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Impressions of Northern Athletes and Athletics

John William Sutherland, "Impressions of Northern Athletes and Athletics" and "The World's Record That Never Was at the Bower Athletics Sports", 1912

The author:

The family name of Sutherland is very common in the county of Sutherland in the Northern Highlands of Scotland. John William Sutherland was born at Craigton, in one of the highest and most remote parts of Morness in Rogart parish, in 1890.  His father, Robert, and his mother, Catherine (née Mackay), already had an established family and John William (who was known in the family as Jack) had older brothers and an older sister; the family continued to grow and Jack eventually had nine brothers and sisters.  By 1908, when he was 18, he was living at Golspie, on the south-east coast of Sutherland, and by 1910 he was back living at Rogart, a few miles inland, where he wrote his book Scientific Athletics.  He was brought up in an athletic family and in a culture that valued throwing and, although he was not a big man (nor a big boy or youth), he excelled in the throwing events, particularly the Shot and Hammer.  Indeed, so slight was he that he created something of a sensation because he was very successful when very young and was much smaller than the people he competed against.  In August 1908, the Aberdeen Journal described him at the Dornoch Highland Games as ‘a lad of 17 years of age and weighing 10 stone’ [140lbs/63.5kg] and ‘he was repeatedly cheered’ when he won the Hammer Throw (16lbs) [7.26kg] by 8 inches [20.3cm] and was second in Putting the Ball (22lbs) [9.98kg].

Jack Sutherland’s family was always an important part of his athletic life; in August 1908 (above), for example, it seems likely that his oldest brother, Andrew, was a prize-winner in the wrestling competition, and Donald, who was two years older, was a piper and an athlete, and won prizes in the Reels & Strathspeys competitions.  In his book, Scientific Athletics, Jack Sutherland includes a photograph of “D. Sutherland, Rogart” (p. 63) and in Chapter XIX, Prominent Scottish Athletes and Their Performances, he describes D. Sutherland as a “successful all-round athlete” and gives details of his best throwing and jumping performances, but fails to mention that he was his younger brother.  Donald was also known as The Rogart Hercules, but he was also an accomplished piper, and we hear of him later, composing pipe-music too. At about this time Donald left Scotland and went to Australia, from where he went to Peru before travelling to Oregon and finally settling in Montana.  Neil, another brother, had also emigrated and lived in Montana.

In his early competitive years, writers repeatedly commented on Jack’s youth and his diminutive stature.  In September 1908, The Aberdeen People’s Journal wrote, “A young athlete competed here, who promises exceptionally well.  John William Sutherland, by name, he is 17 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches [1.70m] tall and weighs 10 stones 7 lbs. [147lbs/66.7kg].”  They went on to say that he had thrown a 16lb Hammer ‘well over 95 feet [29m]’, putt a 22lb Shot 32 feet [9.75m], and ‘was good for 5 feet 3inches [1.60m]’ in the High Jump (ground to ground).  All these distances can be authenticated in Sutherland’s own diary.  He retained this boyish appearance throughout his athletic career and, in September 1911, the Aberdeen Journal again commented on his youth and size - “He was, to all appearances, the youngest athlete in the heavy events, and his victory was a popular one”; he was 21 years old and was still 5ft 7ins tall and still only 10½ stone [147lbs/66.7kg].  In that event he won ‘the Light Stone’ by over a foot with a throw of 38ft [11.58m], and won £2; this would be equivalent in purchasing power to £200 in 2021.  By this date, however, his diary (as reported in Scientific Athletics) had come to an end, so we can only guess at how heavy the ‘light stone’ was.  The John O’Groat Journal was to make similar comments about his age and size a year later.

John William Sutherland’s performances are not easy to trace; his performances were sometimes reported under the name, ‘John William Sutherland’, sometimes ‘J.W. Sutherland’, and sometimes ‘John Sutherland’, but in the same competitions there were other Sutherlands, and even a John, J, and W. Sutherland, and some were even from Golspie and Rogart.  By June 1909, John William Sutherland had joined the Territorial Army and he competed in the Camp Sports at Burghead, winning the Hammer Throw for the 5th Seaforths (i.e. the 5th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders).

Jack Sutherland’s diary comes to an abrupt end after reporting his results for August 1911; his entry for 18 August records that he had been at the Durnoch Highland Gathering and had been ‘indisposed’; nevertheless he set a ‘county record’ for the 16lb. [7.26kilos] Hammer, and putt the 15¾lb. [7.14kilos] ball 45ft. [13.72m], [listed as 15lb. [6.80 kilos] in the press] and high jumped 5ft 4 ins. [1.625m], but did not record in his diary that he was also 2nd= in the Pole Vault.  He also failed to note that, although breaking a county record, he finished outside the first three in the event. Nevertheless, he was thought to be particularly impressive on that day with the John O’Groat Journal reporting that he was “well to the front” in the heavy events, “as he indeed nearly always is”, and that he went in for “a system of physical training and is particularly well developed for a young man.”  It was, therefore, a good advertisement for the book he had started.

The entry for the following day (19 August 1911) records that he is still ‘incapacitated’ and ‘greatly indisposed’ but did compete at the Brora Games and competed in two Hammer, and two Putting the Ball events – but well below his previous standard.  This entry is confusing and must have been added later, for he not only makes reference to the Brora Games which took place on 2nd September, but also to the Lairg Highland Gathering on 20th September, in which his performances were also below his normal standard.

1912 was both the pinnacle of Jack Sutherland’s athletic career and its effective end, and it all happened within a few days.  On Friday 9 August Jack Sutherland opened his season at the Bower Athletic Sports, winning the 16lb. Hammer with 117ft. 1 inch [35.69m], and Putting the 16lb. Ball 48ft 10 ins. [14.84m]. He was also 2nd in the wrestling. His Putting the Ball performance was reported to be 1 foot 2 inches [35.5cms] better than the World’s Record, but was downhill; nevertheless, on the basis of those performances, he challenged A. A. Cameron, known in Scotland as the “World’s Champion”, to a series of events to decide the “heavy weight championship”.  The challenge appeared in the newspapers one week later, on Friday 16 August. The Wick Riverside Committee was quick to seize on this and started to plan for the Sutherland/Cameron Championship Challenge to take place at the Wick Gala on Wednesday 28 August, just 12 days ahead.

On the same day that Sutherland’s challenge appeared in the newspapers (Friday 16 August), Jack Sutherland entered the Durnoch Highland Gathering, competing in the Open events, and also in the events open only to those born in the county – a very busy afternoon in which at the beginning of the meeting he “dislocated” the cartilage in his right knee in a Pole-Vaulting competition.  As a result, in the County events, he was 1st= in the Pole Vault, but 2nd= in the High Jump, and 2nd in Putting the 16lb. Ball.  In the Open events he was 3rd in the 16lb Hammer, 3rd in the 22lb.Hammer, and 3rd in the Long Jump.  The “intense pain” clearly incapacitated him and he could hardly bend his knee; and before the week was out he had written to Cameron withdrawing his challenge.  Jack Sutherland did not compete again in 1912, and in 1913 seems only to have competed once – at the Brora Highland Gathering - and was 2nd in the Open Hammer event, 10 feet [3m] below his performance of the previous year, and was also 2nd in Putting the 16lb Ball, over 9 feet [2.74m] less than the year before; but that was the end of his athletic career in Scotland.  Almost immediately he emigrated to America.

Despite recording a 16lb. putt further than the World’s Record, J.W. Sutherland is remembered in athletics history only for his book, “Scientific Athletics” which he wrote when he was under 21, perhaps the youngest ever author of a technical book on athletics.  He writes with such authority and certainty that any reader not knowing his age might imagine the author to be a white-haired veteran.  He writes with a florid style, seldom choosing a short word when he can find a longer one; he also writes a series of articles for the John O’Groat Journal, writes replies to his newspaper correspondents, and also probably reported on his own performances in his very distinctive writing style in the John O’Groat Journal, but under the nom de plume “X.Y.Z.

