Celtic Festivals: Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
August 05 2021 – David Lemmond
Celebrating and Preserving Culture
Basic aspects of national or regional culture once revolved around a few key elements, such as physical preparedness, farming/hunting, music, dance, and food preparation. The details of these elements are what made cultures distinct. Oftentimes, location, life experience and available resources determined the unique themes.
Today, access to information and resources has the potential to both preserve and alter authentic aspects of culture. In essence, people have more options to learn, attain resources, and blend according to their preferences. In this blog, we will share the authentic history, culture, activities, and tips from our experience at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina.
Planting the Seed
One way that I have sparked interest within my children for such events is by educating them on the genealogical, cultural, and historical significance of the event. Since my wife and I both have DNA that genetically links us to Scotland, it provides a personal connection for us and our children. However, the basic culture and festivities at the games are just as valuable to those without a genetic connection.
Queen Victoria of the UK and Ireland (1837-1901) is said to have popularized the Highland Games due to her love for Scotland’s landscapes, culture, and traditions. The Royal family still attends the games in Braemar, Scotland.
History of the Grandfather Mountain Scottish Highland Games
The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games began in 1956 and is one of the largest gatherings in the country. Donald MacDonald and Agnes MacRae Morton are credited with organizing these games in the mountains of North Carolina, as a way to preserve and promote Scottish culture and heritage. The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games were inspired by the Braemar Gathering in Scotland.
According to the official site of the Braemar Gathering, “While there have been Gatherings of one sort or another at Braemar since the days of King Malcolm Canmore, nine hundred years ago, the Gathering has been run in its present form since 1832.”
Many Scots immigrated to North Carolina during colonial times and it is asserted that the terrain of Grandfather Mountain is similar to parts of Scotland. According to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games website, “Nowhere in the New World is there a place more reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands than the home of America’s grandest Highland Games — Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina.” With that being said, we are fortunate to only be a few hours away from this renown gathering.
Planning the Trip
- Relevant information can be found on official websites: search “Highland games near me,” or visit https://gmhg.org/.
- Read the festival overview information on the website for all relevant topics.
- Check the list of registered participating clans and societies (if personally relevant).
- Read the rules and regulations (e.g. pets, alcohol, outside food for picnics, etc.).
- Check when parking is available at site and shuttle bus locations.
- Carefully review the schedule of events in order to determine the best times/days to attend.
- Check for advance tickets or family discounts.
- Purchase special activities tickets in advance, if required (e.g. whiskey tasting).
- Pre-register for participation events, if necessary (e.g. amateur games).
- Check food vendor information for selection.
- Save all travel directions and schedule of events to your phone for offline referencing.
- Verify if ATMs are available or bring enough cash for meals, treats and souvenirs.
- Dress and prepare accordingly for weather, walking and activities.
There is no parking at the festival site during the day on weekends at Grandfather, so shuttle service was mandatory. Each shuttle location has ample parking for vehicles. Since we chose to attend the games more than one day, we chose to tent camp. State campgrounds in NC tend to run $20 per night. Most state campgrounds do not have showers, but do have restrooms and running water. If more amenities are desired, it's best to look for privately-owned campgrounds in the area. Grandfather Mountain has camping on site but reservations need to be made as early as possible in order to secure a spot (if camping with an RV or tent, on site is the most practical choice). The main reason for this is that you would not have to drive to a shuttle bus location and all of your belongings would be close at hand. If not camping, another option is to check addresses for shuttle bus stops and reserve a room nearby. Some lodging is available within walking distance to shuttle services.
If you are using shuttle services, it is crucial to plan the day around drive times and pack what is needed for your entire day. There are highlight events that only take place once per day, such as the Massed Bands and Parade of Tartans. Therefore, if you want to be on site to experience these events, it is important to determine drive times from your location to the shuttle site, potential lines to get on busses, the approximate 15-30 min bus ride, walk time from the bus to the main gate, and any lines for purchasing tickets. In other words, give yourself ample time to reduce schedule stresses. Lastly, download all schedules and directions on your phone in case the internet is unavailable. The following is a list of things we packed for each day:
- Backpacks and waist packs
- Small blankets to sit on
- Small cooler bag for items that must remain cool (ice packs)
- Snacks (jerky, chips, etc.)
- Water bottles (3 bottles per person for a 6 hour day)
- Cash (plan on $5-10 per purchase) and card for additional food, treats, or souvenirs
- Ponchos (if rain is expected)
- Insect repellant
- Phones or communication devices for everyone in your party
During the evening, parking is allowed on-site for concerts. We carried in folding chairs at this point.
What to Expect
Historian William S. Powell has called the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games “the largest clan gathering in the world” with over 100 clans attending each year.
The games have become a four-day event held at MacRae Meadows at Grandfather Mountain. The festival opens with a torch lighting ceremony with games, concerts, and dancing events occurring throughout the second full weekend in July. The mission of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is “To carry on and promote the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans, to foster and restore interest in traditional dancing, piping, drumming, athletic achievement, music and Gaelic culture and to establish scholarship funds to assist students from Avery County High School to study at American colleges and universities.”
There are a few must-sees and must-dos that are unique to Scottish games, festivals, and culture:
1. Tossing the Caber
One of the most well-known and popular Highland Games events amongst spectators is the caber toss. In this event, larch trees up to 20 feet in length are tossed end over end in a test of pure strength and technique. It is this event that has symbolized the Highland Games across the world.
2. Eating Haggis
The most unique food found at Scottish highland games is Haggis, the national dish of Scotland.
3. Seeing the Highland Cow
4. Listening to the Bagpipes
5. Trying the Scotch Eggs
Scotch Eggs actually originated in England and likely received the name from the process of “scotching” that is used to prepare them. (The ones below are homemade.)
According to the website, the North Carolina History Project:
“The Grandfather Mountain Games are not the only Scotch-Irish festivals held in North Carolina. The Flora MacDonald Highland Games started in 1976 in Red Springs, North Carolina, and several years later, the Waxhaw Scottish Games was founded by Ulster Scots. The second-largest Highland Games event remains the Loch Norman Highland Games that occur at Lake Norman, North Carolina. Each of these events continue the legacy between the Scotch-Irish tradition and western North Carolina history.”
Our core focus at Rustic & Main is crafting rings that are personally, culturally, and historically meaningful. One way that we provide this for customers is through our line of heritage rings. Rustic & Main offers a variety of Scotch and Irish Whisky barrel woods, as well as micro-tartan patterns that can be used as inlays. In this way, both cultural heritage and ancestry can be celebrated and preserved in a unique ring.
This article was written by Rustic and Main Ring Craftsman, David Lemmond. David is a former counselor turned expert ring maker. He has a love for history, particularly genealogy, and philosophy, and makes some of the best BBQ sauce on the planet.