Braemar Royal
Highland Society
Early Years

Twenty Long Decades – A Few Glimpses of Braemar Royal Highland Society’s Early Years on the Occasion of its Bicentenary

There was little fuss in 1815 when the Braemar Wright Society was formed, although the event was doubtless well discussed in the various households in both parts of the village, for in those days Braemar was very much a village divided in two; Castleton, on the East, derived its name from the ruined 12th century riverbank stronghold of Kindrochit Castle and formed part of Invercauld Estate, home to the Farquharson family since the 14th century, while Auchendryne (thorny field) on the West, was on Mar, part of the Earl of Mar’s properties forfeited after the 1715 uprising and bought about 1730 by William Duff, later to be Lord Braco, Viscount Macduff, and Earl Fife, and whose descendants were to become Dukes of Fife.

For many years, the Braemar vrichts or wrights[1] had been assembling in their white aprons on a pre-arranged day in late summer to form a procession, headed by a piper, through Auchendryne, then south along the old military road to Coldrach, where they crossed Clunie and returned via what was known as the Laird’s Ride (now part of the A93) to the old Market Stance in Castleton. This had become known locally as ‘The ‘The Vrichts’ Walk’. Then there ensued what Charles McHardy, a Braemar man who became Chief Constable of Dunbartonshire, was pleased to term ‘jollifications’. All we now know of the jollifications, which were at that time ad hoc and without prizes, is that they included highland competitions of strength and skill, no doubt lubricated by much illicit whisky.


The wrights, and in this context the term was elastic, had met during the evening of Friday 21st July, probably in the Castleton Inn (now Invercauld Arms Hotel), and decided to form a Mutual Benefit or Friendly Society, to be called The Braemar Wright Society. In this they were by no means unique or even unusual; thousands of similar societies had been set up throughout the country (by 1802, 9,672 had been registered in Great Britain), all of them based on the principle of each member contributing a small sum of money regularly to a common pot, which was then dipped into to help any member who was struggling. Some also paid a pension to retired members, widows or orphans. Funeral benefits for members were also frequently included. Many of them were Wright Societies, simply because wrights were the most numerous class of artisan, but few if any excluded non-wrights. Since the late eighteenth century the government had been trying to encourage the formation of such societies, hopeful that workers would make their own provision for times of hardship, and thus ease the load that parishes or the forever penny-pinching government might have to bear. There was also another, hidden, benefit: the societies were governed by legislation, passed during the early period of Napoleonic upheaval on the continent, and they had to be registered by the Quarter Sessions, thus allowing the authorities to keep a weather eye on what was going on – the government was very wary of Jacobin or other radical plotters and secret societies; and when the legislation was passed, not only was the continent in turmoil, but the disaster of the ’45 was still well within living memory.

Although many Friendly Societies were formed, few survived more than a decade or two, simply because the founders had miscalculated the finances. It must be remembered that, in the main, the societies were managed by working men without any background of sophisticated financial management or access to actuarial advice. Of those that did survive, The Braemar Wright Society, now The Braemar Royal Highland Society, vies with Scottish Widows (both 1815) as being possibly the oldest in Scotland that are still operational, followed by The Lonach Highland and Friendly Society (1822).

To return to the founding of the Braemar Wright Society, the first essential was to have a set of Rules and Regulations to work by; this was drawn up and the 25 rules approved by the committee in1816, but they still had to be sanctioned and registered by the Quarter Sessions, and this took a further year.


In summary, the initial financial provisions were that members, who were to be aged between 16 and 45 years at entry, were to pay an initial fee of 10/-, followed by quarterly contributions of 1/-. The entry fee was to be halved for sons or sons in law of members. No member with less than five years paid up membership was entitled to claim benefit, and no benefit at all would be paid until the funds amounted to £2 for every member of five years good standing. Subject to these provisos, members unable to earn their livelihood could be paid 3/- per week or, if bedfast, 4/- per week. For funeral expenses of a member, £1.10.0 could be claimed. Widows, if of good behavior and not remarried, would get £2 yearly. If a widow remarried, the payment would devolve on any children by her first husband. There was also provision for orphans.

Following approval of the Rules in January 1816, the first 46 members were enrolled, including three who were proposed and seconded, but did not pay their initial subscription of 10/- till the next meeting on 18th April. Subsequently, Quarterly Meetings were held during the third weeks of July, October, January and April. Meeting days were normally towards the end of the week, very often on Fridays, which subsequently became the normal meeting day. These Quarterly Meetings were effectively General Meetings, at which all members could attend to pay their quarterly subscriptions or “Pennies”, to propose new members, and to have their say in the management of their Society. Gradually, however, the Pennies became payable at the Annual General Meeting and the Quarterly Meetings were attended by Committee Members only.

