Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dinnie, Cameron, Clark - Dave Webster

Dinnie, Cameron, Clark
by Dave Webster (1965)

He’s springy, elastic and light when he’s running,
Comes up to the mark in time and to spare;
His opponents can’t match him of beat him in cunning,
They say we were beat because Dinnie was there.

Donald Dinnie was so invincible in his heyday and such a compelling personality that poets and lyric writers felt bound to record their impressions in verse. The local press in many towns and villages throughout the world made a great fuss of this travelling athlete when he appeared.

As a result of this adulation there is no shortage of information regarding this phenomenal man, but to appreciate and understand his extraordinary capabilities one must go behind the headlines he made and pass over the statistics so faithfully recorded.

Dinnie, the man, was an inspiration to all who met him. He may not always have been a popular figure for he was very outspoken and brooked no interference from busybodies, gate-crashers and those who tried to exploit him. He commanded respect from those who dealt with him and even today his name is a legend in his native land and much farther afield amongst others who share his love for vigorous, challenging, and strength-testing sports.

Few, if any, will deny that Dinnie was the best all-round athlete Scotland has ever produced. Specialists have beaten him at individual events. Cameron and Clark would have strong claims to being better all-round “heavies,” but as a prize-winner in every athletic event, and even in dancing, he is without equal.

In 1852, at 15 years of age, he left school and became interested in athletics. He was coached first of all in shot-putting by a brother of John George, a well-known athlete of that period, but his first prize was for wrestling when he won five falls against David Forbes, reputed to be the Deeside champion heavy. This surprise win gained the 16-year-old Scot fame, and thus his professional career began.

While still a mason Dinnie performed one of the greatest feats of strength the world has ever known. Outside the hotel at the Bridge of Potarch, near Kincardine, O’Neil, lie two massive boulders to which rings are attached. The story goes that these were originally used by travelers for tethering their horses while their masters went in to indulge in the favorite Scottish pastime of “suppin’ the barley bree.” In reality, the stones were brought to the bridge by Dinnie’s father when he was doing some repairs to the bridge structure. The stones weight about 340 lbs. and 435 lbs. and their bulk makes the lifting of them extremely awkward. In a recent television show several sportsmen, well-known for their strength, tested the smaller of the two stones and had a novel competition. At a show in Aberdeen, Henry Gray, the huge Games athlete, amazed everyone by carrying the smaller boulder 18 yards holding the ring in one hand only – a terrific achievement – but Henry could not budge the larger of the two stones. Dinnie could! In fact he lifted them both at the same time – a total weight of over 785 pounds, which exceeds the existing British weightlifting records, where a barbell is used instead of rough and awkward boulders! Not only did he lift the stones, but he also carried them across the bridge.

This statement has been dispelled by experts for many years and I confess I, too, was dubious, for on the face of it, it would seem mechanically impossible. It took quite a few years of investigation to get to the bottom of this matter, but the feat is now accepted as being correct for Dinnie left a good description of how it was done.

Instead of standing between the two stones and lifting so that they would rest between his legs, Dinnie placed the boulders close together. He then straddled them at the narrowest point and grasped the rings so that one stone was in front of him and the other behind. In this position he could lift without physical discomfort. The only argument left concerned the distance traveled. How could he possibly carry them across the bridge, since the mere lifting was a fabulous feat? Again Dinnie gives the answer. He carried the stones some five yards and that is the width of the bridge.

In recent years many athletes, some form overseas, have tried to emulate Dinnie’s lift with the boulders, but Scotsmen, Scandinavians and others have all failed. One man alone is supposed to have succeeded with the now famous “Dinnie Steens” and this little-known incident was related by an American journalist long after both athletes had died.

From Canada came the immortal Louis Cyr, the giant strongman who carried all before him on his globe-trotting tours of the music halls. When Cyr came to Britain, Donald, who was also enjoying great success as a stage strongman, invited Louis to his home. Dinnie admitted that Cyr was the only man who had impressed him on first sight – and not much wonder. Cyr weighed over 300 lbs. As if this was not enough to make him stand out in a crowd in those days, he wore his hair down to his shoulders in the style of Samson, the biblical hero. The Scot was determined to see for himself the strength of the French-Canadian and after demonstrating his pet stunt with one of the stones he challenged the giant to do likewise. Cyr grasped the ring, in the same manner as Dinnie and lifted it with ease. Not only did he carry it as far as Dinnie had but he exceeded the distance. “Man” gasped Dinnie, “Ye should hae been a Scot.” The great strongman bowed courteously. “Monsieur,” he replied, “I am proud to be a French-Canadian.”

The reporter of this incident omitted to say that Dinnie must have been at least 63 years of age when he pitted his strength against Louis Cyr, who at that time was probably at the height of his fame and one of the highest paid entertainers in his own line of business.

