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'From small beginnings, it has become world famous'- The Story of the Cowal Highland Gathering



Argyll Street during Cowal Games, 1949


This weekend sees Dunoon celebrate the Cowal Highland Gathering, which has been held here since 1894. The event is well known, and sees locals and visitors alike coming together to enjoy the festivities. The Gathering boasts pipe band and solo piping competitions, highland dancing competitions, and athletics. The event is part of the town's rich history, but what is the history of the Gathering itself?


The idea for the Gathering came to life on the town's main street, during a meeting at the Waverley Hotel (now M&Co) on the 4th of April 1894. Robert Cameron, a Highlander, proposed the idea of the Gathering to a number of his friends there. Cameron became the Secretary, and conducted meetings about the Gathering on George Street.


The local press was buzzing with news of the first Gathering. The Argyllshire Standard discussed who had donated prizes in the months leading up to the event. These included the MP for Argyll Donald Macfarlane's donation of a silver medal, and the Kirn Burns Club's donation of a silver cup to be won at the two miles flat race. The Gathering was also advertised further afield, and Glasgow's 'Scottish Referee' reported on the prizes being up to one hundred pounds. Another Gathering was not held until 1896, and was headed by new Secretary Mr H.S Strafford. This consisted of thirty nine events, with the cycle races were advertised as a selling point in the Edinburgh Evening News.


Subsequent Gatherings were interrupted by the difficulties of the South African War, but restarted in the 1900s. The events of the Gatherings were commonly reported in the press, with the 1906 Gathering discussed in a Glaswegian newspaper as 'one of the most popular events of the season.' This was the first Cowal Gathering to host pipe band competitions, as it was decided by the Committee that it would be a great way to attract visitors- many of members were bagpipe music lovers themselves. Secretary Strafford wrote in 1912 that 'to sustain and extend the national interest in the bagpipe has been one of the first objects for which the Cowal Highland Gathering exists.' However, the initial competitions only allowed military bands. The 'Scottish Referee' paper detailed that the Argyll Shield awarded to the winning band was the 'main attraction,' which was designed by Princess Louise. This remains an important honour today. It was Scottish comedian and Dunoon resident Sir Harry Lauder who put forward the idea of allowing civilian bands to compete in 1909. He contributed the 'Lauder Targe' (now known as the Lauder Shield) as a prize. In a letter to the Gathering Committee to convince them of this change, Lauder wrote: 'there is nothing more dear to me than my native home. There is no music so impressive as pipe music well played. When I was a boy marching at the side of a pipe band all the joy of the world was mine.'



Harry Lauder tossing the caber at the 1924 Gathering (Graphic, Saturday 6th September 1924) Image reprinted with thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library


An unusual event of Gatherings past was the balloon ascent and parachute descent, which began in the late 1900s and took place for several years. This saw an individual take to the skies in a hot air balloon, and then parachute back to the field to land. It is mentioned that those hiring boats were invited to keep watch for the balloon and its passenger, with a prize offered to those who could spot them. In 1902, famous parachutists Maud Brooks and Mr A. Gaudson were invited to perform a 'balloon ascent and double parachute descent,' but this was called off due to the wind. The following year the event went ahead, and saw Maud Brooks return to complete the ascent and descent, which was named as a 'feature of the proceedings.' Brooks landed on the Dunloskin farm, and was met with great cheers and applause on her return to the Gathering.


The Gathering has slowly evolved into the form that we are more familiar with today. The first march past of the bands took place in 1908, but they did not march through the town's main street like we are used to now- they instead marched around the Gathering's racetrack. in 1912, the decision was made to extend the Gathering to two days, highlighting its popularity.


The wartime conditions from 1914 onwards also caused trouble for the Gathering, and the event only continued in 1919, but sadly with a poor turnout due to bad weather. The talk of the Gathering was a missing prize, as the whereabouts of the Graham Moffat trophy was unknown after 1913 due to the onset of war. The mystery was solved when a sealed box was delivered to the field during the Gathering and opened by the Duke of Argyll. The trophy had been sitting in a Glasgow jewellers shop since 1915, but it was reported that the reasoning behind it being sent to Dunoon and the 'box opened amid such an atmosphere of expectancy and doubt is known only to a select few.'


The Gatherings were back in full swing, and the 1928 Gathering had over 21,000 spectators. Notably, in 1938 the idea was had to decorate the town with Tartan banners for the week leading up to the Gathering, and donors pledged money to hang their tartan. Once again, the Second World War meant that the Gathering was postponed until 1946. The Gathering was restored to its full set of events, and coaches were organised to allow those from surrounding towns and cities to attend.


Souvenir programme from the 1932 Gathering


It is clear that the Gathering has its own impressive history, and has been a key event in the town's calendar for over one hundred and twenty years. From its humble beginnings as an idea spoken aloud in Argyll Street, it has persevered through the years and remains a celebration of Scottish culture, tradition, and our town.


References:

'A History of Cowal Games Gathering,' Dunoon Observer and Argyllshire Standard. (28th August 1981)

'Bagpipe Music,' North Star and Farmers Chronicle. (22nd August 1912)

'Cowal Gathering,' Aberdeen Press and Journal. (27th August 1928)

'Cowal Highland Games,' Scottish Referee. (3rd August 1894)

'Cowal Highland Games.' Scottish Referee. (31st August 1903)

'Cowal Highland Gathering,' North Down Herald and County Down Independent. (29th August 1931)

'Cowal Highland Gathering,' Scottish Referee. (27th August 1906)

'Cowal Highland,' Edinburgh Evening News. (18th August 1896)

'Dunoon Highland Games,' Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette. (29th August 1902)

'Harry Lauder and Bagpipe Music,' Edinburgh Evening News. (30th April 1909)

'Missing Games Trophy Returned,' Sunday Post. (31st August 1919)

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