The first Committee of Management was as follows:


William Farquharson, Esq., Monaltrie

Vice P.

John Robertson, Auchendryne
John Farquharson, Invercauld


William Robertson


Patrick Gordon, Sawmill

Key Keepers

John McGregor, Auchendryne
Arthur Dingwall, Inverey
Duncan Watson, Auchendryne


Alexr. McHardy, Auchendryne
James Gruer, Auchendryne
James Millor, Corriemulzie
Malcolm McGregor, Auchendryne
James McGregor, Auchendryne
John Duncan, Glen Clunie
Charles Cumming, Auchendryne
Angus McIntosh, Inverey


William Robertson, Auchendryne


John Lamont, Auchendryne


The President, William Farquharson of Monaltrie (c 1753 – 20.11.1828), was a nephew of Francis Farquharson of Monaltrie, the famous ‘Baron Ban’, who had had a last minute reprieve from execution following the disastrous ’45 Jacobite uprising and was a prominent figure on Upper Deeside, both as laird of Monaltrie and as estate factor to his uncle, John Farquharson, 9th of Invercauld.

A philanthropic and very community minded laird, William inherited Monaltrie Estate on the death of his uncle in 1791, and was responsible for completing Francis’ plan to create Ballater village, following the discovery of Pannanich Wells and its subsequent growth in popularity as a health resort. After the Ballater bridge over the Dee was destroyed by flood in 1799, he was, as principal local heritor, not only unstinting in his efforts to have the bridge replaced, but also the major private donor (£300) towards the cost of replacement. He laid the foundation stone in 1818[2] and the bridge was completed the following year. Unfortunately the Muckle Spate of 1829 similarly destroyed this second bridge.

His letter of acceptance as President was as follows:

Ballater House Feb’ry 12 1817

In answer to your letter John acquainting me that the Braemar Wright Friendly Society are desirous I should be Preses of it you will return my thanks to the Society for this mark of their regard, and tell them, that I have always had the greatest regard for Braemar from its being the Country of my Forefathers, and having passed many of the happiest days of my life in it, and hope still to do; that I accept with Pleasure of being Preses of your Society, and shall be very glad if I can in any way be of use to it. – You may therefore bring me your Rules and Regulations which I shall sign, & give you any Instructions which appear to me to be proper and necessary.

I am John
very much your Friend
William Farquharson
Mr John Farquharson
Wright at Invercauld.

Of the two Vice Presidents, John Farquharson was the house joiner at Invercauld, and John Robertson was a carpenter in Auchendryne.

Of the Key Keepers, Duncan Watson was a joiner in Inverey, as was Arthur Dingwall, while John McGregor was a shoemaker in Auchendryne. In 1817 the Society bought for 15/6 a metal box with three locks, to keep cash and important papers. The purpose of having three locks, with three separate Key Keepers, was of course to prevent the box being opened by any one or two; there was safety in numbers.

Patrick Gordon, the Treasurer, lived at Corriemulzie and was the Mar sawmiller at Allanquoich while the Clerk, William Robertson, whose occupation is unknown, was most probably a close relative of John Robertson the Vice President.

The Officer, John Lamond, was probably a crofter at Dalvregachy, a former croft where the dwelling house Dalvorar (formerly Easter Manse), now stands. He was the Society’s servant, and his main duty was to help the Office-bearers to call meetings and to act in his official capacity as directed.


Of the remaining seven Committee members, Alexander McHardy was a wright in Auchendryne; James Gruer was a farmer, later to farm at Braegarry, Corriemulzie; James Millor was a wright at Corriemulzie; Malcolm McGregor appears to have been a farmer at Dalchork, a short distance east of Braemar Castle; James McGregor, Auchendryne, is untraced, but died after paying only one subscription; John Duncan was a farmer in Glen Baddoch, at Letnasoider; Charles Cumming is untraced, but died in late 1823, and lastly, Angus McIntosh was a house carpenter in Inverey.

The expenditure for 1816 was £17.8.01/2, and included a Stand of Colours (£7.10.0); 15 sashes and mountings @ 12/5 each (£9.6.01/2), and carriage for these items at 12/-.

The Colours were described by the suppliers, Donald and Samuel Shaw in Aberdeen, as follows: Colours will be painted on white sarcnel or Linnen, with the Union at the top, a shield supported with the thistle & Rose implements within the shield. Crest Two hands in a special grip and be thou faithful wrote over the hands in Latin, at the foot of the shield a scrole BRAEMAR WRIGHTS(sic) FRIENDLY SOCIETY.

