High Country & The Northern Mountains
Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
Repeat after us: Ceud Mile Fáilte!
Luckily, this phrase is easier to understand than it is to pronounce. Ceud Mile Fáilte is Gaelic for 100,000 welcomes, and it’s a statement that encompasses the spirit of the largest gathering of Scottish clans in the world, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.
Highland Games At Grandfather Mountain
It might be surprising that the largest gathering of Scottish clans in the world is not in Scotland but in the high country of North Carolina. And why not in North Carolina? After all, the state has one of the world’s largest concentrations of residents of Scots-Irish descent.
Every July, MacRae Meadows on Grandfather Mountain comes alive with brightly colored tartans, the smell of camp fire smoke and the sounds of bagpipes and tribal drums, just as it has since its inception in 1956. Traditional mountain music – brought here by early Scots-Irish settlers – is also on the playbill. And of course there will be traditional Scottish fare and some local barbecue as well.
Brawny, world-champion highland athletes will thrill spectators in games similar to ones played amongst Celtic tribes since pre-Christian times. But while the highland games may look archaic, with athletes donning kilts and other traditional Celtic dress, Highland Games are in fact an internationally celebrated sport. And, since the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is one of the top such competitions in the nation, the Grandfather games attract athletes who have already traveled around the world to compete.
The games are actually a septathalon, and yes, they are similar in some ways to a track & field events. In fact many of the world’s best highland athletes got their start as track & field athletes as well as decathaletes. And, as you can tell from their physiques, there are quite a few former football and rugby players also counted among the top ranks of highland athletes.
The caber toss is probably the best-known and most popular event of the Highland Games. This “telephone pole” is actually usually a hewn tree that spans from 16-20 feet in length and weighs from 70-130 pounds. Athletes crouch and carefully cup the pole in their hands, pop it up as they stand, run as many steps as they deem necessary and then toss it into the air. The desired result is a caber that turns end-over-end and comes to rest directly at 12 o’clock in front of the athlete.
On the other side of the meadow, shirtless, kilted men do battle with Highland wrestling and tug-a-war. And there are plenty of other competitions for participants who may not feel the desire to toss a caber or wrestle a friend. A hill run called “The Bear” starts in Linville on Thursday. With a grueling 1,568-foot elevation change, The Bear takes runners all the way to the top of Grandfather Mountain. And one of the toughest marathons in the world begins Saturday morning. It’s a brutal route, running marathoners uphill for almost the entirety of its final 13 miles.
There is a softer side of the games, too, though the level competition may be no less serious. Highland Dance, Scottish Country Dance, Scottish Fiddling, Harp and Piping & Drumming events require stamina and talent. The Gaelic Mod, which is a singing competition, puts a lilt in the air. Additionally, there will be demonstrations and workshops where you can learn a few Highland tricks of your own. Sheepherding, anyone?
Grandfather Mountain is not only a backdrop for the games; the splendid mountain is a premier North Carolina attraction. Its Calloway Peak, at 5,954 feet, is the highest elevation in the Blue Ridge range, towering above the Yadkin and Catawba River valleys. After climbing Grandfather in 1898, Sierra Club founder John Muir said it was like standing "in the face of all Heaven come to earth." This mountain, which supports 16 distinct habitat types, has been named an International Biosphere by the United Nations.
While you are visiting the games, be sure to check out nearby Linville Gorge, America’s second largest canyon, as well as resort town Blowing Rock and mountain college town Boone.
added: December 12, 2008
updated: August 27, 2010