Beyond the Guidebook: Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

Everyone says to check out the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. But being a “must see” doesn’t mean they can’t surprise you. Learn more about this classically North Carolina event, and then go beyond the guidebook with our insider tips.

Must-See Merits

It’s the largest gathering of Scottish clans in the world. Cabers are tossed, hammers are thrown, bagpipes are played. And of course there’s barbecue, because we’re still in North Carolina, after all.

Plan Your Visit

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. Our state has one of the world’s largest concentration of residents of Scots-Irish descent, and that heritage is on display at the Games with brightly colored tartans, the smell of campfire smoke and the sounds of bagpipes and tribal drums.

1 7 Athletic Events

1 7 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.

 

2 Hammers and Stones

2 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.

 

3 Caber Toss

3 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 and then toss it into the air. On the other side of the meadow, shirtless, kilted men do battle with Highland wrestling and tug-of-war.

 

4 Kids' Stuff

4 Kids' 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.

 

5 Events for Runners

5 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.

 

6 Music and Dance

6 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.

 

Go Beyond the Guidebook

One big advantage to being up in the North Carolina mountains in July? Cooler temperatures. Take advantage of the slight respite from the heat by making time during your visit to explore nearby Linville Gorge, Blowing Rock and Boone.

Looking to explore without leaving the Games grounds? Make your way to the tent dedicated to helping visitors trace their Scottish roots and learn more about their heritage.

Updated March 25, 2018
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