The honour of bearing the Colours for part of the way during the annual procession or march went to those who were prepared to pay for the privilege, and in 1816 Treasurer Gordon recorded “Gain on Colours” as £3.6.0. Unfortunately the Colours have not survived.

The sashes were of course for committee members, but there were only 15 sashes among 18 members. Possibly the President and Vice Presidents were excluded, or perhaps they were expected to provide their own. Only one treasured sash has survived in the Society’s possession.

At this point, it may well be wondered why the Braemar Wright Society has survived for two centuries while so many others failed within a few decades. There is no one simple answer to this question, and it was not that the initial Braemar monetary calculations were better than the others; they were equally over-optimistic. What Braemar had, however, that the others may have lacked, was an absolute determination to make the Society work, and to be pragmatic in their decisions. They invested in a stand of colours in order to make money from them; they had no hesitation in prosecuting non-payers; initially, no member could claim benefit before he had paid his dues for five years, and in addition, no benefit would be paid till the funds stood at a minimum of £2 for each eligible and fully paid-up member; in 1830 the lie period was raised to 8 years. In 1819, unsure of the Society’s financial strength, they decided to “close the fund”, i.e. not to pay any benefits, for a further two years, and later this embargo was extended till 1824. As early as 1817 the cash book shows that they were already making a small profit from dealing in meal, although this did not become official policy till 1819. In 1820, just to mak siccar[3], the initial joining fee was raised by 50% to 15/-.


Young James Farquharson of Invercauld and his kinsman William Farquharson of Monaltrie gave quite regular donations, and occasional donations from others were noted, but the Committee was not satisfied: the first effort to recruit Honorary Members seems to have been in 1826, and the only reason for having this class of member must have been the hope that they would be generous. One or two were, but alas, many were not, and quite a number gave nothing at all, notably Earl Fife, to whom they toadied, even to the extent of having a ball in his honour in 1820. Nevertheless, the patronage of the noble Earl would have been very useful in encouraging wealthy visitors to become associated with the Society. When new legislation in 1826 necessitated the introduction of new rules, and Honorary members became an integral part of the Society, the Committee took care to make an (unquantified) annual donation part of the conditions of membership.

Although there was a determination to make every penny a prisoner, it should not be thought that the Society was heartless: indeed quite the opposite. There are several cases in the early days of the Committee refusing a petition for aid, either because the petitioner had not been a member for long enough to qualify, or for some other reason when the rules failed to cover his circumstances. In each case, provided they were satisfied that there was hardship, the Committee circumvented the strict rules by making an outright present of money, always accompanied by a stern warning that this was a gift, and not to be considered in any way as a right.

In 1821, the Braemar Wright Society had its first mention in the Press, following the Coronation of King George IV on 19th July of that year. The Aberdeen Journal reported it thus:

The festivities in this part of the country, in honour of the King’s Coronation, and the sincere loyalty evinced by all ranks, could not have been exceeded in any part of the British empire. At an early hour in the morning, flags were displayed from the top of Braemar Castle, and other places; the bells were rung at noon, and soon after, a Royal salute was fired from the cannon at Invercauld and Ballater House (the residence of Mr Farquharson of Monaltrie). In the evening, bonfires were got up in various conspicuous places. There were many dancing parties, and a brilliant illumination took place in the villages of Braemar and Ballater, and in almost every inhabited house in the five adjoining parishes. Plenty of whisky and victuals were given to all who chose to partake of them, by subscription, to which the heritors contributed liberally. At Ballater, the Diligence came in with the Union Flag on it, and decorated with shrubs and flowers. There was also a neat show of fire-works – at Castletown, the Wright Friendly Society, in their insignia, and honoured by having Master James Farquharson[4] of Invercauld, and Mr. Farquharson of Monaltrie, in the full highland dress, in their procession, walked to the ruins of King Malcolm Canmore’s hunting seat, called Kindrochit Castle, on the summit of which they drank the King’s health with four times four. This celebrated spot has long been the property of the family of Invercauld. Though in many places the parties did not separate till a late hour next morning, not the least misunderstanding happened – all was joy and happiness.


