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Forty years after the first Midsummer Madathon, the Highland Cross is still going strong


By John Davidson

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Runners pass the dramatic waterfall section on the Highland Cross route in Kintail.
Runners pass the dramatic waterfall section on the Highland Cross route in Kintail.

When people gather at the start of the Highland Cross this weekend, they will be taking part in something more than just another charity event.

The challenge may not be the most extreme, the numbers taking part may not rival bigger events, but as the Cross marks its 40th anniversary, it remains a special and unique date on the calendar.

It started life as the aptly named Midsummer Madathon, and it still takes place on the Saturday nearest to the summer solstice four decades later.

Over those 40 years the Highland Cross has become part of the cultural landscape, bringing together people from all walks of life from across the region as well as those from further afield – much further afield in some cases – who hold a special connection to the place.

Speaking to the two founders of the much-loved event, I’m a little surprised to hear that neither of them jumps in with the £5.9 million it has raised for local charities over those years when I ask about its greatest achievement.

Calum Munro and Gerry Grant came up with the idea as a fundraiser for fellow firefighters after a four-day Munro challenge the previous year proved a little too much. But the idea grew arms and legs and soon other people from the emergency services and beyond were desperate to join in this one-of-a-kind challenge.

Infographic on the Highland Cross in numbers.
Infographic on the Highland Cross in numbers.

Calum (71) explained: “At that time people were reaching out for new things, and they were also reaching out for things that the ordinary people could have a go at. Chris Brasher - who we spoke to in the early days – was starting the people’s marathon idea, the London Marathon.

“I think we caught the time right but the Cross was very different.

“Commercial firms aren’t interested in the Cross because logistically it’s very demanding and you can’t make money out of it – but of course we’re not interested in making money out of the event; the event is there to facilitate the making of money [for charities]. The ethic is very different.

“The initial logistics were the brigade lorry – we reckoned we could get 24 people – so it was two minibuses and the brigade lorry. That was the sum total of the logistics really.”

These days, around 750 people take part each year, entering the Cross in teams of three and pledging to raise at least £500 per team for a number of charities which are scrutinised each year after applying for funding from the event’s independent charity panel.

Representatives of charities, Friends of Cameron House, Partnership for Wellbeing, ABAN, Caberfeidh Horizons and Highland Hospice which all received vehicles from the Highland Cross in 2023. Picture: James Mackenzie
Representatives of charities, Friends of Cameron House, Partnership for Wellbeing, ABAN, Caberfeidh Horizons and Highland Hospice which all received vehicles from the Highland Cross in 2023. Picture: James Mackenzie

After that first event, Calum remembers, “We thought we had a one-off, reasonably good event, and it was only meant to be a one-off.

“It was mad. I remember Gerry had lots of phone calls asking for next year’s date and we were going, next year’s date? I suppose we’d better have a next year then. And off we were running.”

Forty years on and things are very different, yet the Cross has continued through it all, apart from during Covid when it had to pause for well-known reasons.

Gerry (88) pointed out: “It was constant change all the way through the 40 years, certainly the first 20 years. You just had to cope with it, you had to expect it.

“In the end there was a demand that we were able to control. What interested me was that very quickly we seemed to be embraced by the Highland community.”

Calum said: “I think Gerry’s hit it there because we refer to ourselves these days as ‘the community of the Highland Cross’, and right from the start you had the landowners – the landowners were charities, private individuals, public bodies – you’ve had the great and the good and the common working man both on the event but also making the event happen, so you’ve ended up with this complete cross-section of the Highland community driving the Cross forward.

The Highland Cross logo.
The Highland Cross logo.

“We often talk about community but community can’t be taken for granted; it has to be nurtured and it has to be respected, and there has to be mutual respect. And I think all the way through we have received respect – people have said this is for the Highland community, and I think the fact we have always concentrated our fundraising on the Highland community has shown to people of all demographics, all economics, ‘we know what you’re about’.

“So you have that clarity of why does the Cross happen – to help the Highland community. Who is it run by? It’s not run by a remote company or a commercial organisation that comes in, uses the landscape and goes away. The people who make the Cross happen are themselves Highlanders – at every level from the organising committee to the people on the ground, so they have an innate understanding of the community.”

