Ashbourne Highland Gathering takes place this weekend. Gareth Butterfield takes a look at what is in store.
ONE of the town's best-loved events – Ashbourne Highland Gathering – is just days away.
The annual festival of all things Scottish – now in its 29th year – has plenty of attractions to draw in the crowds.
From dancing sheep to caber tossing, organisers have pulled out all the stops to ensure the entertainment offers something for everyone.
A team of just six people organise the event, which attracts around 8,000 people each year and takes place on Sunday at Ashbourne Recreation Ground.
An army of volunteers is called in to help.
Secretary Warwick Adams said: "It's really good to see it all come together on the recreation ground on the day.
"We are only a very small team this year but we get tremendous support from the community, and we simply couldn't do it without them.
"There's plenty of things for families to do on the day so we really hope as many people as people come and enjoy it."
One of the main attractions is the drum-major's challenge.
The biggest crowds at the Highland gathering are drawn to the dazzling finale – the tossing of the drum major's mace over three key points in the town.
One by one the participating bands will march from the field with the drum major charged with the task of hurling his spinning mace over a banner on the recreation ground, the Green Man sign in St John Street, and then a banner in Dig Street.
The event is part of a grand parade of the bands through the town which is due to start at around 5.45pm, but not all drum majors will necessarily take part in the challenge. Those who do will be competing for a gallon bottle of whisky.
Another of the major attractions is the sheep show.
Making a return is the unusual live stage show where the sheep are the stars.
Performed three times throughout the day, Nobby the Norfolk horn will take centre stage as his showbiz pals line up on their podiums.
The highlight is the The Sheep Show Hustle, in which the stars of the show perform a dance but this year the performers will spill out into the arena for a furlong of sheep racing.
Alongside the racing will be a display by shepherd Stuart Barnes, who will be using working collie dogs to round up ducks as part of an educational 30-minute display.
Another of the long-standing event's favourites is celebrity strong-man Geoff Capes and his team of competitors in the Highland games.
This year there will be a mix of experienced heavyweight athletes and younger newcomers to the sport.
Highland games are festivals held throughout the year in Scotland and were originally a way for the clans to demonstrate their relative strength to each other without having to go to war.
Challenges on the Recreation Ground on Sunday will include throwing the hammer, weight for height and weight for distance, along with lifting the Manhood Stones.
A massive Geoff Capes Challenge Stone can also be attempted and £1,000 is on offer for the successful competitor.
The final event will be the tossing of the caber in which competitors attempt to throw and flip end-over-end a long, heavy log.
The result of a suggestion by a young boy in 2008 is Sam's Tent, an area designed specially to give youngsters something to do.
Back in 2008, Sam Hollidge, who was aged nine, enjoyed his day at the Highland gathering but thought it needed an area just for children.
Now 15, Sam runs the tent and organisers refer to it as Sam's Tent when the plans are being draw up and the name has stuck.
Members of Ashbourne and District Lions Club adopted the project and contributed to the costs, which keeps costs of visiting the tent low.
Visitors will find art materials and pictures to colour in and prizes awarded at the end of the day.
The All-England Amateur Solo Piping Championship will also be a major feature of the event.
For the second year, the gathering will be hosting the solo piping championships, with judging taking place throughout the day.
Piping is always the mainstay of the gathering and the All-England Amateur is played in five separate grades, allowing pipers to play-off against their peers.
Last year's inaugural event attracted a record number of entrants for a solo event and has led to other solo competitions.
The successful format has been carried over from last year as it was something of an audience favourite.
This year an increased entry has led to a second judging stand being brought in.
For the second year running, the Ashbourne Highland Gathering will have a tent set aside just for folk music.
Among the acts appearing in the tent will be Steven Quigg, a singer with experience performing all over Scotland and further afield.
Also in the line-up will be Hugh Stewart who will sing some of his favourite Scottish songs.
He will also perform a few tunes on the mandolin, accompanied by his musical friends.
Rounding off the entertainment in the afternoon will be Stargazy, a folk-rock band working in the East Midlands. They promise some rousing tunes on the accordion.
Each set is due to last 45 minutes, with a gap between each act.
One of the most popular events is the tug-of-war contest.
Competitors from around the area will meet up in a corner of the recreation ground for their annual face-off.
The two teams facing each other will pull two ends of a rope, changing ends after the first pull is completed.
Teams have to pull the other team four metres to win the end.
The weigh-in for the competition will take place between 11am and noon, when pulling is due to begin.
One of the most gruelling events is the hill race. A traditional part of every Highland Gathering, runners will line up for the difficult four-mile course.
The route leaves the Recreation Ground before taking in four major climbs. It will cross farmland and woods before returning to the start and finish line in the main arena.
Entries will be open between 1pm and 2.30pm for the event, which is organised by Ashbourne Running Club on behalf of the Highland Gathering Committee.
Visitors at this year's Highland gathering will be given a special opportunity to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent country.
Organisers will be setting up an unofficial ballot box throughout the day for people to cast a "yes" or "no" vote.
Although just for fun, it is believed this will make the showground the only venue outside Scotland where people can vote on the issue.