In 1822, the military garrison at Braemar Castle had long outlived its main purpose and was being run down, and the building was in the process of being returned to the Laird of Invercauld, who at this time was Catherine Farquharson, 11th of Invercauld. The Committee decided to petition the Laird for the use of the soldiers’ dining hall at the castle (a wooden structure abutting the east wall, and long since demolished) for meetings. This request was immediately granted, along with the use of two rooms in the main building. It is not entirely clear, but it seems likely that at this stage “the competitions”, formerly referred to by Charles McHardy, Chief Constable of Dunbartonshire, as “the jollifications”, which followed the annual procession, were transferred from the market stance to the castle park.

Although the Earl Fife is not recorded as having made any contribution to the Society’s funds, he did take an interest, albeit at second hand. In 1823, a 27-year-old bachelor farmer from Corriemulzie joined the Society. His name was Charles Cumming: he already was, or was about to become, Earl Fife’s local factor, and four weeks after he joined, a letter was sent to The Right Honourable Earl of Fife asking him to accept the office of Honorary President of the Society. Within five weeks of Cumming’s joining, his proposal for a better system of bookkeeping had been accepted. Within six months he had been elected Deputy Master. This rapid upward progression could have had only one cause: he was in the Society as the Earl’s personal representative. In 1822, one year before Cumming joined, the members had decided that they would in future wear “Highland Garb” at their meetings: this must have struck a chord with Earl Fife when he heard, as when he was a14 year-old boy, his uncle, James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife, had been President of the Highland Society of London. Now here was a society in Fife’s own back yard that had opted to wear highland dress at its meetings; it was in all but name a highland society, and they had asked him to be Honorary President: it gave food for thought.

In 1825 a sub-committee was appointed to “revise the Regulations of the Society”. John Robertson, Vice President, headed it and unsurprisingly Charles Cumming was the next name on the list of members.

On 20th January 1826, Charles Cumming, not John Robertson, explained to the Committee the proposed changes, and the Braemar Wright Society became the Braemar Highland Society.

Since I have mentioned the meal-dealing venture, which lasted for 30 years, I should also explain the background, which involves the Corn Laws, enactments dating from the early years of the 19th century.

These laws imposed an import duty on foreign imported grain (mainly wheat). Parliament at that time was unduly influenced by a disproportionate number of landowner MPs, especially English landowners, who grew most of Britain’s wheat, and it was in their interests to keep the price of grain high: import duty did exactly that. For the poor, who were the main consumers of grain in the form of meal of one type or another, this artificially raised their cost of living, and caused real hardship and resentment. In years when the harvest was bad, the price of meal rocketed, the poor starved, and food riots, especially in cities, became frequent and often very violent. The issue was politically very highly charged, because, in contrast to the landowners who wanted high grain prices, the manufacturers wanted low food prices, so that they could cut their employees’ wages. In either case the labouring classes and the poor bore the brunt of the hardship.

The meal situation in 1815/16, already painful, was rendered much worse by two events. In 1815 the Napoleonic War ended, and Britain could once more import grain from the Continent. Grain prices plummeted, and the Government reacted by banning the import of grain till the price reached 80/- a quarter (eight bushels), thus artificially maintaining a high price. At the same time, many thousands of now unwanted soldiers and sailors had been paid off, many of them destitute. These combined circumstances caused furious riots, and for a time, Parliament had to be protected by troops. In 1815 also, there were huge volcanic eruptions in Asia, resulting in a volcanic ash cloud that was so enormous it shielded the sun. 1816 became known as the “Year Without a Summer”, and crops failed disastrously all over the Northern Hemisphere: Scotland did not escape. In Braemar parish particularly, all of it at an elevation of over 1,000 feet, with long winters, and where agriculture was marginal at best, the crofters were very badly hit, and starvation undoubtedly threatened.

The Braemar Wright Society, and its successor the Braemar Highland Society, with its plan to use the little money at its disposal to buy meal; usually oatmeal, but probably sometimes beremeal – bere being an undeveloped type of barley - where and when it could, and sell it on to the needy at a small profit, started after the 1816 harvest. A later development, when the Society had a little more money in hand, was to have two big meal girnels made[5], so that in a time of money, meal could be bought cheaply, stored in bulk and then sold, again at a small profit but under the market price, when supplies were scarce and expensive: this served to ratchet up the benefit. In 1830, 192 bolls and three firlots[6] were sold, resulting in a profit to the Society of £2.14.6 (between three and four pence profit per boll). The Braemar Wrights, of course, were not alone in this: the First Statistical Account describes similar schemes in various parishes in the Northeast.


The Braemar Wrights’ meal mongering venture had its ups and downs, but went on without a pause until the Irish potato famine, with an estimated one million deaths from starvation, created an irresistible need for cheap food: the political balance changed, the government withdrew the import duty on grain, and since there was no longer a need for the meal dealing operation, it was formally discontinued in July 1847.