Perhaps we should not expect him to reveal everything about his life in Scientific Athletics; he does not, for example, mention that he and his brother Donald gave weight-lifting demonstrations in the local drill hall and offered a prize to anyone in the audience who could emulate them – a prize that was never won.  He also doesn’t mention the importance in his life of piping.  From childhood he was exposed to the bagpipes and he and his brothers all played; indeed, even as children they learned how to make them, and learned how to burn holes with red-hot wires in the wooden pipes (chanters) on which they would later make music.  The chanters were later attached to the bag made, perhaps, out of sheep-skin; and then the drones were added to form the bagpipes. 

With at least two of his older brothers already settled in America, it is not surprising that Jack Sutherland wanted to try his luck there too and, in the autumn of 1913, he crossed the Atlantic and settled in Silver Springs, Clackamas, in north-west Oregon, close to the Canadian border.  With his wife, Janess Elizabeth Sutton, he made his home there and became a schoolteacher; and he and Janess had three children.  He was, however, a Scottish Highlander to the core and he began to compete in Highland Games there, ’though there are no records of his results, and he continued his piping and even wrote pipe-music.  Jack Sutherland was a highly talented and versatile man and he not only played the pipes, he was also an unusually talented composer and teacher of piping. One observer wrote of him as “an accomplished and talented piper with a very keen understanding of the subtleties of the music” but was so eager not to be seen to outshine his brother Donald, he kept his real musical talents partly hidden.

Jack Sutherland was a highly talented and accomplished man but he was also full of contradictions; his writing revealed him to be self-assured and confident, and he always performed well when under the pressure of competition and in front of a crowd, but those who knew him described him as shy and modest; later, his son even called him a private person.  Very unusually, no photographs exist of Jack Sutherland, with the exception of the portrait shot of his shoulders and the back of his head in Scientific Athletics (facing title page); one contemporary Scot explained that Jack Sutherland may have “felt circumspect about photographs, like many Gaels of his day.”

In Oregon, Jack Sutherland continued to follow athletics all his life. In a letter to his brother Andrew after the 1968 Olympic Games, he commented on the Russians’ perceived lack of success and regretted that Neil [Neal] Steinhauer, an Oregon thrower, had been unable to compete because of a “sprained back”, recalling that he (Steinhauer) had thrown 69 feet [21.03m]; and he mused on the fact that back in his youth, in the days of Scientific Athletics, he had thought 50 feet [15.24m] to be just about the limit of possibility!  His interest in an Oregon thrower shows, however, that although a complete Scottish Highlander, after more than fifty years in the U.S.A., John William Sutherland had also become a thorough American. He died in 1970 at the age of 80.


This brief biography has been updated with the kind assistance of, and valuable information from, Christina Perera, the Rogart Heritage Society, and members of the Sutherland family.

Peter Radford

2015 (revised November 2019; 2nd revision, August 2021)


The place of Sutherland’s series of articles, “Impressions of Northern Athletes and Athletics” in the history of Athletics literature.

John Wm Sutherland’s articles were printed only in the John O’Groat Journal, a weekly newspaper serving Caithness and the counties in north-east Scotland.  They never had a wide readership even in 1912 when they were first printed, and they have never been published since.  In them Sutherland covers much the same ground as in Scientific Athletics, and the first one appeared two months before Scientific Athletics was published and might, in part, have been a promotional exercise for it.  There are, however, at least eleven articles and they were written almost a year after the main parts of his book had gone to the publishers, allowing Sutherland to refer to his book, reflect on it, add new material, and also look back on the 1912 Olympic Games. 

