With less than a year to go until the Olympic Games kick off in London, and only three years until the Commonwealth Games arrive in Glasgow, there has rarely been a more exciting time to be involved in Scottish athletics.
With millions of hopeful fans all vying for a handful of tickets, not everybody is going to get the chance to experience the Games for themselves. But for anyone desperate to experience athletics history in the making there is another option.
On July 16, the small Borders town of Innerleithen celebrates the 184th anniversary of the St. Ronan’s Border Games. First held way back in 1827, the Border Games are the oldest organised athletics meeting in Scotland, and while no official records of the Games’ earliest days have survived, fascinating accounts of the extraordinary annual event do exist, revealing an array of formidable feats and personal triumphs that have otherwise been forgotten by history.
One such document is a souvenir programme printed to commemorate the 100th anniversary celebrations in 1927. It catalogues in intriguing detail the formation and development of the Games over the first 100 years, and tells the stories of ordinary men and women from across the country who, for one weekend a year, became local sporting idols and the heroes of folklore.
To understand the Games’ significance you need to first understand Innerleithen. Situated on the River Tweed in eastern Tweeddale, Innerleithen is a small town of around 2500 inhabitants. Its location in the Tweed Valley makes it an ideal destination for mountain bikers, kayakers and hill-walkers.
It is a landscape that lends itself ideally to outdoor pursuits, and this was a point that wasn’t lost on local sportsmen in the 19th century either. In the summer of 1827, members of the local Bowmen of the Borders Club decided to hold an athletics and archery meeting in the town, and the first ever St. Ronan’s Border games was inaugurated.
The event took its name from St. Ronan - the patron saint of Innerleithen who, legend has it, cleansed the town of evil by expelling the devil with his crook.
One of the managers of the event was Scottish poet and novelist James Hogg, who had grown up as a shepherd in nearby Ettrick and was a member of the Bowmen of the Borders Club. He was also a personal acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, who had named his 1824 novel St. Ronan’s Well after the mineral spa of the same name, found in Innerleithen.
Drinking the water from the well was said to have great health benefits, and so it is easy to imagine why athletes would be drawn to such a location even in the days before the connection between physical activity and good health was fully understood.
According to the centenary programme from 1927, the very first event to take place was the ‘running hop-step-and-leap’ - a forerunner of the modern triple jump. Other events included the ‘running leap’ (or long jump), the standing high leap, the shot put, archery and wrestling. The event was a great success for Hogg and his friends, and ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’ celebrated his achievements by treating the guests to some of his newest songs at the party afterwards.
Following the success of the first Border Games the event became an annual meeting. The first ever trophy to be awarded for one of the events was known as the Silver Arrow and was presented for the first time for archery in 1830. Thereafter, it became customary for the winner of the Silver Arrow to attach his own medal to the trophy, engraved with his name and the year of his success.
Over the years many events fell off the schedule while others were added. The 1927 programme mentions rifle-shooting, curling on an artificial rink, running, ‘hitch and kick’, hammer throwing, caber tossing and even climbing a greased pole.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the events was the short-lived yet passionately contested handba’ match. The game took place between locals from Innerleithen and neighbouring Traquair, and involved limitless numbers of players. According to surviving accounts men, women and children all took part in what was a dangerous and often violent spectacle.
The game was played along the side of the river Leithen and the aim was to get the ball to their team’s ‘hail’ at the other end of the large pitch. There appears to have been very few rules, and the ball spent much of its time in the water, leading to mass scrums in the river which posed the very real risk of drowning.
The handba’ rivalry was so intense that it soon became apparent that the game was not safe, and several serious accidents and many more close-calls in the river led to the event being discontinued.
The Games gave ordinary people from all over Scotland the chance to test their sporting prowess against their fellow men. The 1927 programme states that men of all backgrounds and social classes were equals in the field: ‘the slubbers, the weavers, the fleshers, and the ploughmen, irrespective of social grades, met as man to man in the ring. They gathered from many a hill and glen, their fete day had become an institution’.
It is the stories of the individuals that provide the most intriguing sub-plots to the tale. Men became local heroes for their performances, and their feats went down in local history. Although no official records remain, folklore preserves the names of people like Tom Aitken, for example.
Aitken first competed in 1868 and was an ever-present for the next 11 years, dominating the Games like nobody before him and finding his name revered for generations for his incredible performances. In one year alone he is said to have won 10 events, bettering even his own bold prediction that he would win nine. He smashed records galore, hop-step-and-leaping 49 feet and an inch - a distance that was never beaten in the 90 years that the event remained on the programme.
At the same time his height of 5 feet 11 inches in the high jump was still unbeaten by the time the 1927 programme went to press. He later emigrated to America where he is said to have won the 100 yards championship of the USA for five consecutive years, and added the San Francisco hurdle championship in 1891. Locals were convinced that they had witnessed a genuinely world class athlete on their own doorstep.
By 1927 the Games had started to resemble a more familiar modern athletics event. The signature event of the Games was the Steeple Chase, more commonly known as ‘the Hill Race’. Runners would race to the top of the Caerlee Hill and back again in the closing event of the meeting. To this day the Caerlee Hill Race is the much anticipated climax to the St. Ronan’s Border Games.
Also on the agenda were the 100, 200 and 300 yard-sprints, the half-mile handicap, the long jump, the pole vault, the shot put, the one mile bicycle race, the obstacle race, the sack race and a tug ‘o’ war. But while the games were beginning to resemble the modern Olympics events, some more random and intriguing events still found their way onto the programme, including a dancing competition, a pillow fight and the mysterious ‘slicing the ham’ which is listed as an event in the 1927 programme, stating simply that all competitors are to be blindfolded.
Since 1827 the St. Ronan’s Border Games have run continuously, year in year out, interrupted only during the war years when organisation of the event became impossible. Athletes have continued to meet at Innerleithen’s Victoria Park on the same weekend every year, and they continue to do so today.
Now in its 184th year, the event continues to attract the region’s top athletes to compete in one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated events. Gone are the pillow fights and the ham slicing, and in their place are the more traditional running events seen on an athletics circuit. The Hill Race provides a crucial link to the past, and keeps the Border Games’ distinctive history very much in focus.
While the modern-day athletes might not make such a profound impact on the spectators as their predecessors, the meeting is still one of the most respected events on the circuit. Whether you have managed to secure tickets for next summer’s Olympic Games or not, you can witness athletics history in your own back yard this July when the starting pistol is fired at the Border Games once again.
The 184th St. Ronan’s Border Games takes place at 2pm on Saturday 16th July at Victoria Park, Innerleithen.