by Janette Taylor
THE combination of traditional Highland hospitality and celebrity spectators created an irresistible draw at the Lonach Gathering and Highland Games last weekend, as the famous event attracted over 12,000 visitors.
Comedian and Lonach Society honorary member, Billy Connolly and his wife Pamela Stephenson, clearly enjoyed Saturday's events, and the couple were joined by an array of celebrity guests including Scottish film legend Sir Sean Connery who was accompanied by his wife Micheline.
Other celebrities on the Connolly's guest list included, Former Brookside actress Anna Friel, Travis singer Fran Healy, chat show host Michael Parkinson and Hollywood's Susan Yeagley, Dame Judi Dench, Steve Martin, Aidan Quinn and Kevin Nealson.
Star-spotters waiting to catch a glimpse of the Big Yin and his guests gathered by the entrance to the VIP area, to await the celebrity guests who arrived at noon in a fleet of limousines, escorted by a personal security squad clad in Highland outfits.
The 162nd annual event, affectionately known as the 'Friendly Highland Games', started with the traditional march of the Men of Lonach who strive to uphold Highland traditions and the Gaelic language.
Around 150 Highlanders carrying pikes and Lochaber axes followed the Lonach Pipe Band, through the beautiful Donside glen.
The men called in at homes on the way to the games field for a traditional dram or other refreshment, and also called into Mr Connolly's nearby holiday home, Candacraig House, to enjoy some hospitality.
Marching in behind the banners of the Forbes, Wallace and Gordon clan colours, the Men of Lonach received an enthusiastic welcome from spectators, on their arrival in the games field.
The crowd also cheered the cart of a society stalwart, pulled by his horse Danny, who followed behind to assist any weary Lonach men, some of whom have been taking part in the march for over 50 years.
Lonach chieftain, Sir Hamish Forbes of Newe, then saluted the loyal Men of Lonach as they passed by.
After the traditional opening of the games, spectators gathered to watch the many competitions including tug o' war, traditional Scottish dancing and tossing the caber.
Despite the absence of American comic Robin Williams from this year's games and five-mile hill race, the efforts of actor Aidan Quinn were greeted with boisterous applause from the VIP stand and crowd, as he completed the gruelling race.
Among the thousands of visitors at the gathering was the Stewart family, from Canada.
Mr Stewart told The Piper: “We arrived from Canada last week and we have been enjoying the fantastic weather here in Scotland. We have been coming to the games for a number of years now and over that time we have seen a great increase in the number of people attending.
“It really has been a fantastic day out and a wonderful end to our holiday in Scotland. My wife is a fan of Sean Connery so as you can imagine she was delighted he was one of the Connolly's guests.”
As well as keeping the spectators entertained, the annual gathering and games brings valuable business to Strathdon. This year local hotels were fully booked, and other local businesses were also said to have enjoyed healthy trade, due to the record number of visitors.
One local resident said he found it heartwarming to see such a large crowd at the event.
“A few years ago the numbers attending the Lonach Games dropped drastically and it was worrying. The Lonach Games have been cited as being the friendliest Highland Games and the atmosphere here today has been great. I suppose a lot of people came hoping to spot some celebrities - but it really doesn't matter why they came, I'm just delighted so many people came”
n The Lonach Highland and Friendly Society was founded in 1823 by Sir Charles Forbes, the 1st Baronet of Newe and Edinglassie.
Membership is drawn from local residents, who fulfil the society's original aims to preserve Highland dress and the Gaelic language, and to promote peace and friendliness among residents.