On 20th July, 1832, at a General Meeting held in Braemar Castle, it was decided that £5 of the Honorary funds of the Society should be given as prizes to be competed for on the 23rd of August next. Not only was this effectively the start of the Braemar Games, although the first reference in the minutes to the competitions as “Games” did not come for a further ten years, the introduction of monetary prizes brought with it a need for formal regulation of the competitions. It must have been long agreed that only members of the Society could compete, as this is nowhere mentioned, but in 1835, “it was unanimously agreed upon that no member shall be allowed to compete who is in arrears to the Society. Competitors to obtain a certificate from the clerk of the Society to that effect to be produced when they come forward for the competition”.

In 1836, there came confirmation that the competitions were by this time firmly established at Braemar Castle: in the minutes of 15th July of that year: “… it was unanimously resolved to give the sum of six pounds Sterling to be competed for in Prizes as usual on the 25th day of August next in the Castle Park”.

At the 1832 games, there were only five competitions, and in all £4. 19. 4d was distributed in prizes, only the winner and runner-up receiving anything. The results were as follows:

Throwing the Stone John McGrigor and Alexr. Robertson

Throwing the Hammer Peter McHardy and Alexr. Lamond

Tossing the Bar (caber) William McHardy and Angus McIntosh

Best Runner James Shuan and James Lamond

Length of Service John Bowman

In 1833, the prize money was again £5, and the competitions the same also. The winners got 12/6, the runners-up 7/6, and the Length of Service winner £1.

This second year, Peter McHardy and John McHardy were first and second winners at the stone; Angus McIntosh and Duncan McGregor the Bar; John McKenzie and Donald McDonald the Sledge Hammer. William McHardy and Lewis Grant were the best runners, while Donald McKenzie got £1 for the Longest Service.

By 1838, the prize money from the Honorary Fund had increased to £6, and the prizes were 15/- and 10/-, for the same five competitions. This year however, a further £4.4.0 had been authorized for the purchase of four silver medals, to be known as Honorary Medals, awarded for the Stone, the Hammer, the Bar, and for Running. Although this is the first time that Honorary medals were mentioned, later competition records show that results from 1837 counted towards them. The conditions applicable to these medal competitions are nowhere stated, but it was clearly an early system (later to be altered) of handicapping. Those who had already won first prize in the normal competitions for any of the four Honorary Medal events were not allowed to compete again in the event for which they had won the prize, and had instead to compete for an Honorary Medal, for which any other Society member could apparently also compete. The winner of a competition for which there was also an Honorary medal could go on to compete for the medal on the same day. Any competitor who won an Honorary Medal for the same event in three successive years became the outright owner of the medal, and seems to have been barred from competing for that medal again.

1847 saw the last of the early games – everything would change in 1848. By that time the extended McHardy family had established itself as being top dog in the heavy competitions: John (b 1806) had won outright the medal for the Stone in 1839; Peter (b 1811) had won outright the medal for the Hammer in 1939, for the Stone in 1842, and for the Bar in 1843; Alexander (b 1826) won outright the Stone medal in 1845 at the age of 19, and then both the Hammer and the Bar outright in 1846.

Of these McHardys, John was the 11th and youngest surviving son of Alister McHardy who had farmed at Auchallater. John became a keeper on Mar, but later moved to Donside, where he became head keeper to Sir Charles Forbes of Newe. Alexander, always known as Alister, was his eldest son. He was also a keeper, but was reported as having served for a time in the Aberdeenshire Constabulary. He competed in the London Games, which the organisers called a Fete, in 1849 at the age of 23. There he won first prize at putting the stone and throwing the light hammer, and came second at the heavy hammer, when Colin Macdonald from Creanachan in Glen Roy, a superb all-rounder, beat him by two inches (and went on to receive a special prize for winning more events than any of the other competitors). In his prime Alister was recognized as the Scottish champion, and in later life farmed at Oldmill, Strichen, where he died in May, 1897. Peter and John were full cousins once removed. Peter was a keeper on Mar and later head keeper at Glenfeshie; he retired to Braemar and died in Viewmount, Auchendryne, in 1878.

However, during this time, other changes were taking place on upper Deeside. In 1832, a sasunnach milord, The Most Honourable Francis George Godolphin D’Arcy D’Arcy-Osborne, Marquess of Caermarthen, later to be 7th Duke of Leeds, took a 19 year lease of shootings on the Northern part of Mar estate. One of Lord Caermarthen’s titles was Viscount Dunblane: this gave him some connection with Scotland, which must have pleased him, as he dressed all his retainers in reddish Dunblane tartan. He was thus even with Earl Fife, who already provided Red MacDuff tartan for his keepers: they had long been christened by William Smith, alias Ulleam Ridhe-noamh, a poet and notorious poacher, who lived at the croft of Rynuie in Abernethy, as “The Red Foxes”.

