The fourth episode of the Channel 5 series Walking Britain’s Lost Railways, presented by engineer Rob Bell, will focus on the Deeside railway line, and with it the route’s connection to the annual Royal Deeside event.
Aboyne Highland Games was approached to feature in the programme after the event’s organisers purchased at auction a framed vintage railway poster depicting the games. The piece of railway ephemera was one of a series of posters commissioned by British Railways in the 1950s to encourage the public to explore the country by train.
The Deeside railway first opened in 1853, with the final stretch to Ballater entering service in 1866. During the first 100 years of Aboyne Highland Games, which was first held in 1867, the line played an important role in transporting visitors to the event, with special trains from Aberdeen and Ballater laid on to take spectators to Aboyne on games day.
The scene captured in the colourful poster was painted by renowned artist Lance Cattermole at Aboyne Highland Games in 1953. It shows three female Highland Dancers wearing the Aboyne Dress, which had been introduced the previous year, performing on a stage, while a piper plays and other events take place.
In October 1953, the Evening Express reported on the poster’s creation. It said that “while the Aboyne Games were being run this year a lynx-eyed gentleman moved quietly about the grounds watching, getting angles, photographing in his memory the colourful scene”. It noted that British Railways would display the poster “all over England, Ireland and Wales” and also in America, Canada and most European countries.
In an ironic twist, when the games committee returned to Aboyne with the item they discovered that it had in fact been presented to their predecessors more than 50 years previously.
On the reverse of the poster, which is mounted in a simple wooden frame bearing the inscription LNER, a notice reads ‘Presented to Aboyne Games committee, 26th February 1966 on withdrawal of passenger train services between Aberdeen and Ballater’.
The story and the poster caught the attention of Rumpus Media and Motion Content Group, the producers of the TV series, as they carried out research into the Deeside line for the latest series of the popular programme. Taken by the tale and the connection that Aboyne Highland Games had with the railway for nearly 100 years, they approached the games organisers and asked them to be involved in the programme.
Secretary of Aboyne Highland Games, Morag McBeath, chatted to presenter Rob Bell about the railway’s role in the evolution of the Royal Deeside event, while local heavy athlete Jamie Dawkins gave some insight into the different competitions that make up a Highland Games.
Morag McBeath said: “When we decided to bid on the railway poster at auction we never expected to end up featuring on a national TV documentary as a result. The role that the Deeside Line played in the growth of Aboyne Highland Games cannot be underestimated. It provided an efficient and reliable means of mass transportation at a time when the horse and cart or bicycle was the only alternative, helping get people from further afield to the games.
“Thousands of visitors, and also members of the Royal family who attended in the 1880s, are noted to have travelled to the games by rail. Special trains offering cheap fares were also organised by the local railway company to increase capacity.
“Along with the learning about the connection Aboyne Highland Games had with the railway, the production team were interested in the event itself and the different elements that make up the day. Jamie was able to explain the different heavy event disciplines and demonstrate some of them to Rob Bell, the documentary’s presenter, who tried his hand at one or two.
“Aboyne Highland Games has also had an impact on similar events around the world. Famed athlete Donald Dinnie was a member of our founding committee and then helped popularise Highland Games globally, while the traditional outfit worn by Highland Dancers internationally, the Aboyne Dress, was designed by the wife of a committee member and showcased at the 1952 games.”
“As well as exploring the history of the Deeside Line and Aboyne Highland Games, the programme will showcase the beauty of Royal Deeside, which we hope will help attract visitors in the years to come.”
The episode of Walking Britain’s Lost Railways focused on the Deeside line and featuring Aboyne Highland Games is scheduled to be broadcast on Channel 5 at 8pm on Friday, 10 April.
Founded in 1867, Aboyne Highland Games is a traditional Scottish highland games held annually on the first Saturday in August. The Aberdeenshire event, held under the patronage of Granville Gordon, the 13th Marquis of Huntly, attracts crowds of up to 10,000 people each year. Featuring a programme of traditional highland games events, including highland dancing, tossing the caber, piping and fiddle competitions, the event on the town’s green attracts visitors from around the world and makes an important contribution to the local Deeside economy.
Further information on Aboyne Highland Games can be found at www.aboynegames.com.