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
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
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
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.
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!