The History of Cowal Gathering



The Cowal Highland Gathering, or Cowal Games as it is commonly known locally, has grown to become a major international event, attracting visitors and competitors from all over the world. In the Gathering office we have a neatly bound set of Minute Books which records over a hundred years of the history of an event, which its original founders probably saw as remaining a local festival – but which has grown instead to be one of the best known Highland Games in the world.


Records show that the very first Gathering was held on the 11th August 1894 and was the idea of a local man, Robert Cameron. The first Cowal Gathering saw around 2,000 people attending and the gate receipts amounted to £60 (the equivalent of almost £6,000 today) and was £40 less than the event actually cost to stage.


For a number of reasons, presumably including finances, the Gathering was not an annual event until the turn of the 20th Century. Around 1900 things were in full swing with a Gathering Committee having been formed which consisted of “40 local Gentleman” who were responsible for planning and organising the event. The attendance in 1900 was 5,000 and the gate receipts had increased to £160.


1901 saw the introduction of the solo piping competitions and the Burgh Cup. The Burgh Cup was donated to the Gathering Committee by Dunoon Town Council and is our oldest trophy. The original cup is still in existence and is displayed in our office. However it is no longer presented after being replaced due to irreparable damage suffered in 1999. The Burgh Cup was valued at £50 in 1901 – today it would be seen as priceless.


1906 is probably the year that had the biggest impact on the development of the Cowal Gathering as it saw the introduction of pipe band competitions.


The idea was first mooted by a local gentleman, Mr. Malcolm McCulloch who was a master mason in the town. The decision was taken to go ahead with the competition and that “the prize should be a large trophy” and thus we saw the introduction of the Argyll Shield.


The Argyll Shield was designed by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll and daughter of Queen Victoria. At the time it cost £43 18s and 6d. Today it is our most famous trophy and is still presented to the winner of the Grade One Pipe Band competition.


In the early years, the pipe band competition was only open to military bands and the 1st winners of the competition were the 1st Volunteer Brigade, Highland Light Infantry who’s Pipe Major, John MacDougall Gilles was a native of Glendaruel.


In 1908 it was decided that “Cowal Gold Medals” should be made to be presented to those who won their competitions at Cowal. It was decided that these medals should be miniature replicas of the Argyll Shield. Within a few years these medals had been replaced by the Cowal Medals which are still presented now. These are based the Burgh Crest which can still be seen on the lamppost outside the Burgh Hall.


In 1909 Harry Lauder, the famous Scottish entertainer, came to live in the Bullwood area of Dunoon and, having attended the previous year’s Gathering, wrote to the committee suggesting a civilian pipe band competition could be added to the itinerary and offered the Lauder shield as the prize for 1st place. The committee accepted this idea and the civilian band competition was added that year.


1912 saw the Gathering extended to become a 2 day event. However, this was short lived as the 1914 Gathering was cancelled after the outbreak of the war and the next Gathering was a low key affair in 1919. That year’s Gathering was also notable for the unusual problem which was faced by the committee when organising the event.  – A Goatman and his herd of goats had been allowed to reside on the sportsground during the war and when the committee sought his removal he refused to go. Only after he was provided with an alternative dwelling and grazing grounds by the Council did he agree to move.


1932 saw the introduction of the Juvenile World Highland Dancing Championships and the first winner was Gladys S Bruce from Largs. The list of winners reads like a list of the great and the good of highland dancing. One particularly notable achievement is that of Morgan Bamford of New Zealand, who is the only person to have won it 4 times.


The games were interrupted once again for WWII, with the last one being held in 1939, and resumed in 1946 when the attendance was estimated at 28,000.


The Adult Highland Dancing World Championship was added to the event in 1948 and May Falconer from Motherwell was the first winner. Cowal Gathering is fortunate to have a pair of May’s highland dancing shoes and they are on display in the Trophy Tent during the event and in the office the rest of the year.  Marielle Lesperance is presently the only dancer who can boast being a 7 time World Adult Champion, as well as a one time Junior Champion.  To date only Coleen Rintamaki has bettered this as the most decorated World Champion having won twice as a Juvenile, twice as a Junior as well as the 6 times as an Adult.


The Junior World Championships were added to the highland dancing competitions in 1961 and Betty Turkington was the first winner.


The next time major changes were made was 2003 when the gathering moved to being a 3 day event with the introduction of the Scottish National Highland Dancing Championships. Then in 2007 there were changes made to the layout of the pipe band competitions in order to provide the bands more space and allow spectators to get closer to the bands as they competed.


This was also the year the Ceilidh Tent (now known as the Cowal Music Tent), a live music tent was introduced onto the top pitch area and featured the Red Hot Chili Pipers as the first headline band. This element of the Gathering has grown to be incredibly popular and regularly has bands like Tidelines, Trail West and Skipinnish headlining.


In 2013 it was confirmed that the RSPBA were to move the “major” status attached to the pipe band competition to a new event to be held in Ireland. The Gathering would continue to host a pipe band competition with bands still competing for the oldest pipe band trophies in the world, but the number of bands attending would be much reduced.


The organisers chose to see this as an opportunity and, having seen the popularity of the ceilidh tent, decided to introduce a whole range of family entertainment that there had been no room to stage previously.


The ceilidh tent was expanded, a performance arena was introduced with performances like stunt bike shows and birds of prey displays. We also introduced children’s storytelling, arts and crafts shows, puppet shows, magicians, and other games and shows. All free to use.


As we continue to diversify, we are delighted with the way the new family entertainment has blended so well with the more traditional, longstanding, competitive elements of the Gathering.


As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cowal Gathering was cancelled in 2020 and 2021.  The team however, not wanting to rest on the laurels of the event, arranged what turned out to be a hugely successful virtual gathering.  This involved videos, pictures and stories being shared from all areas of the gathering including organisers, competitors and spectators.


When Cowal Gathering returned in 2022, we found costs rising in excess of £364,000.00.  We rely on the continued support of our patrons and funders to stage the event.  If you are interested in joining our patrons scheme, please contact the office.

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