Atholl Highlanders Gathering (Days 7 & 8)

In a small town near by our current hometown, there is a Tartan Festival that I won tickets to one year.  It launched Ben into a genealogical search of his Scottish side of the family.  He traced his paternal lineage all the way back to the 900’s.  His family had ties to Clan Murray from then on to at least the 1740’s.  The Murray’s have held the dukedom of Atholl for centuries and with it, Blair Castle.

Every Maybank Holiday weekend, they put on a history presentation, a parade and highland games celebrating the Atholl Highlanders, the Duke of Atholl’s private army (these days ceremonial). It kicks off the season of Highland Games and piping competitions in Scotland.  Our conversation upon discovering this fact went something like this…

“Ben: Hey!  The Murrays have a castle!  Oh they have highland games!

April: Oh that’s cool!

Ben: If we ever go to Scotland one day, it should be at the same time as the games.

April: Ok, let’s do it.

Ben: Wouldn’t that be neat?

April: No, let’s really do it!

Ben:Really?

April: Really!”

…and thus began our trip to Sctoland!

The Atholl Palace hotel in near by Pitlochry was our base camp for the holiday weekend, nothing was available nearer to Blair Castle, even 8 months out. The Atholl Palace is one of those places you wonder if you are dressed appropriately for breakfast or not.  We indeed felt a little bit out of place here.  It was very different from our more laid back accommodations we had stayed in so far.  We did this on purpose though, it was meant to be our treat on the trip.  A beautiful and relaxing place to spend the weekend after driving around half of Scotland before driving around almost all of the rest.  We saved money in other parts of our trip to make room in our budget for this lovely place.  Perched on a hill a half mile from the city center, it commanded lovely views.  And that breakfast we were wondering if we were dressed appropriately for?  The dining room had the loveliest view of all.  It was so beautiful that we forgot to snap a picture.  I very much enjoyed my cup of Earl Grey looking out the windows and discussing our weekend focused on Blair Castle and its festivities.

Pipers in front of Blair Castle, ready for their yearly inspection.

Blair Castle is a gleaming white castle situated in Perthshire, north of Edinburgh.  It can be seen on the train to and from Inverness.  It is considered to be an area that is “The Gateway to the Highlands”. It was one of the first private estates in the UK to open up for tours and due those years of practice, it is very well done.  They turned 30 rooms into a showcase of family history, national history, culture and castle/ estate life.  In every room there is a pamphlet outlining those things and pointing out significant pieces of furniture and other artifacts. From early clan life, to a Red Cross Hospital in war time, to hosting Scottish Parliament in more recent days, it has seemed to always have a part to play and they share it proudly. The dukes and duchesses here were host to many dignitaries over the centuries as well, most famously hosting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.   The Murray’s moved out of their home to the old manse to give the Queen the run of the place, and thus began Queen Victoria’s love affair with Scotland and the Highlands.  After her stay here, Prince Albert purchased Balmoral, which is to this day a favorite of British Royals.

Blair Atholl is impressive in its own right though, the oldest part, a tower, turned 750 in 2019 . A fine example of early building techniques is pictured in the slideshow below. The 143,000 acres are home to beautiful gardens, bountiful game lands and a perfect area for Highland Games and Gatherings.

We were excited to be part of this wonderful weekend celebrating the Atholl Highlanders.   The Atholl Highlanders are a proud group, steeped in tradition and pomp.  The pipe and drum regiment is very prestigious.  They will be quick to tell you that they have more silver and gold medal pipers than any other group in Scotland.  It will quite literally give you goosebumps to hear them play. We could not get enough of it! During the games, pipers were also competing, so our ears and our souls were filled with the sounds of piping for much of the weekend.

Ahtoll Highlanders Pipers treat our ears and souls to Amazing Grace

Ben posted up camp to get a good view of of the games and the pipers entering the field.  I wandered around all of booths.  Food, art, church bake sales and raffle type yard sales lined the field, not unlike a county fair back in the states.  This was my favorite shopping.  We had delicious farm to food truck burgers, one made out of lamb, one made out of beef.  I learned what rocket was at this food truck, arugula by a different name.  The glass artist had lovely thistle sun-catchers that made for perfect gifts for family.  The church bake sales had my favorite Scottish breakfast novelty, black current jam.  We even met a tartan weaver that could make custom items for us and would ship internationally.  I enjoyed wandering from booth to booth until the real fun started.  Caber tosses, foot races, stone throwing and all of the typical games have a different appeal to them in Scotland than in the states.  There was also traditional Scottish dancing. Young dancers were competing and then the Highlanders themselves also danced. They were the perfect image of gracefulness and ruggedness. Fierce and mighty while at the same time capable of intricate steps and leaps as beautiful as any ballerina. I most enjoyed how much it felt like a family gathering.  It didn’t feel like a huge community event.  Even though we were obviously the Americans, we felt like we belonged.

Caber toss by a “local lad” who works on the estate.

During our weekend, we were interviewed for a BBC documentary about trains.  Go figure we met a guy who was related to the Small family, distantly, but has a son living in the town where we go to church (again, Small World)! We also toured a whisky distillery while here.  It was a great weekend and launched us in to the final leg our adventure.

Bonus in case you needed more bagpipes, like we did.

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