Very unusually, because of his youth, Sutherland was still an active athlete at the time that he wrote and published his articles, and so was competing at the same time he was writing, and his name sometimes appears in reports of sporting events in the same issue in which one of his articles appears, giving a unique athlete’s view of athletics and physical culture in north-east Scotland before WWI.  Because of this double-life (competing athlete and writer on athletics) he finds himself at the centre of a public discussion about one of his own performances, and whether it should be considered to be a World’s Record.  This episode, including letters about it, and one from J.W. Sutherland, constitutes Part II of this collection  

Although only 21, he writes with great assurance and a sense of gravitas, adopting a high moral tone, lecturing and correcting those who he thinks need it, and making highly critical comments where he thinks they are due.  This was, however, J.W. Sutherland’s swansong.  He sustained a cartilage injury while competing in 1912, and this effectively ended his athletic career.  If he wrote anything on athletics after this, it seems to have been lost.


The text:

The text consists of eleven discrete articles that were written as a continuous series.  They were printed in the John O’Groat Journal between 30 August and 20 December 1912 and may even continue into 1913, but 1913 copies of the John O’Groat Journal have not yet been found.

Part I.

1.       Sutherland praises Caithness athletes back to Sir John Sinclair’s time more than a century earlier (see Athlos - Sir John Sinclair, “A Collection of Papers on the Subject of Athletic Exercises, &c.,” 1807).

He lists ten “objectionable practices” employed by athletes.  Deliberately spiking an opponent is obviously objectionable at any time, but some are no longer considered objectionable, and it is hard to see how they ever were; for example, “putting the shot at a tangent from the extremity of the stance, so as to increase the distance.”  This is hard to understand in an age, such as ours, in which putts are made from a circle and into a sector of a much larger imaginary circle and marked with real or imaginary arcs.  Sutherland seems to be describing a situation in which the putts are made from behind a straight line.  Any real or imaginary line that measured distance would be straight, and any tangential putt would have to go further to reach such a line, when compared with one that was putt at right-angles to the delivery line.  But in those circumstances that would mean that a tangential throw was disadvantaged, so how does Sutherland consider it objectionable?  He must, therefore, be writing about a situation in which the putt is released behind a straight line, and distances are marked out in parallel straight lines to it, but the officials measure the length of the putt to the first mark it makes (i.e., not at right-angles to the throwing line.)  To any other era of shot putting, that would be considered not only fair, but usual.  (see also Athlos - William McCombie Smith, “The Athletes and Athletic Sports of Scotland, Including Bagpipe Playing and Dancing”, 1891)


Sutherland’s list of objectionable practice is useful because it gives us clues as to how athletics meetings were conducted, and how the grounds were laid out.  Another example is his objection to an athlete “pulling at the circumambient rope” which must tell us that the ground was staked out with ropes attached to the stakes at about waist height.  Also, his objection to athletes moving the uprights inwards (presumably in High Jumpers jumping straight-on) and so disadvantaging those who jumped from the side, seems to suggest that individual jumpers were not free to place the uprights where they wanted them.

2.       Sutherland focuses on morality and the dangers of “laxity of moral discipline”, i.e. vice.  He is enthusiastic about the legacy from Ancient Greece and Rome, and also of contemporary Physical Culture – that “beautiful story”.  Rather optimistically, he writes that, “athletes almost invariably enjoy perfect health, and a symmetrical bodily structure, to say nothing regarding physical and will power” – how we all wish that were true!

3.       Advice is given to athletes about selecting their right event, and then he moves on to vitality - “after about eleven years’ incessant indulgence in athletics, I can advise authoritatively as to the acquisition and preservation of vitality”.  He also begins his promotion of his forthcoming book – “Scientific Athletics” and uses three quotes from it.  With the Olympic Games in Stockholm, still a recent memory, Sutherland praises the American athletes, crediting their success to their specialisation.  On the other hand, the words “wretched”, “ignominious” and “retrogression” are used to describe the British athletes, and he claims that they were indifferent to their own training, and wistfully thinks of what the Scottish athletes would have done had they been there.

