65 years of the Highland Games

Youngster Callum Vinson plays his bagpipe while surrounded by a pipes and drums band at MacRae Meadows at the 2018 Highland Games. The Games draw approximately 30,000 people to Grandfather Mountain annually to celebrate Scottish culture, but was canceled this year due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

LINVILLE — For the first time in 65 years, MacRae Meadows, home of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, sat empty during the second weekend of July. In normal times, the site would have been flooded with tens of thousands of kilted- and tartan-clad enthusiasts, in addition to the passionate competitors and weekend warriors looking to capture an intimate glimpse of one’s own deep and storied ancestry, which the Games so seamlessly bring to life.

If one drove by the entrance to Grandfather Mountain this past weekend, one would have witnessed an empty and quiet field. The earthy sound of bagpipes may not have reached the tip of Calloway Peak as in years past, but if an individual pulled over to the side of the road and listened closely, and if they were lucky, they would have heard a different song altogether, one which did not flood the valley but spread like a deluge that encompassed the country as a whole.

This past Thursday, July 9, families took it upon themselves to answer the Call of the Clans from their own homes. Of the 111 or so families that answer the call each year, families including the clans of MacDougall, Kirkpatrick, MacQueen, Buchanan and McCall let the other clans know they were on site in spirit by resounding the Scottish cheer “Slàinte Mhaith,” which means good health to all.

In addition to the Call of the Clans, several of the Games’ staples moved online, including the commemorating torchlight ceremony, thus intermixing the time-honored tradition with modern technology. Also delighting those participating in the festivities from the comfort of their living rooms were several of the game’s musical talents, such as Seven Nations, The Piper Jones Band, Ed Miller, the Brothers McLeod and others.

While the numerous descendants of Scottish ancestry may not have been able to gather together in person for a weekend of camaraderie and a chance to get off their trolley by enjoying a strong batch of Scottish whiskey, the spirit of the Games is still very much alive.

A Toast to the Games

A Highland Games veteran for more than 30 years, Catie Crain of Charlotte has participated in the Games all throughout her life. Her love for Scottish culture and history has been expressed down her family lineage as her family has participated in the Games for the past five generations.

“My family has been participating in the Games since before I was alive. We host a clan tent, run in the children’s foot races, have helped to field a tug-of-war team and sold CDs for musicians in the groves. My first job was selling books at a now-defunct vendor tent and I know staff and volunteers alike by name,” Crain said.

Like other GMHG enthusiasts, Crain has often gone to great lengths to ensure that she steps foot on Grandfather Mountain each year to participate in the festivities and family atmosphere.

”These Highland Games are a second home to me,” Crain said. “I’ve flown across the country for them, camped in the rain, and marched in the parade in wool in 85 degrees. I learned my Scottish history from the folk songs sung on the hillsides, and my first tastes of freedom were wandering unsupervised through the campground as a young person; my first acts of rebellion were not coming home from the McRowdy side until long past my bedtime.”

In a letter entitled “A Toast to the Games,” Crain lists more than 30 characteristics of the Games she comes to cherish each year, and in poetic fashion she finishes out her letter with an ode to all those who have come before and will come after to carry on this highland tradition. Crain’s letter in its entirety can be found as a letter to the editor in this week’s AJT.

“‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Gey few an’ they’re a’ died.’ Let us pour one out for the ones who watch over us from a distant shore; pause at the cairn to remember those mentioned by name, and those whose names are written in our hearts. Then raise a glass with the new neighbor in the campground and the new cousin at the clan tent, for they will be family next year. I’ll meet you on our mountain, before the cross burns its call, for a perfect week, rain or shine. Sláinte,” Crain wrote.

Another staple of the Games are the blacksmiths who set up shop along MacRae Meadows’ misty paths. David Burress is the head blacksmith at Calerin Forge Custom Iron and School of Ancient Craft, and he and his family-run business have been sharing their love for traditional workmanship at the Games on and off for the past 18 years.

