Still Going Strong
By Iain Ferguson
It would be fair to say, Kilmarnock Harriers Athletic Club has endured some major highs and lows during its 136-year history.
The club has survived two World Wars but the Covid pandemic that engulfed the country in 2020 for two years had a huge effect, and it’s only now the Kilmarnock institution is almost back to pre-Covid numbers.
Members come from all over Ayrshire, not only Kilmarnock and East Ayrshire, but also South and North Ayrshire and a contingent from Cumnock.
Billy Roberton, the Club Together officer, has been a coach at Harriers for approaching 40 years and said: “We are back up to 370 members. We limit numbers to 400 and in some areas there are waiting lists but we are almost back to full strength which is encouraging.”
The Harriers, whose home is the Ayrshire Athletics Arena in Queens Drive, Kilmarnock, is one of the oldest in Scotland with perhaps only one having been formed earlier, but that is uncertain or “lost in the past” as Billy puts it.
There is a vast age range of members: “Our youngest members are 9 years old – that is the age that UK Athletics and Scottish Athletics allow youngsters to start,” said Billy. “Our oldest is Jim Young who has been a Harrier for 75 years and will be 90 this year.
“Obviously Jim is not as active as he was, being in his 90th year, but up until two or three years ago he was here virtually full-time. He was a very good athlete and then a coach. You name it, Jim’s done it for the club.”
The Harriers cater for all athletics and field events, age groups and abilities. Billy added: “We have a very healthy junior section and also a very active senior section including guys who are just taking up the sport for the first time. We call that the couch to 5k.
“We also have many good jumpers both in high jump and long jump, and throwers in all types of throw including discus and javelin.”
In the age of laptops, iPads and Xboxes, I asked Billy how hard it was to attract the younger generation into an outdoor pursuit like athletics.
He admitted: “We do find it difficult nowadays to attract kids because primarily youngsters don’t play in the street any more as there are a lot of cars about. The balance and co-ordination isn’t there. I’m not saying everyone’s like that but for the majority you have to start at the fundamentals. But we live in the modern world and I’m not saying we are the only sport to suffer. It gives us great satisfaction, though, to see these youngsters develop and make their way in athletics.”
Athletes train on average two nights a week either on a Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday with some specialist throwers also putting in Friday sessions. Many of them put in an extra session at Dean Park in the town on Saturdays. The training schedules pay huge dividends with the Harriers doing well at major events.
Billy proudly states: “At the recent Scottish indoor championships we won nine medals including four golds, and going back to last year’s outdoor national championships we lifted numerous medals.
“We are a competing club and although not every kid wants to take part in national championships we do expect them to participate in club championships and Ayrshire events. They are encouraged to start off in events that are low-key – we don’t want them going in at the deep end, we are very selective.”
As youngsters reach the age of attending university many leave the Harriers and although a percentage return after their studies are complete, there are some who carve new lives away from Ayrshire.
“We have some who go off to university and come back and become coaches,” explained Billy. “We also have several generations of families who are members. There are grandparents whose grandchildren compete, and we even had a great-grandparent at one time. The great-grandparent is still going but the great-granddaughter gave it up.”
Recalling the difficulties of keeping his members fit during the pandemic Billy said: “Covid was difficult. It was easier for the adult athletes but I was sending schedules out to various kids. It was hard for jumpers.
If you take your mattress out into the back garden your mother will kill you! We lost a number of members and coaches too who found other things to do.”
The blue vests of Kilmarnock Harriers are seen at events all over Scotland and beyond. In August the under 13s and 15s Scottish championships are in Aberdeen, and earlier in the year four age group teams represented the club at the Scottish Indoor finals at the Emirates Stadium in Glasgow.
A few years ago the club went international when Fraser Angus competed in the Commonwealth Youth Games in Trinidad. And later this year, Laura Haggarty will travel to Poland to compete in the World Indoor Masters.
Billy was quick to stress: “While elite and top-end athletes are great, the grass roots is equally important with the under 13s and 14s and so on all part of the bigger picture.”
Praising the Ayrshire Athletics Arena where the club has access to the track, areas for throwing, an indoor training hall and meeting room, Billy said: “We are very grateful for this facility. We have had it 11 or 12 years. Before that we tried to get a track for 50-odd years and we had an old cinder track over at the Scott Ellis Park, but between clearing off the dog dirt, having football players in the middle and boy racers driving around, it wasn’t suitable. The facilities were lacking to put it mildly.”
To coin a phrase from one former Kilmarnock institution, the Harriers are 136 years old and still going strong. With people like Billy Roberton in their corner, their future is bright.