1949 Falkland Highland Games
In the lead, Naggie McDonald, followed closely by Bert Duff, and behind him a man whose surname was Scott. He came from Dundee. All over Scotland, the Highland Games drew large crowds as they did here in Falkland.
Looking back, Bert remembers the bamboo wheel rims which were frequently fitted to racing bikes until aluminium became the norm in the 1940's. He still remembers getting his first set of alloys, purchased from a man in Dunshalt.
Bert also remembers an early love of playing football. He was a member of the Lomond Thistle Football Team whilst still at school, playing in many matches around the local area, but somehow, cycling and its many challenges beckoned.
Once committed to competitive cycling, Bert, literally, never looked back, riding forward into a long, eventful and happy life.
Bert Duff on the right. On the left Sandy Williamson, from Leven, who raced under the name of Sandy Heard.
The men who “ran the bike” usually worked the land. They were strong and endured all weathers. They raced without gears, let alone brakes! Most towns and villages held their own games. The pace set at these races would be fearsome for the day and conditions; well over 20mph. Competitors would cycle to the events, do their races and then cycle all the way home. They were classed as professional cyclists because the winners received cash prizes, usually less than £3.00 for the winner.
Bert worked on the land, at Drums Farm, Freuchie, as a tractor-man, having left school at the age of twelve. He started by riding the mile at Strathmiglo in 1945 and became a popular figure at the Highland Games competitions throughout the years. He ended his 39-year career as a very successful grass track racer, back at the Highland Games at Strathmiglo in 1984, running the bike for the last time in the mile event.
During his legendary career, Bert became All Scottish Champion in 1953, following in the footsteps of Dave Hardy (1947) and Sandy Bartlett in 1952.
Bert and his sons at Blairgowrie Highland Games in 1980
As the years passed, grass track cycling became very much a family affair with Bert’s two sons, Stewart and James competing alongside their Dad, riding all the Highland Games. It had been an ambition of Bert’s for them all to finish one, two, three and in 1980 at Blairgowrie, they did it! They were the prize-winners in the 3200 metres in a field of 15 riders. Stewart, then 16, on the left won the race; James, 23, was second and father Bert was third. Bert was determined that he and his sons would take the first three places, so when another competitor hove into view, he shouted, “No chance mate!” and the Duff team cycled on to victory.
Whilst James and Stewart were champions in their own right, one of Bert’s daughters, Janette was also a keen cyclist. She went everywhere on her bike and well remembers her grandad telling Bert that he caught sight of James, “flying like the wind” past his house, when actually it was Janette, with the same length hair as James in the Seventies, pedalling for the sheer joy of it.
Bert and his wife Agnes were the proud parents of six children; three boys and three girls. As the children grew, holidays would revolve around Highland Games competitions. It was to all the Games that took place up north, from Perth to around Caithness, that Bert went, and so the family went too. Off to places such as Halkirk, Dornoch and Strathpeffer they would go, first with just a tent then with the luxury of a camper van and the tent. The children would all sleep in the family tent unless changing/dancing tents were available on the site, where there they were sometimes found stretched out around the central tent pole. All six children with their feet to the post, just like the spokes of a wheel. And they all slept well, according to Jeanette. Dad’s prize money often paid for the petrol home to Fife.
Happy family days with a Dad to be proud of!
After Bert’s retirement from competitive cycling he and Agnes continued to attend the Games as spectators often staying with their daughter, Sandra, at her home in Caithness. (Bert’s third daughter, Kate, lives in Kentucky, USA and has been there for over thirty years.)
Here at Thurso, Bert gets a fast start from son, James in the 800 metres.
Both of Bert’s sons competing at Airth (John Davidson centre, Stewart on the left, James on the right.)
Bert and young James being interviewed by ex-Provost, Jim Miller, of Dollar, a well known Games commentator. In this photograph Bert is 42 and James 15 and he had just won the three mile event at Thornton Highland Games, Bert came third.
Bert and James in action at Halkirk, Caithness Games
Victor Polanski is leading in this photograph. Bert says that he was a great guy and a great competitor.
Here he is at Bert’s 90th birthday celebrations with the "bike boys" including James and Stewart. As Bert put it, the "bike boys" were the best of friends off their bikes, but when the gun fired it was every man for himself!
The bike boys from the left:
Ken Greghan, Tom Greghan (behind), Stewart Duff, Malcolm Hatise, Jock Hardy (behind), Davy Duff, Erich Lane and Victor Polanski (behind), Bert, James Duff and Tich Anderson.
During the celebrations, Brandon McPhee played a tune entitled “Bert Duff” on the accordion. Of course, Bert could have accompanied Brandon on the harmonica, as playing the mouth organ is another of his talents!
Bert Duff competed every year until his retirement, having just one short break with a back injury. His treasured bike was a Freddie Grubb, handmade in England. The bike is now on display in Thornton at the Leslie Bike Shop, as shown in the pictures below. Bert came across the frame in Jock Dalrymple’s workshop in Freuchie, having walked across the fields to get himself a cycle repair kit. He discovered that the frame was for sale, at a price of £7.00. He didn’t have the money with him but Jock let him take it home and told him to come back with the cash when he could. Bert walked home carrying the frame, back injury forgotten! He set about doing up the bike, the empty house next door to the family home providing a convenient workshop! Back in the saddle he rode on to many victories.
The frame of success; the Freddie Grubb on which Bert rode to so many victories.
The colour changed over the years as Bert maintained his much loved bike, but now it stands as a proud memory, sporting a shiny new respray and lettering by Willie Bain, engraver, of Wick.
Of course, on retirement, Bert did not get off his bike and put it in a shed, oh no! He carried on cycling and has participated in many charity rides over the years, including the 100 miles from Oban to Leslie in aid of his youngest son Robert’s support for Bone Marrow Transplants.
The certificate below commemorates the event, in 1995, when Robert Duff donated his own bone marrow to a patient in Denmark. Robert has made three donations of bone marrow over the years, the limit set for such gifts of life from one person to another.
And to sum up an exemplary career, this poem, “The Early Days” by Jock Hardy says it all.
As told to Liz Coates
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