Building human towers near Barcelona is a popular weekend passtime


December 2005 Scotland on Sunday

When the Cat in the Hat is stuck with the problem of removing a pink spot from a bedspread, he seeks help from Little Cat A who's hidden beneath his hat. In turn, that cat removes his hat to reveal the even smaller Little Cat B who reveals Little Cat C and so on all the way down to tiny Little Cat Z.

This vision comes to mind as I stand in the town square at Granollers, half an hour from Barcelona, watching the remarkable Catalan custom of human castle building. The surreal imagination of Dr Seuss is the only thing like it.

In front of me is a tower of people, five wide and heading for eight high. At the bottom is a huge scrum, carefully arranged to give maximum support. Immediately above them are five tall and sturdy men. As each new storey goes up, bare-footed and balancing precariously on the shoulders of the level below, so the people get smaller.

At the pinnacle of the tower, a vertigo-inducing 8m above the ground, is the smallest of all – a child of six or seven, playing the part in my imagination of Little Cat Z. Having pulled herself up, grabbing knees, ankles and waist-bands on her way, she gives a quick wave and begins her descent, gripping tightly and slithering down the bodies to the ground. Storey by storey the whole miraculous edifice comes down again.

Mission accomplished, the "castellers" jump with delight.

A couple of hours earlier on a sleepy Sunday morning I arrive in the pretty medieval square to find it more or less deserted. The shower of rain, light by Scottish standards, has been enough to keep the locals indoors and there is no sense of anticipation of the extraordinary spectacle to come.

Teams of castellers compete for the pefect tower


Looking out through the windows of the Torres Pattisseria, you start to notice small groups gathering. They're all wearing white trousers and pink, blue or maroon shirts and looking anxiously around the square, wondering if the rain is going to hold off. Building human castles is a delicate art and the last thing you want is a slippery floor.

As their numbers swell and the sun comes out, they set up their stalls next to the open-sided colonnaded market, hoping to flog a few CDs, T-shirts, bags and model human towers. Those in maroon are the local team from Granollers; in blue are the Capgrossos from Mataró; and in pink are the Minyons of Terrassa, the foremost group of "castellers" in Catalonia, 150 of whom will be making the journey to Edinburgh for the free outdoor Night Afore International programme on the day before Hogmanay.

They're not athletes or performers but ordinary folk from all walks of life – several hundreds in each team – who spend every summer weekend in friendly competitions to build the most impressive castles.

"It's an activity where you will see the grandfather, the father, the daughter and the son," says Albert Carrillo, 32, president of the Minyons, who's been involved since he was 16. "They can all do something. The grandfather can be at the base, the mother at the second floor and the child at the top. Sex and age is not important. It's an activity that's open, for example, to immigrants who can find a place where everybody's welcome and everybody's important."

By day, Carrillo works in a bank, but once it closes at 3pm, he's free to devote time to the Minyons, organising their twice-weekly practice sessions and sorting out their competition appearances. Here in Catalonia, people talk about "casteller widows" like we talk about "football widows". Fortunately, Carrillo's wife is sympathetic to his out-of-hours dedication – she's a member of a rival team from Tarragona and it was at a competition such as today's that they met.

Their only dilemma will come when their two-month-old son is big enough to start climbing and has to decide which of the rival teams to join. "It's like choosing between Celtic or Rangers," laughs Carrillo. "I hope he plays tennis or golf."

Lending a hand in support of the castellers


Dating back to at least the 18th century, when it was practised by agricultural workers, the castellers tradition is unique to Catalonia and, for obvious logistical reasons, has rarely been seen abroad. Berlin and Milan are the only places before Edinburgh where the castles have been seen.

They come in a standard set of designs, such as the two of seven (two castellers on each of seven floors) and the four of eight (four castellers on each of eight floors). "It's very technical," says Carrillo as the three-strong crew of an "ambulancia" take their places in the crowd.

Over the afternoon, I see a couple of castles collapse but in both cases the people at the base cushion the fall and there are no injuries. The activity is not without its risks, however, and the castellers take their training very seriously.

"We have to combine the strength of the people at the bottom with the ability of the child to climb like a monkey to the top," says Carrillo. It takes balance, agility and intelligence."

Today the Minyons are trying one of the hardest – the three of nine – which requires a two-tier scrum at the base for extra stability. Carrillo gives me his shoes to look after – "sometimes they disappear" – and runs over to take his place on the second storey.

Members of the other teams put aside their rivalry and join in. A sea of arms, like human ramparts, reaches up to bolster the first storey. The band of drums and "grallas" (traditional Catalan flutes) strikes up, changing the tune as each new level is completed, letting the castellers know what stage they're at.

Youngest castellers at the top


It's an incredible structure, tall and thin like a church spire, and they pull it off to much applause and a final flourish from the band. "It's a great sensation when you hear the melody of the flute that means the child has reached the top," says Carrillo, exhilarated and a little exhausted from the strain of supporting the tower. "There are only six groups out of sixty who can do this."

Weather permitting, they'll be attempting something similar in Edinburgh, although conditions won't be right for us to see their record-breaking three of ten – a castle believed to be impossible until they built one in 1998 with new fewer than 600 people to help them.

They'll be in good company on George Street where a Catalan parade will finish its journey from the Mound, kicking off an exuberant evening of Catalonian dance, music and fireworks.

"We're bringing two very different and important things from Catalonian culture," says Pilar Gutiérrez of Freeart, the Barcelona organisation that has helped put together the Catalan entertainment for Edinburgh's Hogmanay. "One is the human towers, which is something unique and a great experience, and the other is a traditional parade with big heads and pyrotechnics. Also there will be a mixture of traditional and contemporary theatre and music which is going to be a great experience for the Scottish people. The old and the new don't even mix much in Spain."

Among the performers are Tap Olé, a four-piece group who give a modern spin to Spanish guitar and jazz-style tap dancing; L'Avalot with a noisy piece of street theatre involving dragons and monsters; Osadia, the ever-popular surreal hairdressers making a welcome return; and La Banda del Surdo, an energetic percussion ensemble. Tapas and paella will be sold to help keep you in the mood.

"One of the main things about Catalonian street theatre is the way that the actors communicate with people," says Gutiérrez. "It's direct. They always meet the audience. It's one of the big points about doing something Catalan in Scotland: there's a big similarity in the way the people react. Catalonian actors really need that energy from the audience."

Back in Edinburgh, Pete Irvine, the man behind the city's Hogmanay events, is delighted to add an Iberian flavour to this most Scottish of celebrations. "Every year we'll celebrate a country that Scots have some kind of empathy with," he says. "The object is to have a strong international strand in the programme which is about the Scots welcoming strangers. We're strong enough in our own culture to celebrate someone else's. Catalonia has a colourful folk tradition that presses all the right buttons in terms of street theatre – for me, it's an easy win."

Night Afore International, George Street, Edinburgh, December 30

© Mark Fisher 2005/2009

This is a sample caption