This, Calum insists, is the greatest achievement of the event, rather than the money raised, important though that is to local charities which otherwise would struggle to raise anywhere near enough money to fund new vehicles, building improvements and more to allow them to help those in need across the Highlands.

The very first Highland Cross T-shirt from 1983 - when it was called the Midsummer Madathon.
The very first Highland Cross T-shirt from 1983 - when it was called the Midsummer Madathon.

“The greatest achievement of the Cross? I think it’s to create the community around it and the longevity around it – 40 years – is an admirable thing, but the people who make the Cross happen are that huge diverse community, and I think they are the heroes of the Cross,” Calum says.

“Their efforts and their amazing willingness to give support is humbling because the idea is a great thing but the delivery of an idea only comes about through the efforts of others. That kind of support is what typifies the character of the event.”

Calum and Gerry were made MBEs in the 2016 Queen’s birthday honours for their part in the Highland Cross and, as the fundraising total looks sure to break the £6 million barrier after the 2024 event, what is in store for the future of the Highland Cross?

“Succession planning is a constant issue with the Cross and change is a reality,” admits Calum. “We are actually seeing the effects of climate change on the Cross in terms of weather patterns, unpredictability, conditions on the ground.

Calum Munro and Gerry Grant received MBEs in 2016 for their part in the Highland Cross.
Calum Munro and Gerry Grant received MBEs in 2016 for their part in the Highland Cross.

“As long as we keep getting the support of the Highland community, we’ll keep supporting the charities we try to support. I think it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do it.

“The desire is there and tragically the need is there. There is still a mass of need in Highland, and the reality is that there is a belief that the Highlands is a rural idyll, and that is not the case. There is isolation, there is profound challenges around services.

“We can only do a very little, but what is inspiring is how the Highland community meets those demands, and if we can do a small thing in funding some of that work, then that is a deep privilege to be part of.”

Calum Munro organises people at the start of the Highland Cross in 2022. Picture: Robin McConnell
Calum Munro organises people at the start of the Highland Cross in 2022. Picture: Robin McConnell

Fundraising will make a huge difference to Highland charities

Four charities have been selected to benefit from funds raised at this year’s Highland Cross.

Cantraybridge College will receive a new minibus to allow it to maintain and expand its vital services for young adults with additional support needs. The charity said it wishes to continue to develop its bespoke programme of support, therapy and care for these young people, all of whom struggle to access conventional educational facilities.

The new minibus will allow the college to transport students to and from the campus, put on outings for educational, health, social and leisure purposes and for holidays. It would also enhance its Highland-wide employability and enterprise services and help provide sustained benefits to a range of disadvantaged people across Highland.

A new van will help a commercial charity which employs and supports disabled people in Inverness and the Highlands through the manufacture and sales of high-quality mattresses, divans and headboards.

Highland BlindCraft provides a range of opportunities for skills development and training that would not ordinarily be available in a working environment to those living with a disability. The new van will allow the ethically-run charity to continue driving sales in order to provide support for people working with disabilities.

Sporting groups across the Highlands are set to benefit from an award of a minibus to Highland Disability Sport. The charity says that many individuals and groups are missing out on representing their clubs and the Highlands at events due to the difficulties and costs associated with accessing specialist transport.

Pippa Middleton took part in the Highland Cross in 2011.
Pippa Middleton took part in the Highland Cross in 2011.

The bus, along with trained drivers, would be offered to groups around the region for Highland Disability Sport to transport individuals or teams to events whether in Highland area or to national events.

L’Arche Highland is a community where people with and without learning disabilities live and work together to build a more human world for everyone. Based at Braerannoch on Drummond Crescent, Inverness, since 1975, more than 70 people now access the charity’s services through four residential houses, supported living and interesting day programmes

Highland Cross funding will help L’Arche Highland purchase a seven-seater MPV with additional safety and care features. It will be used for individual and pooled journeys to and from day workshops, outings, attending health appointments and visiting friends and family, significantly enhancing the lives of those it supports and adding an extra dimension to the community.


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