Highland games on the banks of the Tyne

THAT'S BRAW ... Hebburn's Highland Games in 1883.
THAT'S BRAW ... Hebburn's Highland Games in 1883.

YOU can believe you can almost scent the heather and the sweet Scottish air.

Except that the smells would actually be of industry. This is the Highlands transported to the banks of the coaly Tyne, a hitherto forgotten chapter in the Celtic connections of one of the river’s best-known shipbuilding communities.

STRONGHOLD ... the fake Scottish fort which was built on the ballast hill.

STRONGHOLD ... the fake Scottish fort which was built on the ballast hill.

These astonishing photographs, turned up by avid collector and Gazette contributor Kevin Blair, recall the period when, over at least three decades at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Hebburn hosted its own Highland Games.

And prestigious affairs they were too. Scottish athletes would travel hundreds of miles to compete and the prize money sometimes ran to what would now be thousands of pounds.

And yes, on one occasion, they even built a fake Scottish fort on Hebburn ballast hill.

Kevin was astonished when he stumbled on the pictures for sale.

HARD MEN ... thought to be Leslie's workers in 1883.

HARD MEN ... thought to be Leslie's workers in 1883.

“I bought them off a guy from Fife who’d bought an album and split it,” he said. “Unfortunately there is no photographer’s name.”

As well as the games, some of the pictures also depict workers from Hebburn shipyard, which had been founded by Shetlander Andrew Leslie in the 1850s.

One of them – dated, like the others, 1883 – is of apprentice platers, pictured in front of a ship, the Aberlady Bay, which was launched in the summer of that year.

She was wrecked, Kevin has established, just six years later, off North Carolina.

STARTING OUT ... apprentice platers at the yard.

STARTING OUT ... apprentice platers at the yard.

Hebburn’s Highland Games seem to have dated back to the 1870s and were held under the auspices of Hebburn Celtic Association.

This held its meetings in St Andrew’s Institute in the town, and had been formed with the stated aim of “...preserving our mother tongue, for social intercourse and to help Highlanders who need it.”

An early location was what was known as ‘the Celtic field,’ behind the shipyard.

Later, under what had by then become Hebburn Celtic and Caledonian Association, they were held in what’s described as ‘the Ellison grounds,’ which would suggest the grounds of Ellison Hall.

BOBBY DAZZLER ... shipyard workers and the law.

BOBBY DAZZLER ... shipyard workers and the law.

And they were a full-blown Scottish games, with tossing the caber and the hammer, bagpipe playing and Highland dancing, and other competitive events such as pole leaping.

A regular feature was a tug-of-of war. In 1881, teams competing in this included one made up of police from Newcastle, and another by young Irish lads from the shipyard.

Some competitions seem to have dropped by the wayside over the years, such as one for baking.

In 1881, a Mrs Gaims won 10s (50p) for her baked yeast loaf.

On the occasion illustrated here, in 1883, there was also music from the Hebburn Temperance Saxhorn band.

The games were usually held in July or August, though they seem to have been unusually bedevilled by bad weather –- which was so wet in 1887 that it caused their cancellation.

SHIPSHAPE ... another view of some of the Leslie's workforce.

SHIPSHAPE ... another view of some of the Leslie's workforce.

That didn’t stop athletes travelling from as far as Oban on Scotland’s west coast, and from even further afield, to take part.

In 1889, the prize money totalled £50 – equivalent in value, today, to more than £3,000.

The games appear to have started to dwindle in size as they entered the 20th century and the Edwardian era.

By 1902, they were being held on what’s described as the ‘Victoria running grounds’ in Hebburn, having been organised by a number of the community’s “Scottish sportsmen” and with a reduced programme of events and competitions compared with years earlier.

Perhaps someone can say when they finally came to end.