BBC

Previous Page

 

Donald Dinnie

Donald Dinnie (1837 – 1916)

Donald Dinnie

© Gordon Dinnie

In the year 1860 a young titan named Donald Dinnie performed a feat of strength that was to become his lasting legacy when he carried two massive boulders across the width of the Potarch Bridge near Kincardine O'Neil, in Aberdeenshire.

These stones with a combined weight of 775-lbs had massive iron rings fitted to them in the 1830s to which ropes were fixed so that scaffolds could be attached from which workmen could repair the bridge's outer face. Donald carried both stones together across the width of the Bridge and back, a distance of about five yards.

Nestling on the south bank of the River Dee by the Potarch Bridge is the 18th century Potarch Hotel. A feature by the doorway is the original stones creating great tourist interest and challenge to strongmen throughout the world.

The first modern Olympic Games of 1896 were fittingly staged in Athens where 200 athletes represented 14 countries. Scotland's Launceston Elliot won Scotland's first Olympic medal. During that period Donald Dinnie often described as "Scotland's Greatest Athlete" was fast approaching the twilight of his amazing sporting career.

Donald was an all-round athlete developing his skills during a 20-year reign as Scottish champion (1856-1876). He excelled in sprint, hurdles, long and high jump, pole vault, putting the stone, hammer, tossing the caber and wrestling. Comparing his best performances long before the Athens Olympics of 1896 leads one to imagine him capable of winning seven gold, a silver, and a bronze medal. However, at that time Donald was in his 60th year and touring New Zealand and Australia as a successful professional athlete.

Donald was born in 1837 Balnacraig, Birse, Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, the son of a stone mason. At 16 years old Donald won his first sporting competition in nearby Kincardine O'Neil by defeating local wrestling champion David Forbes and earning £1 prize money! This sparked off an amazing athletic career spanning over 50 years and winning over 11,000 competitions.

Unfortunately, many of Donald's medals were stolen while competing in USA, but thankfully the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum house the many surviving awards; 59 silver medals and a magnificent silver belt presented to him by his contemporaries around 1901.

Donald Dinnie endorsing Iron Brew

© Gordon Dinnie

Also housed there is a 23" carved statuette of Donald engraved with the words "Presented to Donald Dinnie, Champion Athlete In Appreciation of his Athletic Prowess, by his Scotch Friends, In Newcastle 1870". In addition to these awards a distant cousin, Gordon Dinnie, today owns an original astrakhan breastplate adorned by 19 impressive medals won by Donald Dinnie from 1860 – 1896.

A more recent award on St. Andrew's Day 2000 acknowledged Donald's induction into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in Edinburgh. Gordon Dinnie proudly accepted a prestigious cut glass trophy on his ancestor's behalf.

Like his father before him, Donald was a stone mason, and devoted all his spare time training and competing at Highland Games. In 1870 he competed at the inaugural Powderhall Meeting, and around this time decided to become a full-time athlete. With his athletic reputation spreading worldwide, American and Canadian Caledonian Societies sponsored him to compete at their games in 1870, returning in 1872 and again in 1882. During his last visit he won a medal for mixed style wrestling in Plainfield, New Jersey at the Police Gazette Championship - regarded by many as the World Championships. Sadly, while on this trip, Donald received news from Scotland of his wife's death.

Wallace Statue, Ballarat

© SCRAN

Donald left America and headed for the antipodes, arriving in New Zealand in time for the Ashburton Caledonian Society Sports on 17 December 1883. By March 1884 he was in Australia where he remarried and toured for the next 14 years. In Melbourne English-born sculptor Percival Ball, from the bequeath of Airdrie-born James Russell Thomson, was commissioned to produce a statue of William Wallace for the Ballaratt Botanical Gardens. The finished work unveiled in 1889 is fashioned on Donald Dinnie's impressive physique.

While in Australia Donald was the proprietor of the 'Croxton Park Hotel' on the outskirts of Melbourne. This was not a new venture for Dinnie as he was Mine Host at the 'Gordon Arms', Kincardine O'Neil, 'Kintore Arms', in Auchinblae, Aberdeenshire, the 'three Tuns Bar' and 'scotia Hotel' in Newcastle and even had a Funeral and Coach Hiring business in Stonehaven.

Homeward bound in 1898 he disembarked from the SS Aberdeen at Cape Town and toured the provinces for four months delighting the exile Scots with his athletic prowess and feats of strength. His favourite act was to hold a 56-lb weight in the palm of his hand on an outstretched arm parallel to the ground for up to 45 seconds. On returning to Scotland Donald, finding his popularity had declined, embarked on a tour of music halls and theatres in the north east of Scotland. He started in Aberdeen where his earlier feat in 1860, when he carried two large boulders, later known, as the 'Dinnie Stones' was legendary.

Despite being past his athletic prime Donald continued to perform in variety theatres and at Highland games as a judge or in veteran events until 1912. A few years earlier in 1903 Robert Barr invited him to endorse his soft drink 'Iron Brew' using Donald's image on the label with Donald proclaiming 'I can recommend BARR's IRON BREW to all who wish to aspire to athletic fame' signed Donald Dinnie, All-round Champion Athlete of the World.

It is also recorded that during World War I the troops in trenches would crouch as a 16-lb mortar shell whizzed overhead, saying, "There goes another Donald Dinnie". Such was his fame that an Aberdeen artist CJ Beattie painted his portrait which is held by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

In later years Donald was struggling to survive financially and in his 70s was still performing a strongman act in the London theatres. His act was to support a platform made from a large table while two Highlanders danced a "fling" on it. The London authorities eventually withdrew his performing licence due to his advancing years and in consideration for his personal safety. As a result a benefit concert was organised to assist Donald in his old age. All the celebrities of the day turned out to give of their services in honour of the great man and provide him with a small annuity.

Donald Dinnie

© SCRAN

At the turn of the century Donald with his family lived in Glasgow and owned a fish and chip shop and tea-room in the Govan area, then resided for a few years in Newcastle before finally settling in London where he died in 1916 aged 78 years. In the United States The New York Times paid special tribute in the paper's obituary column.

The Scots Magazine in August 1937 devoted their cover page commemorating the centenary of Donald Dinnie's birth. More recently (1999) David Webster & Gordon Dinnie chronicled his life in their book aptly titled 'Donald Dinnie The First Sporting Superstar.'

Written by: Gordon Dinnie



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy