THOSE AT A LOSS to explain why our highland games are in sad decline need look no further than the ever growing burden of health and safety regulation imposed by local authorities.
A particularly grim example has just come my way from the organiser of my local games in Lochearnhead, Perthshire. I had to read it twice because I could not believe it the first time.
The Lochearnhead games are held every July in the stunning scenic amphitheatre in the centre of the village. The games field is bordered by Loch Earn to the south, the Ogle burn to the east, the dramatic Glen Ogle to the north and to the west the village itself, a small cluster of houses around the village shop and the junction of the A84 and A85 roads – both taking travellers through some of the most beautiful scenery in the southern highlands. The Balquhidder, Lochearnhead and Strathyre Highland Games have been going as long as anyone can remember. The games president is Angus Cameron, ably helped by a small group of local volunteers, donors and sponsors.
There is no lack of work for them to do. They help prepare the field, arrange the track, put up the tents, strike the flag poles, instal the highland dancing platform, man the car park, check the entry tickets, sell the programmes and make sure the drink and refreshment stalls are linked to the generator.
Clan tents (MacGregor, Stewart, MacLaren and Cameron to the fore), and food and produce stalls are arranged in a colourful circle round the track. There are dozens of races and events to prepare and oversee – the piping competition, shot putting, caber tossing, track and field events and not least the ceilidh afterwards.
On a sunny summer day there is no finer sight. The event draws passing motorists and routinely attracts hundreds to a wonderful afternoon of highland music, games, refreshment and relaxation. The games never cease to delight and enchant. They bring the village together, provide a huge visitor draw and show off Scotland at its best.
Against this background it would be natural to assume that the local council would be helpful supporters. But this year’s preparatory letter from Gus Cameron to villagers and games supporters came as a cold reality check.
I knew a little about Gus’s health and safety hassles from two years ago when he was warned by the council that the highland dancing was deemed too dangerous and could he please substitute the swords on the platform floor with plastic ones, or ones made of rubber.
It was a ludicrous imposition. Whoever heard of a centuries of highland dancing competition having to be staged with plastic swords? It resulted in the games organisers having to smuggle in the swords hidden from view in the clan parade into the games ground.
Now comes a new and more officiously unpleasant surprise.
“I am blessed”, Gus wrote in his letter, “with a committee beyond reproach, without whom this great event in the Villagers' calendar would not happen. He singled out Alex Gargolinski “who has taken on the thankless task of and does a great job, especially with the new bureaucracy the Council is piling on us.”
Then came this section, which I quote in full:
“I mention the council. They have discovered that we run an event (it’s only been happening for over 200 years), that attracts more than three hundred people and we must now fill in a very large form in order to get a Public Performance License.
“This is over and above a license for a public march and a drinks license. In this new license we must declare our risk assessment which we luckily have, our fire risk assessment for the bar and all trade stands must produce their insurance, food safety certificates and safety certificates for all rides and machines, which they must send to us with their application at least one week before the Games which we must then send to the Council, and we pay the Council a fee of £150.00.
“Our dance platform cannot be higher than 600mm without a structural report, and what would that cost each year? Luckily if we take the wheels off we are about the 600 mm mark.”
The good news is that the wheels were detachable and Alexander Bowers, who manages the field, “worked his way through the form and ticked all the boxes.” Let’s hope that the 600mm height conforms to council diktat and they don’t insist on measuring the height of the dancing shoes. One can’t help but wonder what new paperwork the council might dream up for the games next year.
It is just this exacting paperwork and bureaucracy that saps local initiative and discourages villages from staging public events of any sort, fearful that the health and safety brigade will be on their case, sniffing round the home made marmalade and carrot cake and checking that the caber is supplied from sustainable woods and clad in fire resistant materials.
Little wonder that the first national study in 2011 into these culturally-rich events found the games closing down at an increasing rate and that organisers are battling for survival.
A three-year study found the number of events has declined from more than 200 in the 1940s to just 90 today.
And the rate of closure has accelerated with 25 events – including the Caithness, Beauly, Dingwall, Elgin and Stirling Highland Games – ceasing to exist in the past decade. Younger volunteers in particular are a struggle to find. The paperwork burden and bureaucratic nit-picking cannot help.
The study urged the Scottish Government to intervene, particularly as no single department appears to oversee the games, making them “bureaucratically invisible”.
Gerry Reynolds, who compiled the report, said: “The Scottish Highland Games network is based on a foundation of volunteers. No volunteers, no Highland Games, it’s as simple as that. And if the volunteers are all getting older together, and there is nothing in place to replace them, then we have a real problem.”
In the study of 48 games committees nearly a third reported a fall in volunteers and 60 per cent were finding it difficult to keep up numbers. In addition, 58 per cent of committees said sponsorship was falling.
But it seems the only Games the Scottish government seems interested in preserving today are the Royal Mile Rammy and Tossing the Farage.
Our Highland Games are dying. And it is ludicrous “health and safety” that is helping to kill them.