Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

Why shouldn’t the largest gathering of Scottish clans in the world be held in the High Country of North Carolina? After all, our interesting and diverse state has one of the world’s largest concentrations of residents of Scots-Irish descent.

MacRae Meadows comes alive the second weekend in July with the color, pageantry and spectacle of the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, first held in 1956. Everywhere you look there are brightly colored tartans; the smell of campfire smoke enlivens the air; and the sounds of bagpipes and tribal drums create a rhythm that quickens your heartbeat and stirs your soul. Traditional mountain music, brought here by early Scots-Irish settlers, is also on the playbill, along with traditional Scottish fare and some local barbecue as well.

Seven athletic events

As the name “games” suggest, there’s a heavy-duty athletic competition at the heart of this Gaelic festival. Brawny, world-champion Highland athletes thrill spectators in games similar to ones played by Celtic tribes since pre-Christian times. But while the idea of Highland games may seem archaic, with athletes donning kilts and other traditional Celtic dress, these games are an internationally celebrated sport. And, since the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is one of the top such competitions in the nation, it attracts athletes who have already traveled around the world to compete.

The games are actually a septathlon and are similar in some ways to track and field events. In fact, many of the world’s best Highland athletes got their start as track and field athletes as well as decathletes. As you can tell from their physiques, Highland athletes include quite a few former football and rugby players.

Hammers and stones

The seven events include two weight-for-distance events, where athletes twirl and send a 28-pound or 56-pound weight flying as far as possible. The other two events for distance are the stone, which competitors fling hard from their shoulder, and the hammer, a pole with a 16- or 22-pound ball at the end. Athletes anchor themselves to the ground with spiked boots, lie back and spin the hammer two to four times before releasing it. A skilled athlete can launch a 22-pound hammer over 100 feet.

Caber toss

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 to 20 feet in length and weighs from 70 to 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-of-war.

Events for runners

If you don’t feel the desire to toss a caber or wrestle a friend, you can sign up for a running event. 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. The brutal Mountain Marathon begins Saturday morning, sending marathoners uphill for almost the entirety of its final 13 miles.

Music and dance

Competition extends far beyond athletics. Highland dance, Scottish country-dancing, Scottish fiddling, harp and piping, and drumming events also require stamina and talent. The Gaelic Mod, which is a singing competition, puts a lilt in the air, and demonstrations and workshops, including sheepherding, add to the fun.

Kid stuff

Athletic events for those 12 and under, including sack races, field games, a wrestling clinic and competition, and junior versions of the caber toss and other games, keep everyone in the family interested and excited.

Grandfather Mountain is not only a backdrop for the games; the splendid mountain is a premier North Carolina attraction. It supports 16 distinct habitat types and 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 the resort town of Blowing Rock and the college town of Boone.

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