The curtain falls on another Highland Games season, which despite the vagaries of a Scottish summer has attracted its usual thousands of tourists, intrigued and delighted in equal parts to witness first-hand the spectacle of caber-tossing and Scots hammer-throwing. Not to mention the skirl of the pipes, Highland dancing and tug of war, as well as the conviviality of the beer tent.
The feelgood factor engendered on 'games day' the length and breadth of the country has been thoroughly enjoyed by those attending whose experience will live long in the collective memory. However, probably only some will be aware that the celebration of another successful season has been tinged by sadness at the death this summer of three of Scotland's best known heavyweight athletes – Charlie Simpson, Hamish Davidson and Sandy [Henry] Gray – whose feats of strength and skill at the traditional events collectively enthused crowds for more than 50 years from 1950 onwards. The serious health issues currently being experienced by the man widely considered as the country's greatest-ever heavyweight athlete, Bill Anderson MBE, has added to the feelings of sadness permeating the games' hinterland.
At a time when the demographics of heavy events competition at the games has widened, reflected in the regularity of European and North American 'heavies' populating the prizelists, it is timely to note that Gray and Simpson in particular (as well as Anderson) were among the last of that generation of Scottish 'heavies' drawn traditionally from a farming background for whom systematic weight-training and gym work were essentially alien and who relied on their manually-acquired strength. The younger Davidson, although from a farming background much influenced by traditional games' culture, could be said to bridge the generations as he had a pedigree initially as an amateur shot putter for whom extensive weight-training was part of his repertoire.
Increasingly over the years, the heavyweight scene has become the preserve of the highly-conditioned strongman who trains seriously all year round, whereas for the generation represented by Simpson and Gray, less so for Davidson's era, competing in the games was merely a summer activity preceded perhaps by a modicum of practice during the month before the start of the season.
Another factor in the change of heavyweight demographics has been the abolition of the amateur/professional divide in the mid 1980s. Before then, an amateur competing at a professional Highland Games where the prizes were cash, as opposed to the cutlery sets and alarm clocks on offer at amateur meetings, would lose his amateur status and be unable to participate at major international meetings such as Olympic or Commonwealth Games.
Traditionally the amateur hierarchy tended to look down its metaphorical nose at professionals who competed for money. But for the likes of Gray and Simpson and many of their generation there was no real choice in the matter and certainly no stigma in being professional for the simple reason that amateur athletics did not exist in the fairly remote areas where they were brought up, respectively rural Aberdeenshire and Caithness. Instead, the prevailing culture lay in the area's Highland Games and it was normal for a youngster of promise to gravitate there to cut his competitive teeth.
Mainstream media concentrated on the amateurs with the result that often Gray's and Simpson's names were not known to the wider public despite their performances frequently outstripping their better-known amateur counterparts. And, of course, as 'professionals' they could not compete in national championships or represent their country. Now 'all comers' can compete at the games without sacrificing their international prospects.
In addition to the prowess they exhibited in the arena, all three were big personalities and highly popular figures. Charlie Simpson, who died in May, was brought up on the Isle of Stroma where his family farmed and fished. From an early age he built his strength through farmwork and partly through rowing his father's 'yawl' boats in the Pentland Firth. He and his brothers would throw a forehammer about for fun on the farm and when he undertook RAF service in the 1950s his ability at throwing events developed in competition, attracting favourable comment from colleague Mike Ellis, British hammer-throwing record holder.
Back in Caithness, he began competing in the games while working as a police officer. Much of his career in the 1960s and 70s coincided with the two 'greats' – Anderson and Yorkshireman Arthur Rowe – resulting in his often finishing third behind them and becoming known as 'Charles III.' Much of his career was spent in the north but he regularly competed with distinction at Braemar, Aboyne and Crieff as well as in Tokyo and San Francisco. He last competed aged 58 and then became an official at Durness, Lochinver and several other games.
Hamish Davidson who died in the same month was someone for whom the adjective 'colourful' might have been invented. Raised on a farm at Cawdor, near Nairn, his interest in the games was first fired when his father took him to Braemar to watch Anderson duel with Rowe. A successful amateur shot-putting career followed – his work and hard training on the family farm with his homemade weights paying dividends. He was capable at times of outrageous behaviour, causing the amateur authorities to inform him that he would not be selected for the Commonwealth Games in 1978. In consequence he turned 'professional' to compete at the games where he continued as an outstanding performer till about 15 years ago. His behavioural issues were not confined to the sporting arena as he had issues with the constabulary, on occasion involving high performance sports cars. A complex character who was also a talented artist, he remained a highly popular figure.
Sandy [Henry] Gray, who died in August, was a totemic figure on the games' scene from 1950 till recently as competitor and official. Measuring about 6ft 5ins and 19 stones he literally stood out on the field. Brought up at East Eninteer farm near Alford, he became the sixth generation of his family to farm there. Throwing weights and hammers for fun about the farmyard also marked the start of his career, leading to taking part in small local games before debuting at Aboyne in 1950. Thereafter till 1974 he was one of the country's leading heavyweights, excelling particularly at the caber and weight-throwing, despite never having lifted a weight in training in his life. Extremely affable and easy-going, he was reputed to be one of the royal family's favourites at Braemar and was delighted to be presented to them in 2006 after more than 50 years' involvement there as athlete and official. Latterly he was a well-known, highly-respected and much-loved judge at many of the Grampian Games.
Their loss is a huge blow to 'heavy athletics' at the games because of their links to different eras and the combination of their competitive pedigree with their personal popularity.