Highland Games

Written By Jonathan Martin

Up until to the nineteenth century, North Carolina was the most prominent area of settlement for Highland Scots. Numerous Scottish immigrants moved and settled the North Carolina colony and due to the large influx of this cultural group many traditions remain there today. One such tradition is that of the Highland Games.

According to historian William S. Powell, today’s Highland Games and cultural events “are the offshoot of ancient Celtic tests of strength and fitness, as well as competitive activities that later took place at cattle fairs, or “trysts,” in Scotland” (p. 561). Some of the games include tossing large objects such as poles, hammers, and wheels as well as dancing, bagpipe playing, and other events. The Highland Games focus on clan gathering where those of a certain Scottish lineage reunite to compete against different families and clans.

Some of the first Highland Games emerged in the Cape Fear areas of Ellerbe and Laurel Hill in the sixteenth century. Known as “Scotch Fairs,” these events were outlawed by the North Carolina General Assembly in the 1870s because of concerns over the gambling and drunken festivities that often occurred at the fairs. Yet, in the middle of the twentieth century, the Highland Games emerged once again in the North Carolina mountains.

Agnes Morton, a Linville native, and Donald F. MacDonald, a decent of the Cape Fear Highland Scots, were responsible for creating the Grandfather Highland Mountain Games in 1956. Several years earlier, MacDonald had visited Scotland in 1954. He was greatly impressed by the Braemar Highland Gathering. MacDonald wished to recreate the same festival he had witnessed in Scotland so he aligned with Agnes Morton, who had also become acquainted with the Connecticut Highland Games, and they started the first Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain on August 15, 1956.

William Powell claims that the present Grandfather Mountain Highland Games has grown into “the largest “clan gathering” in the world, with well over 100 [clans] represented each year” (p. 562). The games have become a four-day event held at MacRae Meadows at Grandfather Mountain. The festival opens with a torch lighting event with games, concerts, and dancing events occurring throughout the second full weekend of July. According to the mission of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games Inc., one of the most important aspects of the event is “to foster and restore interest in traditional dancing, piping, drumming, athletic achievement, music and Gaelic culture” (Our Mission).

The Grandfather Mountain Games are not the only Scotch-Irish festivals held in North Carolina. The Flora MacDonald Highland Games started in 1976 in Red Springs, North Carolina, and several years later, the Waxhaw Scottish Games was founded by Ulster Scots. The second-largest Highland Games event remains the Loch Norman Highland Games that occur at Lake Norman, North Carolina. Each of these events continue the legacy between the Scotch-Irish tradition and western North Carolina history.