Queen Victoria, by the mid 1840s, had already visited Scotland more than once, and much admired both the scenery and the people. During her second stay at Atholl in 1844, she had presented Colours to the Duke of Atholl’s Highlanders, thus authorising the Duke’s own private army. She had also decided that she wanted to have a Scottish home.

Initially, the West of Scotland was favoured, and in 1847 the Queen spent a month at Ardverikie on Loch Laggan. Unfortunately the weather during her stay there was the wettest and most miserable the West could produce, and by sheer chance, her Physician-in-Attendance’s son, who was at that time recuperating at Balmoral from an illness, wrote to his father in enthusiastic terms about the good weather he was experiencing on Deeside. On hearing of this, the Queen ordered an enquiry about the Deeside weather: the report was very favourable, and at this juncture serendipity took over, as Robert Gordon, the current tenant of the estate, which was by then owned by Earl Fife, died suddenly, and Balmoral became available to rent. The Queen wasted no time in arranging a lease, and disembarked from the Royal Yacht in Aberdeen, on Friday, 8th September 1848, at precisely 8.30a.m., accompanied by Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, The Princess Royal and Prince Alfred.

It was an unprecedented event for the City of Aberdeen, and the City Fathers did it full justice: when the royal cortege finally moved off from the quayside to start its journey to Balmoral, the procession was a long one. Everywhere there were flags, banners, bunting, Guards of Honour and wildly cheering crowds. However, eventually the city boundary was reached, the escorting dignitaries drew aside, and the Royal party continued on its 45 mile journey up Deeside, where their welcome was every bit as enthusiastic as in Aberdeen. In Banchory the road (now the A93) briefly left Aberdeenshire and entered Kincardineshire, and they were welcomed to the County by Lord Lieutenant Sir Thomas Burnett, who presented Loyal Addresses to both Her Majesty and Prince Albert. The proprietors of each estate the Queen passed through vied with each other in the magnificence of their welcome. At Aboyne, the party stopped for lunch, and immediately they left, the proprietor of the hotel recouped his expenses by auctioning the tartan floor covering the Queen had stood upon.

At 1.30p.m., as the party approached Ballater, a cannon on top of Craigendarroch started to fire a 21 Gun Salute, and a flag “of vast dimensions” was unfurled. James Farquharson of Invercauld had excelled himself: the Monaltrie Arms was a mass of flowers and flags, and there was a huge triple arch, garlanded with evergreens, fruit and flowers, and supporting three flags. In front of the Inn he stood, accompanied by five of his sons, all in full highland dress. He was summoned to the carriage and complimented by the Queen and Prince Albert, who spent a minute or so in conversation with him.

The final demonstration of public welcome came at Abergeldie, where there was yet another arch, the 23rd they had passed under that day, with the message, “Welcome to your Highland Home, Victoria and Albert.”

The Royal Party reached Balmoral about 2.45p.m., to be received by a detachment of the 93rd (Sutherland)Highlanders who were garrisoned at Braemar castle (the first “Royal Guard”). It must have seemed a very long day, but, having had something to eat, the couple was still keen enough to climb to the top of “a wooded hill opposite our windows”. The Queen that night wrote in her diary that the scenery “seemed to breathe freedom and peace, making one forget the world and its sad turmoil”.

It had been a significant day: Deeside and the Queen had fallen love with each other.

Meanwhile, at the Society’s AGM, held in Braemar Castle on 21st July, 1848, quite unaware that their little world was about to be turned upside down and would never be the same again, the members, having ploughed diligently through all the usual business, had finally decided to have a “Procession, Dinner and Ball as usual on 31st August at Braemar Castle, the hour of meeting to be 11 o’clock forenoon”. It was not to happen.

We do not know when James Farquharson received Queen Victoria’s acceptance of his invitation to visit the Braemar Gathering at Invercauld, but it was in time for him firstly to tell the Society that he had changed the venue and secondly to make arrangements fit for a Queen.

On Thursday, 14th September, about 2.30p.m. The Royal Family arrived at Invercauld, where the Laird and his Lady, accompanied by their six sons and General Sir Alexander Duff from Mar Lodge, all resplendent in highland dress, greeted them. The General, representing his brother the Earl Fife, who for some reason was not there, first of all presented the Queen with a bouquet of flowers, then the Farquharson boys presented a bouquet each to the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred, all of whom were dressed in Stuart tartan.

