MacPhail – 5.9.19

Angus MacPhail.

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On August 21, the world said farewell to one of the finest sportsmen Scotland has ever produced, when he was laid to rest in his native Aberdeenshire.

Bill Anderson was without dispute the greatest Highland Games athlete of the last century, having had a career in which he dominated the sport for more than 30 years.

Dating from the mid-1800s, in the lineage of the great stand-out heavies of their time  – Donald Dinnie, A.A. Cameron, George Clark – it was Bill Anderson who from the late 1950s until into the 1980s, was undoubtedly the top competitor in this field.

Remarkably, at the age of 49, in his final year of competition, he won his last Scottish Championship at the Crieff Highland Gathering of 1987. The championship at Crieff was, and still is, regarded as the premier prize in the Highland Games circuit, holding more prestige than British or World Championships. To win it at that age was an incredible way to bring closure on an unmatched career.

It was on Saturday July 21, 1956, at the Alford Annual Show that Bill Anderson at the age of 18 first competed and from then until he retired he threw at home and throughout the world, dedicating his sporting life to Highland Games.

A familiar presence at the Argyllshire Gathering, at the Mull Highland Games, at Arisaig and others, he was well known on the West Coast, as well as on his home territory on the East and abroad. It is a well-known and often talked-about aspect of Bill’s career, that he was universally liked and respected wherever he competed.

In an amusing anecdote that shows a humorous side to his otherwise stern and determined character, after returning from the Tobermory Games on a particularly rough ferry crossing, someone was gently mocking him because he had been badly seasick.

‘Aye,’ said Bill, ‘and I was throwing it further that anyone else!’

In addition to Highland Games Heavy Events, Bill also competed successfully as a wrestler and as a strongman.  In 1978 he came second to Geoff Capes in the Britain’s Strongest Man event and although he went on to compete in the World’s Strongest Man final in the USA, he had to withdraw early due to injury.  There is footage available on YouTube of him competing well in the first few events of this competition.

His brief career in Strongman, considering his age at the time – over 40 – and his lack of experience in the discipline shows clearly the Herculean strength he had, as well as the speed, power and coordination required for his main forte of Highland Games.

I first became a fan of Bill Anderson when I read his biography, Highland Fling, written by Jack Davidson and published in 2009.  The book gives a fascinating insight into Bill’s career, his character and to Highland Games generally. Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to many athletes who competed against or were judged by Bill Anderson, and their adulation and respect for him was consistent and in every case was immense.  A true great of Scotland’s sporting heritage.