          Sutherland begins to reply to readers’ letters from his first two articles, and also replies to some privately.  Correspondents were encouraged to use a nom-de-plume and were told that their letters would be considered to be strictly confidential, and then destroyed.

4.       Gives advice to 16-year-old and 18-19-year-olds on what targets they should set.  Recommends the use of a training and competition diary.  Addresses the issue of height and weight for adult athletes, and concludes that success for smaller men is possible if they are “very scientific, resolute, and possessed of copious energy”, i.e. like himself, but also acknowledges that his own achievements have been “unapproached” by anyone else of his size.  Acknowledges the achievements of Duncan Macdonald who, though only 5ft 4 ins tall, threw the 17lb Hammer 100ft.

In the question and answer section at the end of his article, he does not mince his word and tells one of those writing-in – “Cigarette smoking at root of evil; stop it”.

5.       Focuses on training and practice, and quotes from “Scientific Athletics” (Chapter 1), but his quotations, though capturing the spirit of the originals, are by no means accurate.  He gives advice on a number of topics including warm-up, clothing, and the weather, and concludes that athletics should be taken up because it was “an effectual preventive of disease”, but was not recommended for athletes who were unskilful or whose muscles were “weak, flaccid, or rudimentary”, or “when constitutional impotency is present, or when the athlete is very immature”.

6.       Although this is based on Chapter VI of Scientific Athletics it is shorter and the latter part of this article includes new material including the relationship between the chest and waist measurements, and also includes an unusual exercise in which one side of the abdominals only is contracted– a personal trick maybe? Once more, Sutherland strikes an assertive tone; he also seems to quote Shakespeare, but “round belly, silken lined” is not to be found in Shakespeare.  Did he mean “round belly with good capon lin'd” from As You Like It?

7.       This article introduces material on sleep and relaxation, topics not covered in Scientific Athletics. Sutherland continues here with the tone of someone imparting his acquired wisdom to the world – at times close to lecturing, as if he was the white-haired, ancient, High Priest of Physical Culture, e.g. –

“Always keep fit!  Study athletics deeply, and only pay attention to the advice of those who do things!  Leave theorisers severely alone.”

“Life hangs upon a thread”

“Physical culture . . . is the sovereign panacea for many evils of the present day.”


- and one has to remind oneself that this is written by a young man of 21!


Part II.

The saga of Sutherland’s performance at Bower in 1912, which was reported to be downhill and so not a record, moved quickly. On the basis of it, Sutherland challenged A.A. Cameron, but almost at once was injured and so withdrew his challenge. Correspondents wrote to the newspaper questioning how it could be considered a record, or disbelieving that he had done it, and finally Sutherland writes defending himself and makes side-swipes at those athletes who had held records, and makes some very curious assertions about square and lead shots.  The whole episode lasted only six weeks but embraced both the pinnacle and the effective end of Sutherland’s athletic career and took place during the period that Sutherland’s first four articles were printed, and just a few weeks before Scientific Athletics was published.


Peter Radford / 2022


Bibliographic details:


Impressions of Northern Athletes and Athletics

Extract Details:

A series of articles as follows -

Impressions of Northern athletes, 30 August 1912

Why we should be a race of athletes, 6 September 1912

The art of realising our athletic potentialities, 20 September 1912

Possibilities in athletics, 27 September 1912

General Practice in Athletics, 1 October 1912

The Athlete’s Diet, 18 October 1912

Facts the Athlete Should Know, 25 October 1912

General Management of an Athletic Games Meeting, 1 November 1912,  and 15 November 1912

How to arrange an Athletic Games Programme, 29 November 1912

Physical Culture, 13 December 1912

How to Increase the Popularity of Athletic Sports, 20  December 1912


John O'Groat Journal and Weekly Advertiser for the Counties of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, Cromarty, Orkney and Zetland

Place of Publication:

Wick, Caithness, Scotland

Date of Publication:


BL Catalogue:


"An Athletics Compendium" Reference:

Not listed


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