Taking place on a Saturday in late May in Bathgate's Meadow Park, the West Lothian Highland Games plays host to a wide range of events including highland dancing, solo piping, pipe band and heavy athletics competitions plus many other sideshows and attractions.
Bathgate Highland Games were first held in 1973, and the name changed to the Bathgate and West Lothian highland Games in 1990. They became known simply as the West Lothian Highland Games since 2009, reflecting the participation of people from right across the area: and in 2014 the name was expanded to become the West Lothian Highland Games and British Pipe Band Championships.
The West Lothian Highland Games begins each year with the "Beating of the Retreat" through the streets of Bathgate, a ceremonial march which has its origins in ancient military custom, whereby a drummer would beat a "tattoo" as a call to soldiers to return to their quarters. The procedure of the Retreat varied between regiments, sometimes involving whole drum corps, or pipes and drums, marching around the garrison or the town wall. The Retreat acted like a curfew for the soldiers and sometimes for the local townspeople as well, in days before watches were widely available.
At the sound of the "tattoo" inn-keepers were required to stop serving beer: indeed the meaning of the word "tattoo" is thought to come from the Dutch "doe den tap toe" meaning "turn off the (beer) taps". Penalties were severe for any soldiers found breaking the curfew. In 1745, the Duke of Cumberland decreed that "Soldiers who take their arms out of the bell tents after Retreat are to suffer death".
Over time the Retreat became a spectacle to entertain the townspeople and to aid Army recruitment. Today, whilst the Retreat is still sounded in barracks across the country, its purpose is to mark the end of the working day, representing the "turning on of the beer" rather than turning it off. For the Games, the Retreat marks the official fanfare to the proceedings.
Highland Gatherings more widely have a long history. The village of Ceres, in Fife, claims to hold the oldest gathering. After the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the villagers were granted a day of celebration to mark the safe return of the village bowmen.
Many of the elements of the Bathgate Games are fairly constant from one year to the next, though the precise format and timings can vary a little. Dropping in at the start of the 2008 Games immediately following the official opening ceremony, was the Golden Lions Scottish Infantry freefall parachute display team. Members of the team are volunteers and all regular army soldiers of the Scottish Infantry based at Redford Barracks in Edinburgh. The team showed remarkable skill and accuracy as they left their aircraft at 7000 feet to perform various formation manoeuvres before making a spectacular landing in the centre of the display area.
Regularly represented around the arena are members of the Army, Royal Air Force and Navy, with interactive displays and recruitment teams on hand to talk about the role of the modern military. A range of stalls selling foodstuffs, clothes and toys, plus fairground games and children's rides, ensure everyone is fed, watered and kept happy whatever their age or interest.
Bathgate has played host to the British Pipe Band Championships for many years (even though the name of the event only recently changed to reflect this) and the competition tends to start early, with bands getting in some last minute practice, in either the car park or around the perimeter of the showground, before taking their places in one of two judging rings at opposite ends of the main arena. Competition is always fierce and included classes from one to four plus novice juveniles and drum majors' championships.
Heavy events, one of the most popular activities at Highland Gatherings, include putting the shot, putting the stane, throwing the 28lb weight, throwing the 16lb Scots hammer, throwing the 56lb weight for height and tossing the caber. The events draw a big crowd, all eager to see the competitors go head to head across the range of disciplines as they compete for the coveted title of Champion.
Highland dancing takes place in a covered area away from the main arena and sees both juvenile and adult competitors in classes including Fling, Sword, Reel, Highland Laddie and Pas-de-Bas.
Finally, the afternoon traditionally sees the start of the annual Cairnpapple Hill race, run from Meadow Park to the top of Cairnpapple Hill and back. The winner receives a cash prize and the Cairnpapple Cup. There are also prizes for second and third place, for first in the Over 50s and first Over 60s classes and handicap first and second places.
With so much to see and do the West Lothian Highland Games and British Pipe Band Championships can be relied on to provide a great day out for competitors and spectators alike.