Dinnie sincerely believed that a laborer was worthy of his hire. It didn’t matter if it was a drunk, a policeman, or even royalty – if Dinnie was to perform he needed recompense.

A royal latecomer was nearly robbed of a chance to see Dinnie in action because of the athlete’s mercenary streak. By the time the King arrived at the Games one year the main events were over and the Committee begged Dinnie to go back and toss the caber.

“Aye,” said Dinnie, “I’ll do that – for twa pounds.” The officials were stubborn and refused, pointing out what a great honor it was to throw for such a personage. “I dinna gie a damn,” retorted the champion. “I pay my taxes; I want 2 pounds. I’ll no hae less.”

The other athletes by this time had returned to the field but all their efforts on the caber proved of no avail – not one of them could turn it. The organizers were most embarrassed, and the crowd appalled at this poor display, but a broad-shouldered figure pushed through the crowd and saved the day. Dinnie, reluctant as he was to perform, could not bear to see his beloved sport shown in such a bad light and rushed forward and tossed the caber in a single throw.

Such a man was Dinnie, uncompromising, mercenary at times, but with a soft-hearted streak that would sometimes show through an extremely tough exterior. Magnificent in physical appearance and ability, he had too a knack of always doing something sensational.

The grand old man was still winning prizes in special competitions at Highland Games as late as 1910 and his services were in great demand as a judge. At a Health and Strength show in London when he was 75 years old he again startled the sporting world by holding sideways at arm’s length a half hundredweight (56 lbs.)

Four years later, in 1916, Donald Dinnie ascended to his fathers, leaving behind him a trail of glory and a name that has become a legend.

Alexander Anthony Cameron was indubitably the greatest “heavy” of his time, and another of those great personalities without whom any account of the Scottish Highland Games would be quite incomplete.

Cameron at 20 years of age appeared on the athletic scene just as Dinnie was leaving it and to the perpetual regret of the experts these two never opposed each other in open competition. Because of the similarities of character and performances, Cameron’s and Dinnie’s names are inevitably linked and comparisons drawn between the two.

As well as being a farmer and professional athlete A.A.C. was for a time a member of the Patrick Police Force and, at over 6’1” in height and with 17 stone (238 lbs.) of muscular bodyweight, a better upholder of law and order would be hard to find. There were times, however, when his activities verged on the unlawful. At a fairground in Aberdeen, for instance, he pulled the handle off a grip machine intended for testing the strength of lesser men than himself.

Visitors to Royal Deeside stopping at the Inver Inn between Ballater and Braemar often ask about the large round stone which stands so conspicuously at the roadside. The object which arouses their curiosity if one of the few authentic relics of a custom which has now died out. In bygone days a lad who could lift one of the Manhood Stones was reckoned to be a man and, thus promoted in status, he could wear the eagle’s feathers. When testing his strength on this 268 pound stone at Inver, Cameron heaved the stone off the ground and ;laced it on a dyke at waist height. This is no mean feat for the stone is a large one and the sides so smooth that not a single handhold is afforded. Few people could even budge it from the ground and I personally have witnessed a well-known Indian strongman fail completely to emulate Cameron’s lift.

At the Highland Games he displayed similar determination and confidence. Often he would only take his first attempt in an event and leave the remainder of the “heavies” to battle it out for second and third places! On one occasion he gave a particularly good throw of the hammer and J. J. Miller who was judging the competition complimented him on his effort. “You’re good for another five feet,” Miller said encouragingly. “Na, na,” replied Cameron. “If I do that they’ll expect it every time.”

Before World War I he toured Australia and New Zealand and then was a great success on a sensational tour which took him as far as Russia. Although best known for his feats in the heavy events he was extremely agile and actually established a record on the standing high jump with a leap of 4’11” in a competition against Marsh, a great American jumper – no mean feat for a 17-stone man-mountain.

When Cameron appeared at a meeting it was inevitable that much of the prize money should find its way into his capacious pockets and in order to change this state of affairs his fellow athletes were not above trickery.

One of the famous Kennedy brothers recalls the time when several of the heavies were staying overnight at a hotel prior to a gathering in the area. Naturally A.A.C. was hotly favored for the first prizes and the boys rather resented the adulation poured on Cameron by the residents of the hotel. Next morning, instead of rousing the champion, the athletic contingent, having had breakfast, crept stealthily away leaving him still snoring in his room. Trains were few and far between in those days and when Cameron finally awakened it was too late to catch a train or a bus to the games. Angry and disappointed that such a trick had been played on him, Cameron moped around the hotel until a ‘toff,’ one of the lucky few to own a motor car of his own, heard about the athlete’s plight and offeered to run him over to the Highland Games. Cameron accepted with alacrity and, although he missed some of the program, arrived in time for the Shot-Putting event. Without removing his jacket he won first place with a single put and then rubbed his hands gleefully while waiting for the wrestling competition. However, his opponents knew Cameron only too well – they wouldn’t compete! “Give him the money,” they instructed the judges, “We’ll no risk fechtin’ him today.”

