tossing the caber, sheaf-tossing, throwing the hammer and the gruelling Charlie Simpson Memorial Walk in which a huge stone is lifted and carried along the field.

Last year, the Mey Games became the first event of its kind to include an adaptive element – inviting para-athletes to compete. Uncle Sam’s Highlanders, travelling from America, joined with the 25-strong HfH team again.

One of the competing athletes who really made her mark was Elissa Hapner, from Chicago. "I entered in a few things and got first overall in the heavy events and the throwing events. I got a second in the Ardblair Stones and then I did the stone carry for 50 metres and got a first in that."

Other winners included veteran Jim Holborn, who won adaptive light and heavy shot puts and weight for distance, and Vlad Tulacek from the Czech Republic who won light and heavy shot puts, weight for distance, hammer, heavyweight through legs and tossing the caber.

Charlie Murray, president of the Scottish Highland Games Association, worked his way around each event to adjudicate. "This is a tremendous advert for bringing together adaptive, ladies and the open athletes all together in the one field," he said.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority was a major sponsor of the games this year and its chief executive officer, David Peattie, awarded prizes of glass quaichs for the winners at the end of the event.

"Part of our mission has been to support the communities where we operate and Caithness is a really important one for us," he said. "The Mey Games is a real flagship event for us."

Apart from the athletic games on the main field there were piping and Highland dancing competitions together with novelty events for children and a fun dog show with prizes for the "waggiest tail" and "prettiest bitch".

Dozens of stalls sold local delicacies, drinks, crafts and gifts and a food tent provided a sheltered seating area for visitors.

Just before Prince Charles left to thunderous applause from the huge crowd, he was presented with a bottle of craft gin by army reservist Private Nick Hodgson emblazoned with his battalion's name on the label.

"The gin was of particular significance as it was the C Company, 51st Highlanders special limited edition bottling," Councillor Sinclair said.

He said that Prince Charles had shown his own generosity by giving a "sizeable donation" to the Mey Games through his charitable trust.

“We’re delighted to receive this generous donation from His Royal Highness, which is a real illustration of his commitment and support for the games and to Caithness more widely.

"Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Mey Games, so we’ll be aiming to make 2020 an extra-special celebration."

Prince Charles speaks to para-athletes from Help for Heroes.
Prince Charles speaks to para-athletes from Help for Heroes.

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