Socks set to wow the crowds at Lonach

Socks with owner Derek Gray during the 2017 Lonach march.
Socks with owner Derek Gray during the 2017 Lonach march.

With final preparations well under way in Strathdon for tomorrow’s Lonach Highland Gathering and Games, one of the event’s most popular attractions is receiving a makeover.

In households across the north east shoes are being shined, uniforms prepared and buckles, buttons and badges polished as the 220 men who make up the Lonach Highlanders get ready for their annual six-mile march through Strathdon to Saturday’s Lonach Gathering.

At one home, however, a much bigger operation is in full swing to ensure Socks the Lonach horse is groomed to perfection for his starring role in the march.

Owned by Lonach Highlander Derek Gray, Socks will make his fourth appearance at the popular event, which attracts thousands of visitors from around the world. The Irish Heavy Cob receives hearty cheers and admiring glances from the crowd, with many going to meet the horse and take selfies with him when he is enjoying a rest between the afternoon marches.

Getting Socks ready is a family affair, with Derek, his wife Donna, their six children and Derek’s father Willie all lending a hand. Having already broken in his new shoes, after being shod a few weeks ago, the nine-year-old gelding is now receiving an extensive beauty treatment to ensure he is in pristine condition as he follows the well turned out Lonach Highlanders.

The pampering includes his coat being shampooed, brushed and sprayed with lacquer, his mane and tail combed to remove any tangles, the feathering on his legs dusted with wood flour, and paint applied to his hoofs. His harnesses, with their brass decoration, have all been cleaned and polished so that they gleam throughout the day.

Although Socks is often exposed to the sound of solo pipers when he transports brides to their weddings in a restored four-wheeled carriage, he does not often encounter massed bands. This evening, he will join Lonach Pipe Band – who he spent time with in 2015, ahead of his debut march, as part of a rigorous training regime to become comfortable with the skirl of the pipes and beat of the drums – for a final massed band refresher session.

Away from the Lonach marches, Socks is part of Derek’s horse-drawn carriage business Odd Socks Enterprises. It offers horse-drawn experiences for weddings, events and special occasions with a restored landau, a wagonette and a wheeled sleigh all available for hire.

Derek said: “A lot of work goes into getting Socks ready for any event, but the whole family gets involved, which is a big help. Socks is also a really canny cuddie who enjoys all the pampering and attention. Saying that, after his work for the day is done and he is back in his field he revels in having a roll in the grass. Perhaps it’s his way of protesting to the preening.

“A horse and cairt has traditionally followed the Lonach march to transport the pikes and Lochaber axes when they became too heavy to carry over long distances. Socks follows in the hoof prints of a long procession of horses and has become a firm favourite with visitors.”

Jennifer Stewart, secretary and chief executive of the Lonach Highland and Friendly Society, said: “Just like other Highland Games, there is a huge amount of work involved in getting the field ready for the Lonach Gathering. The amount of time that volunteers put in to set everything up is incredible. Since his first appearance, Socks has become a star at Lonach and the work Derek and his family put in preparing him is appreciated by everyone.

“Saturday is shaping up to be a great day with the usual mix of events. There will once again be a strong turnout of Lonach Highlanders, who will currently be busy cleaning and sorting their uniforms, so the march will again be quite a spectacle. This year, we are excited to have the very first Daily Lonach Mile, which offers something a little different. The Lonach Society School of Dancing, whose pupils have appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and performed for a popstar, is also celebrating its tenth anniversary. I’d encourage people to head out to Bellabeg for mid-morning and make a day of it – we’ve something for all the family to enjoy.”

The 177th Lonach Highland Gathering and Games takes place in Bellabeg Park, Strathdon, Aberdeenshire from 10.30am on Saturday. Tickets cost £10 for adults, £5 for children aged 5 to 15, while children under the age of four receive free entry.

Established in 1823, by Sir Charles Forbes, 1st Baronet of Newe and Edinglassie, the Lonach Highland and Friendly Society is a charitable organisation based in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire. The society organises the annual Lonach Gathering at Bellabeg Park, Strathdon, which is held on the fourth Saturday of August. The main attraction at the gathering is the march of the Lonach Highlanders, a unique body of non-military men. Further information on the Lonach Highland and Friendly Society, the Lonach Highlanders and the annual Lonach Highland Gathering can be found at www.lonach.org.