Although this great athlete died on the 18th of September, 1951, at the age of 76, his memory will be evergreen in the minds of all admirers of the virile Highland character.

Among the Banffshire farmers there have been many big, powerful men, always willing to try their strength and skill with others of pit their power against might cabers, weights or stones. In earlier years, wrestling, hammer-throwing and so on were essential parts of the young man’s recreation and in these ploys all would join regardless of social status or level of strength.

George Clark, a big man in every way, started entering competitions in 1924, and although he was but a stripling compared with Starkey, Maitland, Nicholson, Graham and other heavy athletes of that period, he did extremely well and was soon classed as a formidable opponent.

As he grew into a well-muscled heavyweight, George quickly drew ahead of the others until he was 6’1½” in height and 17 stones in weight, with a chest of 50” expanded. He reigned supreme as an all-round heavy, undoubtedly the best in the last half century.

Like all other athletes he has his favorite events, but he has done so will in all of them that it is difficult to say which is his best. His personal preference is for the weight-throwing events, and at Gatherings throughout Scotland he has left his mark and his name appears with overwhelming regularity in the record-lists for these events.

The difficulty of compiling authentic records because of sloping ground, incorrect weight, etc., has been mentioned many times elsewhere, but at Aboyne where the Green is level and the officials are meticulous in their duties, Clark holds the record for throwing the 56 pound weight 39’6”. A terrific distance to hurl a solid half hundredweight of iron! With the 28 lb. weight in 1934 he made his mark at 76’4”, about 12” farther than the winning distance of 1957. Some of the best battles on the field have been seen when George Clark and Ed Anderson met in throwing the 56 lb. weight for height. Both could toss the weight over 15 feet into the air and a clash between these two was worth going a long way to see. It is amazing to see how these two stalwarts have continued over the years to retain their superiority with the weight. Edward was obviously still enjoying the event in 1956, and the same year, well over three decades after his debut, Clark managed to break a record in throwing the weight for distance.

One of the most outrageous displays I have ever seen was at Aboyne in 1957 where George Clark was placed third to Henry Gray and J. McLellan. Several people expressed surprise at this low placing, not knowing Clark was a badly injured man. His deltoid muscle had been hurt at Glenisla Games and this had affected his whole arm from shoulder to wrist. When he appeared at Aboyne his thick woolen sweater concealed the fact that he had the arm heavily plastered and bandaged. Each throw gave him a great deal of pain, but rather than be though a quitter he continued right through the events and still managed to win several prizes.

To many, Clark may seem a dour Highlander, quite devoid of humor.

“He jokes wi’ deeficulty,” said one of the judges at a competition, but then this judge was one of the multitude unable to pierce the tough exterior of the champion, and he failed to appreciate the Banff man’s own particular brand of humor. Those who really know him consider Clark to be a master of the pawky remark and caustic comment.

At one of the Games the officials quite wrongly thought a small light caber would be more acceptable to the heavies and create a bigger spectacle. When the big men saw the caber they were contemptuous of this “stunted tree trunk,” as one of them described , but it was left to Clark to notify the committee of their disapproval and he did it in such a way that it raised a good laugh and nobody could take exception to the criticism.

“You’ll have to get a new caber next year,” Clark said, “I’m needing a new spurtle (stirring stick) and this thing here,” he continued, poking the caber with his foot, “would do fine for stirring my porridge. I think I’ll just tak’ it hame in my pouch.”

Caber-tossing is one of the events in which Clark excels and in 1951, at a time when people were beginning to think George should soon retire, the broad-shouldered hero of hundreds of Gatherings tackled and mastered the famous “untossable” Braemar Caber – a feat of strength which up to the time of writing has been equaled by Henry Gray alone. Not only did Clark toss the mighty Caber, but performed this outstanding feat three times in all, just to show it was no fluke!

For this prodigious demonstration of strength and skill George Clark received special congratulations from the King and Queen and from the organizing committee a 10 pound award for being the first man ever to toss this massive “stick.”

The whispers of the champion’s retiral died away quickly after this awe-inspiring demonstration and Clark continued to pick up the top prizes year after year. The Banffshire giant is already a legend and his supporters are unshakeable in their faith that there will never be another heavy like him. Certainly he has added a great deal of interest to the Gatherings during his long and successful career and it will take a good man to equal his records. George Clark had inspired many young athletes and long after his competitive days are over his name will be linked with those of Dinnie and Cameron as a worthy son of Scotland.

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