This meeting between the Prince of Wales, aged seven, and James Ross Farquharson, aged fourteen, was to be start of a lifelong friendship. Either then, or possibly at some later stage, and unfortunately there seems to be no record of it, Prince Edward presented James with a fine pair of silver mounted and boxed pistols, manufactured by Kirkwood of Aberdeen, and engraved as follows: From H.R.H. the Prince of Wales to James Ross Farquharson in Remembrance of the 14th. September 1848.

The Laird had of course arranged for the Gathering to be held at Invercauld House in the express hope that the Queen might accept his invitation to attend, and he had spared no effort to impress the Royal couple: the Games were held on the terraced lawn in front of Invercauld House, where the grandeur of the view, especially looking across the Dee, even at this early stage a sizeable river, towards rugged Creag Clunie, the Ballochbuie forest and Lochnagar; already snow-capped, could not have been surpassed anywhere. The scenery was matched by the weather, which was calm and balmy, with the thermometer showing 70 degrees in the shade.

The great and the good who attended were no less impressive than the scenery; in addition to the Royal Family and the Farquharson Clan Chief and his family, who were their hosts, there were a brace of Dukes and a Duchess. The Duke of Atholl had, the previous day, marched his private army of 98 highlanders, complete with black velvet jackets, silver buttons, Murray of Atholl kilts and plaids, and bonnets with a sprig of juniper, through Glen Tilt and down Glen Dee to Mar Lodge, where they had bivouacked overnight. They bore two large standards; one with the Royal arms above Athol Highlanders and the other with the Duke’s own arms. The Duke and Duchess of Leeds had their retainers in Dunblane tartan, while the Earl of Airlie had brought along 40 highlanders also. As already noted, General Duff, commanding the Duff highlanders (which he diligently and regularly drilled), represented Earl Fife, and of course the Farquharson highlanders were also there in strength. All of the highlanders were heavily armed, with a selection of Lochaber axes, broadswords, pikes, dirks, targes, and as befitted a private army, the Atholl men carried firearms; reluctantly, they had left their cannon at home. The Marquis of Huntly was present, as were the Earl and Countess of Aboyne. There were also listed five Lords and Ladies, plus four Knights and a large number of Honourables, Army officers, MPs and miscellaneous landed gentry; both greater and lesser. Braemar had never seen such a gathering of the British upper classes.

There were also commoners present in their thousands; crowding in everywhere and trying to get nearer to the Queen, and they came from far and near. Old Angus McIntosh, the Glen Clunie schoolteacher, observing from his cottage on the banks of the Allt Mhait, recorded in a letter to a friend in America that he had observed, that morning, over 200 people and 20 carriages that had come from the Angus Glens and the South, all heading for the Braemar Gathering.[7] He opined that anyone passing through any of the glens around Braemar and much further afield, that day, would see only very old and very young people – all of the rest having gone to see the Queen – “on Invercauld’s bowling green”.

The games were preceded by a demonstration to Her Majesty of the various competitions involved, and then they got under way with a race between six competitors, across the Dee, then to the top of Creag Clunie. The Queen showed a keen interest, and there ensued a scramble to enable her to watch through a telescope, which she finally did, using Prince Albert’s telescope rested on General Duff’s shoulder. She was so impressed by the race that she gave £5 for the winner, who was a 25 year old young man named Lewis McGrigor from Morven; his time to the summit was nine minutes. Lewis also received £4 as the Society’s prize for the Hill Race, and went on to win a further 15/- for winning at the Hammer, so he had a very good day indeed.

There was an extra competition for throwing the 16lb hammer, for an unspecified prize donated by an Honorary Member, and it was won by Alexander (Alister) McHardy with a distance of 90’ 7”; a distance described in the Aberdeen Journal as being “unparalleled at any gathering” (the current Braemar Local Record for the 16lb hammer at the time of writing is 127’6” – G. Martin, 1998).

During the afternoon the various Clans of Highlanders danced before the Queen, who, before leaving to return to Balmoral, distributed silver brooches and snuff mulls to those whom she considered the best. Of the Invercauld men, Charles Coutts received a brooch with a Cairngorm stone as did Anrew Millar of the Duffs, while Robert Stewart of the Duke of Leeds’s men and Charles Christie of the Atholl Highlanders both received snuff mulls.

