History of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games by Donald MacDonald

Highland Games as practiced today were perpetuated by the clans of Northern Scotland but began far earlier among the Celts of Scotia (the name which Latin writers gave to Ireland). Several accounts credit an 11th century Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, with having started the first Highland Games; but a single hill-race up a mountain in Aberdeenshire can hardly compare with the great variety of athletics which the Celts of Scotia, like the Greeks at Olympia, enjoyed for many generations. Ancient traditions insist that the same kind of contests in running foot-races, leaping, vaulting, wrestling, lifting heavy weights and putting stones (as one sees today) were begun in pre-Christian times. Several localities in both Eire and modern-day Northern Ireland were places that hosted such Games; but the most important ones were those at Teltown, in County Meath, at Emain Macha, near Armagh in Ulster and at Carmain in Leinster.

The first of these, at Teltown, were "funeral games" which honored the dead foster mother of a half-mortal, half-diety known as Lùgh, the Celtic God of Light. From Lùgh and from nasa, a word meaning Games, comes the modern Gaelic word for August, Lùghnasa, still the traditional month for Highland Games in Scotland. (In fact, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games actually began in August and were held in Mid-August until 1958, when the date was changed to the second full weekend in July.) According to The Book of Leinster, the Teltown Games continued until the late 1700s. They were briefly revived at Dublin in 1924.

These Celtic peoples, known then as the Scotti, but now as Highland Scots, crossed the North Channel of the Irish Sea in the 4th and 5th centuries and also at the time of St. Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland in the 6th. They settled on the coast of Argyll, which they called Dal Rìada, after their former home in Antrim. As all immigrants do, they brought with them their skills, their customs, their pastimes. Soon they were staging Games of foot-racing, horse-racing and wrestling every St. Michael's Day, September 29th. At each of several sites the event was known as the Oda, also spelled Odaigh, believed to be a Norse word, taken into Gaelic.

Other contests in racing and associated athletics began at religious fairs on various holy days as well as at cattle fairs on the quarter days of Scotland's calendar. Soon, sporting contests were taking place at the conclusion of military musters called "wappinschaws", held by the various clans. The clans' warriors needed to test their physical prowess in much the same way as modern soldiers engage in physical training. It was at one of these in 1574 that "tossing of ye barr" (caber-tossing) first appeared on record.

Clan chiefs and monarchs (including King Malcolm Canmore) used such musters for selecting the best runners to serve as couriers. Thus, when one examines this early background of history and tradition, one can see how wrong it is to say that King Malcolm of the Big-Head started the Games!

Competitions in piping, fiddling and playing the clàrsach or Gaelic harp had long taken place within the territories of the clans. For example, the MacLeods on the Isle-of-Skye held piping contests in the Great Hall of Dunvegan Castle. The first piping contests to be held in the Scottish Lowlands were not seen until the year 1781. These took place at a huge cattle fair known as the Falkirk Tryst, where all the pipers were Highland drovers who had brought their cattle down from the North.

The origins of many events seen today at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games can be traced back to the aforementioned funeral games and the Odas, religious fairs, military musters and cattle fairs. Such fairs were soon to cross the Atlantic. Indeed, in pre-Revolutionary War North Carolina, athletics and piping were enjoyed by Highland immigrants at two famous cattle fairs: At Laurel Hill (present-day Scotland County) and at modern-day Ellerbe (Richmond County).

The Act of Proscription, passed after Prince Charles Edward Stuart's defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, forbade Highlanders to bear arms, to play the bagpipe, to speak their ancient, classical language of Gaelic, to wear tartan, or even to gather in groups. Almost 40 years elapsed before the Act of Proscription was repealed. During that time, while the native Gaels were being burnt out of their homes and being replaced by Lowland sheep-farmers and their sheep, much of Scotland's predominantly Gaelic culture was lost. The history of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is well-documented, and we owe a lasting debt of gratitude to the co- founders, the late Mrs. Agnes MacRae Morton of Linville and Wilmington, NC, and Donald F. MacDonald, formerly of Charlotte but now of Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Grandfather Highland Games were started in 1956. Since then, they have become one of the most popular and colorful events in the nation. Across one of the entrance gates is a banner, proclaiming Fàilte gu Beinn Seanair ("Welcome to Grandfather Mountain") in the Gaelic language, which was spoken by Highland immigrants and their descendants in North Carolina up to the First World War. One of the finest of Gaelic poets, John MacRae or Iain MacMhurchaidh, lived in North Carolina, as did Scotland's great heroine, Flora MacDonald. Because Mr. MacDonald modelled the Games after the Royal Braemar Gathering, which he attended in 1954, Grandfather is often referred to as "America's Braemar".

