Scots grapple with referendum tug-of-war at Highland games

BRAEMAR, Scotland (AFP) - Bagpipe music, caber-tossing and tugs-of-war were on everyone's minds at the Braemar Highland games this weekend presided over by Queen Elizabeth II, along with the upcoming independence referendum.

Once used to select warriors, the games held across Scotland are now a cherished display of Scottish pride - a feeling that both the "Yes" and "No" camps reckon can bolster their arguments.

"People like me wearing kilts doesn't mean we are desperate for Scotland to divorce from England," said Neil Allan, who came to watch the games in this picturesque corner of northeast Scotland. "It is simply to celebrate tradition."

"Today is a good opportunity for us to relay to the public that in Scotland we get more benefits than we're paying in taxes," he said, as he distributed "No" badges outside the games, where campaigning is banned.

The Braemar Highland Gathering coincided with a new poll that showed the pro-independence camp just ahead of those who want the United Kingdom to stay united by 51 to 49 percent.

The queen, whose private summer residence of Balmoral is a few miles from Braemar, cannot intervene in the referendum. But she is reported to be concerned about divisions stirred up by the campaign, even though those in favour of independence have pledged to retain her as monarch.

As an indication of her views, commentators refer back to an address she gave in 1977 about the desire for stronger local powers in Scotland and Wales.

"I number kings and queens of England and of Scotland, and princes of Wales among my ancestors and so I can readily understand these aspirations. "But I cannot forget that I was crowned queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland," she said at the time.

Flanked by her husband Prince Philip and their eldest son Prince Charles - both of whom wore kilts - and with a tartan rug over her knees, the 88-year-old monarch on Saturday watched the Braemar games for an hour and seemed delighted by the spectacle.

Jim Muir, another spectator, admitted there would be "difficulties" at the start if the vote was for independence, but said he was still in favour.

"It's growing. People are waking up to the possibility... The future looks bright," he said, as he handed his children Scottish flags picked up from a "Yes" campaign stand outside.

For or against independence, Scots turned out in their thousands at Braemar to watch local heroes like 22-year-old Kyle Randalls as he lifted a log several metres long and threw it into the air.

"This is called the caber," said the bull-necked Randalls, dressed in a kilt, T-shirt and black-and-white-striped stockings, after earning the crowd's applause with a successful display of strength.

"It's basically a tree that has been cut down and cleaned up. The objective is to pick it up, run maybe 10, 15 steps and to throw it," he explained, barely looking tired despite the strain involved.

John Duff, former president of the Braemar Royal Highland Society, which organises the games, said the games' roots go back to the Middle Ages.

"It's a traditional folk celebration which starts... well, nobody knows when. It's believed it was in the 11th century," Duff said, while sipping on a glass of whisky as rival teams disputed a tug-of-war nearby. "It's a celebration of Scottish culture."

While Braemar gives pride of place to physical strength, music and dance also play a part and the traditions are often a mix of English and Scottish.

Three young women at one point twirled to a feverish jig known as a "hornpipe" - an English sailors' dance, while nearby bagpipe players intoned the tune of a Scottish march that echoed across the valley.