Celebrating Lonach tradition

The Lonach Highland and Friendly Society was formed 200 years ago in 1823- the Society host one of Scotland’s most popular, and friendly, Highland Games. The Lonach Highland Gathering and Games have taken place annually for 180 year each August when all roads lead to Lonach, as Anne-Mary Paterson explains.

It was 26th August, 2023 and the loudspeaker was telling everyone that there was to be a very special guest arriving before the one o’clock March of the Lonach Men. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Lonach Highland and Friendly Society and the one hundred and eightieth gathering of what is probably the most unique and friendly Highland Games. Into the arena to huge cheers and applause, came a dark red Bentley car bearing His Majesty King Charles III. After circling the area, the King alighted at a special tent. Then the sound of bagpipes started getting louder and louder. In marched the Highlanders carrying axes and with banners held high, followed by the Lonach Pipe Band, then Sir James Forbes, Patron and the swirling kilts of the Lonach Men, carrying eight-foot-long pikes followed by Wallace’s and Gordons.

At the tail end of this most unusual procession was the Cairt drawn by Socks, an Irish cob to carry any wear or dare I say it drunken stragglers but empty this year. The march had set off early in the morning for six miles on foot from Bellabeg, home of the gathering, up Donside to toast five houses along the way and then back to Bellabeg for a private lunch in the Lonach Hall. One of the houses they visit is Candacraig which before its sale, was owned by Sir Billy Connolly who was very fond of the Lonach and attended most years.

Preservation of Highland garb

The Forbes Highlanders.

By 1823 Scotland had emerged from the years of occupation by the Hanoverian Army after the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden. It was time for Scotland to resume its place in the world. That same year King George IV awarded Charles Forbes of Newe and Edinglassie (1774 – 1839) with a baronetcy. On 15th December of that same year, his son’s coming-of-age was celebrated with a bonfire on Lonach Hill which inspired the people around and in Donside to set up a friendly society as had been done by its neighbour in Braemar. The first gathering was held in 1836, four years after Braemar. Membership for the society is now drawn from the inhabitants of Strathdon, Sir Charles was one of eleven children. He left Edinburgh University when he was sixteen to take up a post in Bombay, India in John Forbes & Co owned by his uncle John Forbes. The firm had originally traded in raw cotton but over the years expanded into ship brokerage, ship building and as bankers to the Government of Bombay. Because of the success of his business, John was able to buy back the family lands of Newe and Bellabeg, which in the past had been lost due to bankruptcy.

The gathering is always on the fourth Saturday in August. Sir James Forbes of the Newe, three times great grandson of Sir Charles said in his message this year, “The Gathering and our unique March represent the public face of our year-round commitment to the ‘preservation of Highland garb and the promotion of social and friendly feelings among the inhabitants of the district’. Encountering the Lonach Highlanders for the first time takes you back to pre-1745 Scotland, but this is no historical re-enactment: we represent an unbroken link with our forefathers.”

Highland Games may date as far back as the 11th century when King Malcolm III of Scotland needed a personal courier so he organised a hill race to the summit of Creag Choinnich, near Braemar, where the oldest Highland Games were first held in 1832, and since then always on the first Saturday in September. The Braemar Highland Society was founded in 1815, so the Lonach is not far behind its neighbour in Deeside. Like Braemar and many other games, the Lonach carries on the tradition of a hill race and even a shorter one for juniors. Hill races are now a feature of many games and we can imagine that before cars, if a horse was not available and someone was needed to take a message quickly up or down a glen, a race was an easiest way to find and have in hand the fasted of foot. Similarly tossing the caber may have resembled how a tree just felled was pushed away. Tartan and bagpipes are still very important components of the games. One of first ideas was the preservation of the district’s particular dialect of Gaelic but this has not been successful, and it is now extinct. Traditional Highland Games are now held all over the world, particularly in English speaking countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America.

The Lonach Highlanders

Lonach Pipe Band.

The Lonach Highlanders is not an army as it has never been presented with colours like the Atholl Highlanders, its neighbour across the mountain passes. It does carry the society colour and two banners ensigned “LONACH”. On the 150th anniversary of the Lonach, a new colour and banners were presented at the Lonach Gathering. The following week the pipe band and the Highlanders marched over the hills to Braemar to present the new colours to the late Queen Elizabeth II at the Braemar Gathering. The Highlanders set up camp at Braemar Castle re-enacting an occasion that last happened during the reign of Queen Victoria. At the time of the presentation on 5th July 2023 of the Honours of Scotland (the Crown, Sceptre and Sword) to King Charles in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, the Lonach Highlanders along with the Atholl Highlanders marched down the Royal Mile.

Carrying on the Royal connections, King Charles, after watching the Lonach Highlanders’ impressive and unique parade, spoke to a number of officials and other folk before progressing on foot across the arena to become the starter of one of the first races. After a private luncheon at Bellabeg House, the King left quietly for Balmoral Castle with the usual events – light and heavy, dancing, races and piping continuing.  A special day to add to the already colourful history of this unique organisation.

For more details see: www.lonach.org

Main image: The Wallace Highlanders at the Lonach Highland Games.

All images courtesy of The Lonach Highland & Friendly Society.

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