“We’re traditional blacksmiths. We do everything by hand, the way it’s been done for the last 5,000 years. We’re not only passionate about the craft and becoming better craftsmen ourselves, but we’re passionate about sharing the craft and teaching about it to the public. We love doing the demos and doing classes at the Games,” Burress said.

A descendant of Scottish heritage himself, Burress and his family received their Scottish heritage from his grandmother’s side, whose lineage immigrated to the Appalachian mountain generations ago.

“I love the Games because it’s my particular heritage. On my grandmother’s side, I have Scottish roots. Just being at an event and among people whose sole purpose is to be there and celebrate their heritage makes for a really special time for us,” Burress said. “(My ancestors) immigrated from northern Ireland. I don’t know, but I always figured it was when the Scots were planted in northern Ireland to upset the balance of the native Catholic population back when all that was going on.”

Burress recalls the sheepherding, which takes place at midfield throughout the weekend, as his favorite event of the Games.

“I have a couple of border collies myself,” Burress said.

While there is certainly plenty of talent on full display by the eclectic mix of craftsman, musicians and cultural connoisseurs who frequent the festivities, one should not forget the heroic feats of strength and stamina shown by those who participate in the competitive aspect of the Games themselves.

Those brave enough to put their strength to the test participate in a variety of challenging competitions, including the Clachneart (a 16-pound stone throw), a 22-pound hammer thrown, a 28- and 56-pound weight throw, a 56-pound weight toss for height, the turning of the caber, tossing the sheaf and Highland wrestling.

All of the aforementioned grueling competitions are kicked off by a physical challenge on the Thursday of the Games in a demanding feat of endurance that tests the body in a completely different arena. The Bear is a foot assault on Grandfather that sees a collection of competitors ascending 1,568 feet in elevation to the summit of Grandfather Mountain after beginning the climb from downtown Linville.

Shawn Roberts has ran The Bear seven times from 2008 to 2016. Roberts works as a professional musician and educator, and performs at Lees-McRae Summer Theatre as part of the college’s musical productions.

“For me it’s special because it is part of the Highland Games. I wear my grand kilt and represent that, and each summer (my wife and I) host different friends who are crazy enough to come up and do it,” Roberts said. “The Bear captures that spirit (of the Games). Really, a foot race is part of the original Highland Games as well, and the Highland Games too is one of the only ones in North Carolina that does track and field events. They also have the Grandfather Marathon, which I’ve considered, but it is one of the hardest marathons in the country.”

Four hundred marathon runners participate in the Grandfather Mountain Marathon, which must be completed in seven hours or less. The feat of endurance begins early on Saturday morning at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone and ends at MacRae Meadows during games on the field. Competitors begin at Boone’s elevation of 3,333 feet before scaling a mountainous terrain that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains before finishing at 4,279 feet in elevation.

The Bear offers a bit calmer experience, however, that offers a sizable challenge to seasoned athletes as well as weekend runners.

“I think why people do (The Bear) so many times is because it’s just short and painful enough for people to tolerate it, and they’re distracted by all the hoopla that’s going around like the beautiful weather, the time of the year, bagpipes playing at the beginning, MacRae Meadows, and then it’s only like two miles of pure hell,” Roberts said.

The first running of The Bear was initially conquered by Chris Huffstickler in 1995. At the time, Huffstickler was a senior at Appalachian State University and an Olympic hopeful. He finished the race in 33 minutes, 24 seconds, a time that Roberts says has long been shattered. The Bear, however, is just one aspect of the Games’ long and storied history that has been woven together as the event was unfolded and evolved over the past 65 years.

The Highland Games through the years

The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games began on Aug. 19, 1956, and was fashioned after the Braemar Highland Games. While the Games quickly became an instant success, the idea for the gathering of clans and competition had been brewing in the minds of the MacRae family for some time after they had founded the resort town of Linville in 1892.