At the end of the Games, the guests and clansmen sat down to a dinner, courtesy of the Laird, in a large marquee that had been specially decorated for the occasion. There were numerous speeches and 20 toasts, the first of which, “The Queen”, was drunk with “Highland Honours”; at that time common practice for special toasts. It consisted of climbing up on one’s chair and drinking the toast while standing with the left foot on the chair and the right on the tabletop. For some reason the custom seems to have now died out.

After the dinner, there was a Grand Ball with about 600 guests present; it included a dancing competition between eight of the highlanders who had danced in front of The Queen. Charles Christie (Atholl) won and received a Queen Mary silver brooch donated by a Miss Lane Fox, who had been designated Queen of the Ball. There was a substantial supper, again provided by the laird, and dancing went on through the night. The Aberdeen Journal concluded that the whole proceedings “would not be speedily forgotten” and it is difficult not to see why.

In her diary that night, the Queen had no comment to make on the Gathering as a whole, but thought that the eight Farquharson boys were “very fine, nice boys”, and that the plaid the Duke of Leeds had invented for his people was “wonderful”.

Needless to say, the news of Queen Victoria’s holiday at Balmoral, in conjunction with her outstandingly triumphal progress through Aberdeen and Deeside, and culminating in her endorsement of the Braemar Gathering, made national news: suddenly highland Scots seemed more romantic than ever, and highland games were something to be admired, encouraged, and organized wherever possible.

The following year, the country went mad about highland games, and in our own north-east corner, around that time, there seemed to be few parishes without their own games: Aberdeen, Auchterless, Banchory, Cromar, Finzean, Gairnside, Glenbucket, Glentanar, Inverness, Inverurie, Kincardine O’Neil, Lonach, Lumphanan, Midmar, Newhills and sundry others were advertised in the Aberdeen Journal. Some were permanent fixtures, like the Northern Meeting in Inverness, while others withered after one year. Even remote Gairnside had its own Gairnside Gathering for at least two years, held on the level ground beside the Rinloan Inn. Not even London was exempt, although Londoners drew the line at calling their gathering a highland games. Theirs was a “Fete” featuring highland competitions (as well as shooting, archery, singlestick and others), and it took place on two successive years. This was the games of which Sir Charles Forbes of Newe boasted of sending “38 feet of McHardy” (six men averaging 6’4” in height) to compete.

Although Queen Victoria had been the main inspiration for all the enthusiasm for highland games, she seems to have fallen a hapless victim to it herself, as in 1859 she decided to have her own games at Balmoral. The Braemar Gathering had been held as usual in the Castle Park, on Thursday 1st September of that year, but the Queen was not present, having just returned from Osborne the previous day. However, the Committee, summoned to a meeting on 12th September, were informed by the President of a letter received from Dr. Andrew Robertson, the Queen’s Factor at Balmoral, to the effect that the Queen was to hold a Highland Games at Balmoral on 22nd September, and that the Braemar Highland Society was invited, not merely to attend, but to take part in the arrangements. The members, although overwhelmed by the great and unexpected honour, rose nobly to the occasion and turned out en masse; meeting outside William Duncan’s house at Tynabaich at 12 noon on the great day. They then marched, led by pipers and the Society Colours to Balmoral, where they joined in a march round the arena at the start of the games. Unfortunately we have no information as to their part in the arrangements, but it must have been satisfactory, as although there were to be no further Balmoral Games, the Society was invited in 1887, 1890, 1898 and 1899, to hold the Braemar Gathering at Balmoral. Had it not been for the Queen’s death in 1901, the Braemar Gathering of that year was to have been held at Balmoral also.

The above is merely a snapshot of the first 33 years in the life of Braemar Royal Highland Society - the rest is for another day - but they were the vital years in which the Society first of all established itself as a solid, responsible, mutual benefit society and then went on to found the highland gathering which has not only become Scotland’s best known, but has been considered worthy of six generations of Royal Patronage.

What a legacy these 46 founding members bequeathed to their native parish!

[1] Craftsmen or tradesmen who worked usually, but not necessarily, in wood. There were several different types of wright.

[2] Watson and Allan, The Deeside Field, 1984.

3 Make sure

[4] James at this time was still a teenager.

[5] The girnels were to hold from 60 to 100 bolls of meal. 100 bolls would approximate to 513 cubic feet, so each girnel would have been 10 feet x 10feet and five feet deep, or equivalent proportions.

[6] 1 boll = 4 firlots. These are dry bulk measures that vary a little according to the type and condition of grain being measured. A boll weighs a nominal 140lb (11/4cwt).

[7] Letters from the Glen – McLeod, Farr and Farr, Aberdeen and North-East Family History Society, 2002.


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