The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games are truly one of the most unique events to take place here in the High Country. Happening on McRae Meadows found high up on Grandfather Mountain in Avery County, this four-day event brings together more than 100 Scottish Clans, Celtic performers, dance and music competitors and some of the most interesting and impressive sporting contests you will ever see.
You do not have to be of Scottish descent to appreciate the fun of these Games. But, many don’t realize or have forgotten that they may have some Scottish lineage in their blood line. To look into that possibility, the 100-plus clans have booths set up with information on not only their main family name, such as Douglas, Stewart , MacTavish and Wallace, but they will also have the lists of the many ‘sept’ family names that have been associated with their clan over the centuries.
This year marks the 64th annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, taking place from July 11 to 14.
As the week goes on, here are some tips for making the best out of your Grandfather Mountain Highland Games experience.
Thursday is the official start to the games, although there have been many hearty folks who have been camping on the campgrounds since the beginning of the week. An important note to pass on to first-time Highland Games visitors is to bring a sweater or a light coat. Even though it is summertime, the winds can get very cool way up on Grandfather Mountain.
The highlight of Thursday evening is the Torch Lighting Ceremony, picnic and the Calling of the Clans. At dusk, just before nightfall, the ceremony begins as each clan leader is given a flaming torch. As they stand in the field, a representative of each clan will speak into the microphone to describe their clan in either a humorous or a serious way, announcing that they have indeed arrived on the mountain. This goes back to the days of William Wallace and earlier (aka Braveheart) when a battle was to be fought, and they would meet to see what clans would participate in the fight or not.
After each clan states its presence, then their torch is brought to the middle of the field to join the other torches. It is a beautiful sight, and if you understand any of the history of the brutality that the Celtic Nations dealt with at the hands of the British, it can be a bit emotional as well.
Before the Torch Lighting, fans in the stands cheer on the runners who have participated in the uphill mountain race known as The Bear. There will also be sheep herding demonstrations on Thursday evening as well.
Friday is when the games get under way full tilt. One key to a happy experience on Friday and Saturday is to get there early in the morning and park at the designated places, so you can take a shuttle up to the mountain. The parking at the top will be full by then, so a free shuttle is the best way to go. It is simple — to avoid the long shuttle lines, get there early and leave before the rest of the crowds depart when the daytime festivities end at 4 p.m.
The weather this weekend should be sunny and wonderful, so enjoy your day.
Once on the grounds, grab a games guide so you can take in all of the activities. On the main track circle will be the heavy Scottish sports, such as the Turning of the Caber, the Hammer Throw, the Tossing of the Sheaf, Highland Wrestling of all age groups, the Clachneart (stone) Throw, the Clan Tug Of War and much more.
These are real competitions and not demonstrations, so the viewing makes for big fun.
At the same time as the sports competitions, there is a wide array of great Celtic music performed live on multiple stages all day long. The music ranges from traditional Scottish music to Celtic rock and all sounds found in-between. There are also dancing and bagpipe competitions as well. Throughout the sunlight hours, different pipe and drums bands will march and perform through the rows in-between the Clan Tents.
The Scottish Cultural Village will be open on Friday as well.
On Friday evening, a separate event takes place that is a blast for music lovers as the Celtic Rock Night concert begins at 6:30 and lasts until about 11 p.m. There, various Celtic rock bands perform and then jam together at the end as the dancing ensues on the tarmac. Tickets are only $15, and the event is well worth the trip back up as a half moon sets on the beautiful Grandfather Mountain.
Saturday is the most crowded day of the event, and rightly so as the day is chocked full with a beehive of activity. Everything seems to happen at once and that makes for a fabulous day. All of the sports competitions, sheep herding and music that happens on Friday is kicked up a notch on the following day.
The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is also a good place to shop and eat some good food, from shepherd’s pie to Welsh cookies and cakes. The shops that are set up under the tents provide a wide array of kilts, dresses, hats and coats and other Scottish clothing as well as interesting souvenirs and Clan and family-named items.
After the daytime swirl has dissipated, it is a good time to once again go back up the mountain for the annual Traditional Celtic Jam concert. This is where many of the musicians who played throughout the weekend get-together and jam under the stars, and it turns into yet another great dance party. Tickets are just $15.
Right around 10:30 p.m. or so, if you walk to the main road by the campgrounds, you will hear a distinct roar. That will be the crazy sound of the annual Marshmallow War between the clans that all can participate in. Literally tens of thousands of marshmallows will be harmlessly in the air, so be prepared for battle.
Sunday is a mellow day on the mountain as the music and sports competitions wind down early in the afternoon. The large crowds are gone and the clans begin to break down their tents to pack up for the year. But, it is also a good day to see the last of the Celtic rock bands perform under more a relaxed setting. The live shows are down to just two stages at this point. Then about 3:30 p.m. or so, the musicians grab their instruments, jump off the stage and form a line for all to join as they march towards the main field. There, the two lines of musicians and music lovers meet and become one, and that is when the sweet and special closing ceremonies take place presided over by the Highland Games officials.
For more information on ticket prices and event times, go to gmhg.org.