The Games are held beside and within a 440 yard oval track, because running foot-races was always the most traditional aspect of Highland Games. Sadly, Grandfather is one of the few Games in the U.S. to have its own track. Other "children" of the Grandfather Games concentrate on the so-called "Heavy" Events, with no foot-races involved.

The site of the GMHG is MacRae Meadows, high on the slopes of mile-high Grandfather Mountain. The setting closely resembles Kintail in Scotland's Wester Ross. The rugged terrain, the wild-flowers and even the weather are all similar. Rhododendrons and mountain ash (rowan trees) grow in profusion, the Allegheny sand myrtle is a member of the heather family, thistles bloom in August and occasional "scotch mists" swirl through the gaps and around the mountain tops.

In 1892, the MacRae family founded the resort town of Linville beneath the towering presence of Grandfather. For several years, Mrs. Morton had envisioned some kind of Highland festival, perhaps a Clan MacRae rally, on the Meadows. A letter from a cousin, Monimia MacRae of Asheville, which contained a clipping describing the Highland Games at Round Hill, Conn., whetted her appetite for staging something similar. In 1955, Mrs. Morton contacted Donald MacDonald, then a Staff Writer on The Charlotte News. The latter had recently co-founded (with Maj. Reginald MacDonald of Kingsburgh) the Clan Donald Society of the U.S. He had also hosted a Burns Supper, out of which grew the Robert Burns Society of Charlotte, and was hoping next to organize a Braemar-style Highland Gathering somewhere within the state. Mrs. Morton had seen the press publicity that had accompanied these events and believed that she and he, as two enthusiasts, could work together. Thus, the first Games were held on August 19th, 1956. Apart from being a traditional Lùghnasa (August) date, the 19th was the anniversary of the landing of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Glenfinnan and the start of the anti-Union Uprising known as the '45.

Mr. MacDonald's 1954 Braemar Highland Games souvenir program became the model upon which the first Grandfather Games were patterned. Activities were held in both the East and the West Meadows, with a race-path marked our for athletics in the same area in which an oval track was developed two years later. The festivities started at 11 am with a church service, conducted by Mr. MacDonald because a Scottish preacher could not be found. The Guests of Honor were then introduced and the Games began. Two bands, and two only, were present: the Washington, DC, St. Andrew's Society Pipe Band and "The Fighting Scots" Brass Band from Scotland County High School, Laurinburg, NC. Highland dancing competitions were held on one platform and piping on another. Track and Field events included 60 yard and 100 yard dashes, a 2 mile cross-country race, running broad jump, high jump, pole vault, Highland wrestling and a tug o' war. There were two Highland "Heavy" events, the shot put and tossing the caber.

Although small by today's standards, the Games were an instant success and generated an enormous amount of interest in people's Scottish heritage. In later years, other Highland Games, modelled on Grandfather, sprang up in Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and Tennessee to name but a few.

During the early years, Linville's Eseeola Lodge and later the Lodge's Pavilion featured an annual Céilidh and a Tartan Ball, held from the first year onwards. Now two céilidhean are scheduled on successive nights in nearby Banner Elk. There is also a Thursday night Torchlight Ceremony, with varied entertainment, as well as a Friday night "Celtic Jam". Over the years, additional events have included Scottish country dancing, a concert of ceòl mór (the classical music of the bagpipe), a Sunday "Kirkin" of the Tartans" and a Parade of Tartans, plus contests in drumming, in fiddling and in playing both the clàrsach and the Lochaber trump (Scotland's name for the jaw-harp). Grandfather was the first Games in America to stage "Tossing the Sheaf" and a gruelling hill-race called "The Bear" was begun in 1995 in addition to the Mountain Marathon.

Perhaps the most authentically Highland event, however, takes place on Saturdays and Sundays inside the Gàidhlig Céilidh Tent. Persons keen to know how their ancestors spoke and the music which they enjoyed should come along and join in group singing of Gaelic songs and some quick, free, basic lessons in the Gaelic language. An NC Provincial Mòd (i.e. competitions in Gaelic solo singing) is a feature on Saturday afternoon.

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games Inc. is a charitable organization. Proceeds are used to support the Games and an annual scholarhip fund, which at one time awarded scholarships to graduate students wishing to study in Scotland but now helps local students further their education in this country. The Games preserve the best of Scottish and Scotch- Irish traditions - in athletics, in ancient Celtic field sports, in music, in dancing and in clanship. Sponsors and patrons, together with tireless volunteers and staff, make these Highland Games a continuing success and one of the most spectacular events in the Southeastern United States. Ceud mile fàilte - 100,000 Welcomes!