According to the Highland Games office, the Mortons had envisioned some form of Highland festival to take place on the meadow, perhaps a Clan MacRae rally of sorts. The family began to expand on the idea after a letter from a cousin, Monimia MacRae of Asheville, which contained a clipping describing the Highland Games at Round Hill, Conn., spurred the desire for the facility to stage something similar. Mrs. Morton and Donald MacDonald, then a staff writer for The Charlotte News, began working together. MacDonald had previously gained experience hosting such events after forming the Clan Donald Society of the U.S. and the Burns Supper, out of which grew the Robert Burns Society of Charlotte.

Aside from the Games being a part of an ancient tradition that can be traced back to clans of Northern Scotland in the 11th century—and possibly further back before pre-Christian times—the first rendition of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games was a much simpler affair compared to the Games of today, which attract tens of thousands of visitors to the county each year.

Events were held on both the east and west side of the meadow, with a race path marked out two years prior to the oval track being developed. The festivities began at 11 a.m. with MacDonald conducting a church service, since a Scottish preacher could not be found. Two bands, the Washington D.C. St. Andrew’s Society Pipe Band and The Fighting Scots Brass Band from Scotland County High School in Laurinburg, performed at the Games. Events included a 60- and 100-yard dash, a two-mile cross country race, running broad jump, high jump, pole vault, Highland wrestling, tug-o’-war, the shot put and caber toss.

One of the first articles covering the Highland Games appeared in The Avery Journal-Times in 1965 (the paper formed in 1959). The U.S. Air Force Bagpipe Band was featured at the game’s 10th anniversary. At the time, the band was one of the most celebrated military service musical groups in the nation. The Chief of the Scottish clan MacNeil at that time was Robert Lister MacNeil, who held the position for 50 years up to that point. A couple of weeks prior, during Singing on the Mountain, Congressman James T. Broyhill of Lenoir gave the principal address and was joined by Arthur Smith and Chairman Joe Hartley.

In 1975, the Games attracted more than 15,000 spectators for its 20th anniversary. The tug-o’-war was a highlighted event at that time, and in 1974 Clifford Aldridge, who was the Avery County Health Officer and the Captain of the Crossnore VFD, received first place in the competition.

In local Scottish/Irish culture, the Grandfather Mountain cloggers claimed the elusive clogging championship after scoring a 99.99 and 98 out of a possible 100 points on the judges scorecards to win the national clogging crown in competition in Slade, Ky. The group also made several appearances on network television. The honored guest of the Games in 1975 was the Duke of Attoll, who was also the Chief of the Clan Murray. The Duke spent time to rub elbows with Hobo the Bear and see the sights at Grandfather Mountain once the Games were over.

Weeks prior to the Highland Games in 1975, Sandy Jones and John MacFadyen were holding the annual school for pipers on the Crossnore campus. MacFadyen, an internationally respected piper, had been invited to the Crossnore school by its director Bob Martin to hold the workshop.

In the summer of 1985, Avery County was abuzz with activity, but one Hugh Best, a writer for Town and Country Magazine, wrote that in Linville “nightlife is nonexistent.” However, the writer must have been unaware of the 30th annual Highland Games, which featured a Ceilidhs (a social gathering that features singing and dancing) that year. During the event, a number of soloists were on hand to perform the bagpipes, Scottish fiddles, guitars, mandolins, dulcimers and the Scottish harp. Bill Wyatt of Kingston, Tenn. was also on hand that year to handle the champion border collies, which featured one dog named “Old Hemp,” who exhibited superior intelligence.

In 1995, Clyde King of the New York Yankees gave the principal address for the 71st Annual Singing on the Mountain. King is a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and was a former pitcher, coach and general manager. Dr. Bob Jones III also spoke at Faith Baptist Church around the time of the Highland Games that summer. As for the Games themselves, the first running of the Bear took place in 1995, as an estimated crowd of 30,000 spectators were drawn to the Games for its 40th anniversary.

At the turn of the millennium, the front page of The Avery Journal-Times was adorned by a photo taken by Hugh Morton of the 45th Highland Games, and a sprawling feature on the history of the Celts snaked through the paper. An article that recorded the winners for the athletic competitions that year noted that “a good time was had by all.”

The 65th annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games will be held July 8 to 11, 2021, at MacRae Meadows on Grandfather Mountain near Linville.

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