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In Scotland, Tug of War is More Than a Sport

HIghland Games tug of war is a brutal challenge and a Scottish tradition.

Asa Merritt

Photo by Asa Merritt

It was difficult to get Craig Petch talking about anything other than booze.

"You've had your five minutes! There's guys over there who have beers in their hand and I'm sittin' here sober," he said after barely introducing himself.

The tall blue-eyed 30-year-old goofball had just completed an exhausting day of competition at the Braemar Gathering, a festival that takes place every year in September in Braemar—a village of 2,000 in the sheep-studded, heather-swathed highlands of Northern Scotland—that showcases traditional Scottish sports: dancing, caber tossing, bagpipe competitions, shot-putting, hill racing, and—the festival's one team sport—tug of war.

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"Twenty-thousand people. Pullin on a rope. It doesn't get much better than that," said Petch. All day long eight-man teams of guys like Petch tried to drag each other to the ground. More than 15,000 sunburned Scots (it was a rare sunny day in Braemar) cheered as the raw rope moved inches in one direction and then inches in the other. Cries like "pull!,""brake!" and "now!" broke down into grunts; coaches, like generals, paced up and down the line issuing commands and encouragement. Team jerseys looked like medieval battle standards.

Unlike hobbyist shot putters and privately-coached Scottish dancers, the men who compete in the Braemar Gathering tug of war competition are enlisted members of the British Armed Forces. They have barbed wire tattoos, smoke cigarettes, and are proportionally more diverse than the general population. Petch is a Staff Sergeant for the 15th Signals Regiment, a communications unit. "I've been in [the Army] 15 years and loved every minute of it," said Petch. "I love comin' out here and competin' with the lads."

Toby Courage, the Signals' commanding officer, came to Braemar to watch his troops compete. "Success in combat is all about teamwork," said Courage. "And this is a sort of sport that really does develop teamwork. It builds team spirit, it builds robustness, it builds the ability to deal with pressure." Courage cited the famous declaration by the Duke of Wellington that "Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton." (Eton is a famous English high school. Waterloo is where the Brits beat Napoleon).

This rope has been tugged and will be tugged again. Photo by Asa Merritt.

Facing off against teams like the 19th Artillery and the 1st Mercien (infantry), the Signals pulled well during the round-robin portion of the tournament. Again and again their matching black boots, specifically made for tug of war, found traction in the mud. By the end of the day their navy blue jerseys were almost black. Even the Signals' gold sphinx insignia (the unit was founded in the '40s when England controlled the Suez Canal) was hard to pick out. Overall, they went 5-2.

"Tug of war is 50 percent skill and fitness, 50 percent thinking you're gonna win it," said Petch. "It's a team sport. You're only as strong as your weakest man. So, soon as your weakest man is gone you're only pullin against seven."

To win a match a team has to win the best of three "ends"—a single round that concludes when one team pulls the rope 13 feet from its center starting point. Teams employ "pulling" and "braking" to gain ground. A short term strategy called "humping" involves swinging the rope in a sine curve shape. The move gains you momentum at the expense of stability. The guys on the rope work with the same coordination as eight-man crew teams, but given the slippery ground and unreliable grip, things can get messy. One or more pullers might flop to the ground, and sometimes an entire team finds itself clinging to the rope, asses in the mud.

Whenever that would happen to the Signals, 30-year-old Adele Leonard screamed her face off. In the inter-service league where teams qualify for Braemar, four men and four women make up a team. But only men can compete at the tradition-gripped Gathering—although women can coach. Leonard, who has been in the service for 10 years and has previously boxed, led the Signals at Braemar. "Sports give us something to look forward to," said Leonard. "It builds character. It's how you best get loyalty from your team members. It forms bonds that you just can't get in normal work."

Leonard beamed when talking about her career in the military. After leaving home at 16, she spent four years partying and working service jobs. She joined the Signal Corps at 20 and never looked back. She served in Afghanistan twice and says participating on the tug of war team affected her experience in the field. "Because I'm on a team with [my unit], it makes me to do my job as a soldier even harder, makes me work harder. It just—if I ever was to let them down, I'd be so disappointed in myself because I've formed this relationship with them out of work. It's massively important."

Leonard just got promoted from Corporal to Sergeant, only three ranks from the bottom. "You've got a corporal as a coach tellin' a major what to do. And it's good because it shows you that the Army's not just about—when it comes to rank obviously you've got to respect authority but they'll listen to their subordinates when they need to. The army's not all about, 'you will listen to what I say because I'm higher up than you.'"

The Signals. Photo by Asa Merritt.

The Signals' 5-2 record was good enough to get them into the runner-up match. One last opportunity to lean into the rope—this time in front of Queen Elizabeth II, who on September 9th became the longest-ever reigning British monarch. She entered the arena in a caravan of black SUVs. Bagpipes blasted before, during and after her arrival. Everyone sang "God Save the Queen." Spectators who had bet on the color of the Queen's outfit (red, a dark horse, carried the day) put 10 pound notes in each other's hands. Meanwhile, the dozens of soldiers at Braemar stood smartly. "[You're] in front of the queen. Got to look good in front of the queen. Looks good doesn't it," said Louis Fair of the 12th Artillery. By the time the Signals walked out into the arena Leonard had changed out of her track suit and into her full uniform.

The lush spectacle of royalty, haggis burgers, bagpipe medleys and sport made it easy to forget that this was not business-as-usual for the Signals. "There are very few people in the British Army who haven't served in Iraq or Afghanistan. I'd be surprised if any of them hadn't served in one of those or both of those theaters," Courage said about his soldiers. For them, tug of war is an extracurricular activity that helps both before and after deployment. "When our guys get back from Afghanistan, the sports help a lot with any mental illnesses they might have picked up while serving," said Private Sam Green of the 1st Mercien. "When you're doing sports you don't feel like you're in the Army. You actually feel as if you're just a normal person."

In their final match, the Signals lost to the 19th Artillery, a unit they had narrowly defeated in the group stage. "I just think the inexperience in our team showed. The 19th's all got senior pullers," Petch told me before joining the team for a group picture. Grinning broadly the eight guys picked up Leonard, still in full uniform, and held her horizontally. "You better come drink with us!" Petch shouted.