TUG OF WAR is in David McKenzie’s blood but trying to get new people to take up the sport has become like pulling teeth. McKenzie will shortly represent club and country again at the world championships in the Netherlands at the age of 51, his veteran status not unusual in a non-contact sport that encourages longevity of participation.
McKenzie is part of the burgeoning scene at Cornhill, a small village in Banffshire just south of Portsoy, that has been able to retain sufficient numbers in both the men’s and women’s game despite the sparsity of the surrounding population.
To his regret it is not a similar story around the country. While other European nations have kept a pipeline of talent flowing from a young age, it is a pastime that seems to be dying out throughout Britain beyond the sporadic Highland Games shows that McKenzie feels don’t always strictly adhere to the proper rules and regulations. Finding and then encouraging the next generation of pullers to stick with it is Scottish tug of war’s biggest challenge. Are there thousands lining up to get involved? A frayed knot.
“It’s a bit of a struggle getting people to take up the sport,” said McKenzie who works as a cooper in his day job, making whisky barrels in Speyside. “There are less and less of us as the years go on. As a club we’ve been quite lucky. We’ve had a bit of success which has maybe helped us with numbers.
“But tug of war overall in Scotland, in fact the UK overall, is in decline sadly. Some of the European countries are doing pretty well as they’ve got it right through the schools. There are various reasons why it’s not the same here. Traditionally it came from the farming community and there are fewer farms now these days with all the big machinery. Plus all the young ones are more into high-tech stuff these days with their computers. And all they see on TV is football so that’s what they want to do.
“Before the pandemic I was going around the local schools to set up competitions there so hopefully that will go on and eventually we’ll have more pullers feeding into the senior teams when they grow up. But you need that all over the country and there’s just not the same interest.”
What makes a good puller then? And how much of winning is simply down to brute strength and how much depends on tactical nous and experience? McKenzie breaks down what it takes to succeed in a demanding eight-a-side sport where pulling in the same direction is a literal rather than metaphorical necessity.
“You need to be strong for your weight which is the main thing,” he explains. “People think it’s just about finding the eight biggest lads but we all pull in different weight categories. One of them is 560kg, so 70kg a man which is just over 11 stone. So it’s not always about being the biggest.
“It’s about being strong for your weight and very determined with it! It’s one of the sports where you need a strong core. You need a good set of hands as all the power goes through there and strong thighs as that’s where all the pulling comes from. It gives the whole body a workout.”
McKenzie will be the oldest puller in an experienced Cornhill squad who will perform in the open section of the world championships and who will then represent Scotland in the closed section.
“There are more than 1500 competitors at the worlds so it’s going to be a good challenge for us,” he added. “And once the last day of competing is over everyone will get together for a bit of a party so there’s a social aspect to it too which is always good fun.”