“I have personally been attending the Games for over 50 years, and I know we share the common bond of a deep and abiding love for the Games. There is a real sense of family at Grandfather…While we can’t make 2020 any better, we can promise that with your help and support, our 65th anniversary in 2021 will be a spectacular time.” -Steve Quillin, President, Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (April 25, 2020)

LINVILLE — Almost 14 months have passed since GMHG President Steve Quillin penned with a heavy heart the aforementioned words contained in an announcement communicating the cancellation of the 2020 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

Since that time, the world has underwent much heartache, pain, loss and hardship, and with the new season of spring came the dawn of hope that Quillin’s words might come to pass, that the Highland Games may indeed experience a triumphant return to MacRae Meadows.

As spring gave way to summer, preparations for the 2021 edition of the Highland Games, a Games unlike any previous installment of the three-score-plus years before it, is in full swing, gearing up to welcome a potential record number of attendees for perhaps the greatest-ever gathering of Scottish clans this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The Games will be different than our normal Games have been, but not so different that we won’t have a good time,” Quillin recently shared in a video message on the GMHG website.

Among the differences noted by visitors to this year’s Games are the absence of several indoor gathering events and activities due to Covid regulations, with one of the most notable omissions being the absence of the Chieftain’s Tent activities associated with the Scottish Cultural Village. For this year’s Games, the typical Scottish Cultural Village tent will have no side panels and Games staff will provide 100 chairs instead of the normal complement of 200+, with tent space scheduled for different family groups who wish to hold meetings, and no more than two meetings scheduled concurrently.

Additionally, the traditional Patrons Reception, as well as no Scottish country dancing outside on the field will be held at this year’s festival.

Attendees riding shuttle buses to the Games site at MacRae Meadows are required to wear face coverings over the nose and mouth by federal law which currently regulates mass transit activity, under which the GMHG bus shuttles are classified, according to Games officials.

The pandemic has also altered the way that the ticketing process will look to attendees to the mountain, as the traditional ribbon and pin system is replaced for 2021 by a variety of wristbands of differing colors to merit admission and for designation purposes into the Games site.

Despite the contingencies and cuts made to alter the Games in order to hold the event safely from Thursday to Sunday, July 8 to 11, anticipation remains at a fever pitch by both those who make the annual pilgrimage to Grandfather to offer ceud mìle fàilte (“a hundred thousand welcomes” in Scottish Gaelic) and the local contingent who effort to organize the Games weeks and months in advance of the actual event.

“I’ve never seen so many pre-sales of tickets. They’re at least 50 to 100 percent higher than normal, and I’ve never seen the workers in the office having to work so long to fill out the mailings, working 15 hours a day,” Office Operations General Manager of GMHG, Inc. Thomas Taylor said during a visit to the Games office at the foot of Grandfather on June 17.

With the loosening of Covid restrictions from the governor’s office and improved trends with vaccinations, Games officials were able to tweak the capacity of camping site availability in recent months to a maximum of 80 percent.

“We had to leave the capacity at 80 percent due to the potential for overcrowding, and for safety purposes,” GMHG Operations Officer Cassie Vance explained. “We sold out of all of our camping, sponsors and patrons by March. We usually have extra two-, four- and six-man tents left at this point, but they were all gone by April. I feel confident that we’re going to hit somewhere in the 45,000 to 50,000 people range this year, compared to our average of around 30,000 in a given year. We were just shy of 40,000 in 2019, and we should have no problem hitting that number and then some this year.”

The 2021 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games will kickoff on Thursday afternoon, July 8, with the annual running of “The Bear,” a grueling five-mile endurance race that tests a runner’s lungs and will. The evening ends after dark with the solemn and popular Torchlight Ceremony. The ceremony signals the reunion and calling of clans again to the sacred field as a living cross of light is made up of a representative of all clans and families who have again ventured to the mountain. As the torches burn in unison in the darkness, the sound of pipes can be heard as families reunite to celebrate common heritage and identity.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the Games will feature the familiar ring of clan tents in inner and outer circles surrounding the field track area, the Scottish athletic feats of some of the most impressive male and female competitors from heavy lifting to marathon running, as well as concerts in the groves, demonstrations on the field and the aroma of enough food vendors to satisfy any discriminating palate.

The preparation of the field site takes place through the efforts of a dedicated team of craftsmen on the Meadows weeks ahead of the Games weekend.

According to the GMHG General Manager of Field Operations Levin Sudderth, the extra year between Games weekends has presented some challenges to his crew, but nothing too difficult to handle.

“We’ve had a little bit of deterioration with some of our materials as they’ve been stored for two years. We’ve been doing some repairs on bleachers, but the biggest challenge has really been remembering how to do some of the things. You get a muscle memory of doing something every year, and for me it’s been the past 26 years, then you skip a year and it throws you off. It’s like missing church on a Sunday, it makes for a long week,” Sudderth explained. “If anything, the grass in the field has improved. Steve Watson and the field crew and Jacob Evaul and his mowing crew have done a fantastic job of getting the fields ready to roll. Everything we’ve done to this point repair-wise has been just some minor deterioration of things not meant to sit for two years, like minor welds to bleachers and so forth that have been done. We want to make sure everything is safe for everyone who comes to the Games.”

With GMHG being one of the largest gatherings of Scottish Games (or any festival/games event) in approximately a year and a half, Sudderth advised that festival goers should be excited about returning to the mountain, but also recognize that things will be a little different, noting the importance of patience as people again come together in revelry and reunion.

“We may be one of the first large gatherings since the pandemic hit. It isn’t just a return to Grandfather, but a return to the familiarity of the numbers of people attending the Games. There will be professional athletes who haven’t competed in heavy athletics in over a year and a half. They’re not just looking forward to coming back here, but they’re looking forward to getting back to what they do,” Sudderth added. “We just happen to chronologically be the first event that is available to them after restrictions have been lowered, and we have had a little time to plan for it. We canceled some of the events this year at the Games, but we’re able to have the Games. I think the biggest concern is people coming into a social setting who have been out of a social setting for a long time, and that adjustment period might be a little different, like waiting in line for food and such, may look a little different.”

Attendees to the Games are able to access shuttle buses from four different access points, including Linville, Boone and a pair of access locations in Newland. Specific departure times and locations can be found on the Games website by clicking to www.gmhg.org.

General ticket prices to attend GMHG this year are as follows:

  • Thursday evening session (4 to 11 p.m.): $15 (age 13 and older); $5 (5 to 12 years old)
  • Friday all-day session (9 a.m. to 11 p.m.): $20 (age 13 and older); $5 (5 to 12 years old)
  • Friday evening session only (7 to 11 p.m.): $15 (age 13 and older); $5 (5 to 12 years old)
  • Saturday all day session (8 a.m. to 11 p.m.): $30 (age 13 and older); $5 (5 to 12 years old)
  • Saturday evening session only (6:30 to 11 p.m.): $15 (age 13 and older); $5 (5 to 12 years old)
  • Sunday session (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.): $15 (age 13 and older); $5 (5 to 12 years old)
  • Sunday Family Pass (up to two adults and two kids): $75

To purchase tickets, an events guide or for more information, click to www.gmhg.org or call (828) 733-1333.

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