Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

About the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

Crowds at the entrance to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. Wooden entrance with shields bearing the Saint Andrew's Cross on each side and in the middle. Above flys the US, Canadian, Scottish, and North Carolina  Flags. Grandfather Mountain towes in the distance.
Crowds gather under the shadow of Grandfather Mountain every year for the largest Scottish Games outside of Scotland.

Every July thousands of tartan clad warriors descend on MacRae Meadows in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain for the annual North Carolina Highland Games. From its humble beginnings in 1956, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games has grown to become the largest Scottish Games in the United States and by some accounts the largest outside of Scotland. More than just athletic events, all manner of Scottish heritage is on display at this remote spot in the Appalachian Mountains.

At One of the entertainment groves at the Highland Games  Musicians on a stage in front of a large bolder. Bagpiper wearing a kilt.
Traditional musicians set up at one of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games Entertainment Groves

The location itself is very much a part of the festival and provides a connection to Scotland. Surprisingly, the Appellation Mountains and the Scottish Highlands are part of the same mountain range. Over 300 million years ago, before the continents drifted apart to make the world we know today, they were both part of the Central Pangean Mountains. Early settlers may have seen the similarity to stories of their homeland.

Scottish in Appalachia

The Scottish roots of Western North Carolina run deeper than just geography. Both lowland Scots and Highlanders found new homes in the Carolina Colony. Lowland Scots came to NC after first immigrating to the Ulster region of Ireland under James I. Conflict soon emerged between the Protestant Scots and the Catholic Irish, a conflict that persists to this day.

Kilted bagpiper during a competition at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.
Bagpiping competitions take place during the weekend

Many of these Ulster Scots later chose to immigrate once again, this time to the New World. Arriving first in Philadelphia, many of these Scotch-Irish, as they became known, settled in the Philadelphia area and began building new lives. As more and more Scots arrived, they gradually moved down the coast and found rich farm lands in North Carolina. They soon became the largest ethnic group settling in the Carolina backcountry.

As the Lowlanders were arriving in the colonies from Ireland, Highlanders were facing troubles of their own. Immigration directly from Scotland began in the early 1700’s and accelerated with the Highland Clearances in 1750 and the failed Jacobite rising culminating in the Battle of Culloden in 1746, as many Highlanders were left without homes. The new world offered them a place to start over. Highland immigration in NC reached it’s peak in 1774.

By 1780 the Scots in America became caught up in westward expansion. As the population in the east grew and farmland became scarce, both Lowlanders and Highlanders moved into the Appalachian Mountains. Perhaps sensing a connection with their ancestral homelands, they sought to preserve their Scottish culture and way of life. They were so successful in creating this Scotland in the New World that Gaelic remained a spoken language in NC right up until the First World War.

It’s this spirit of preservation that led Agnes MacRae Morton and Donald F. MacDonald to hold the very first Highland Games in the United States at Grandfather Mountain in 1956. Originally a one day event, it’s grown to encompass more than an entire weekend and showcase all manner of Scottish culture.

Athletic Events

The main attraction of the Highland Games for lots of people are the athletic events. Over the course of a long weekend, visitors can see Scottish athletes compete in activities many of which where once outlawed in the old world.

Kilted athlete tossing the caber. Caber in mid air Highland Games attendees under tents in the background
The Caber Toss is a popular event

Events range from the typical Olympic style track and field competitions like javelin throwing, the high jump, and races to the typically Scottish events.

Kilted athlete holding the cable vertical preparing for his toss. A number of onlookers  in the foreground while spectators in tents along the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games Clan Row watch.
The Caber is balanced with the heavy end at the top

The most iconic competition at any Highland Games is the caber toss. Based on a need to throw logs across gorges to form a bridge, it has become not just a test of strength but style and discipline as well. Competitors attempt to throw a large tapered pole that’s 20 feet long and weighs 175 pounds. The thrower will balance the heaver end at the top, running a few paces, and then attempt to flip the caber end over end. The object is toss the caber so that it lands at a perfect 12 clock position away from the thrower. Contestants are judged by style and form, but not on distance.

Other events include the Scottish hammer throw, weight toss, and Sheaf Toss where a burlap bag filled with straw is tossed over a bar with a pitchfork.

Music and Dance

Pipe and drum band with a crowd gathered around. Musicians are i full Highland attire
Pipe and Drum bands parade around the field all weekend of the Highland Games

As well as the athletic events, music plays an important role in Scottish culture and is represented at the Highland Games. Bag piping, fiddling, and harp competitions take place throughout the weekend.

Entertainment stages are set up in groves around the field where local and nationally known artists preform both traditional and modern Celtic music. Pipe and Drum bands march around the field throughout the weekend.

Fiddle player and bagpipe player during the Highland Games' Friday Night Rock Concert
Seven Nations at the 2019 Highland Games

And speaking of modern music, Friday night’s Celtic Rock Concert can challenge your preconceptions about Celtic music. Headlined by national known artists like Seven Nations or The Glengary Bohys, the hills and hollows around Grandfather Mountain will rock into the night.

If your musical tastes are more traditional, Saturday night’s Celtic Jam may be more your style. Nationally known artists not only play traditional Celtic melodies, but they also tell stories and a little of the history of Scottish music. Dancing is encouraged and the performers may even offer you some tips.

Dancing is another important aspect of Highland Culture, and here too the Western NC game’s don’t disappoint. The Atlantic International Championships, one of 10 sanctioned competitions held in the US are held at the games each year. Not only that but tents are set up around the field where you can see demonstrations of traditional highland dance.

Kilted marchers caring bagpipes at the foot of Grandfather Mountain
Pipe band marching to the field

Other Activities

Border Collie herding a group of sheep on a green field
Sheep Herding demonstrations during a break in the competitions

Sheep herding demonstrations are held on the field and are a favorite time for everyone. The Scottish Border Collie, known as one of the most intelligent breed of dog will show you how sheep herders have worked in the Highlands for hundreds of years.

Information desks are set up to help you learn what clan your family name is associated with. More than 100 Scottish Clans and families are represented in tents surrounding the field all with maps and information about clan history and tartan. The games culminate with the Parade of Tartans with over 1000 marchers all in traditional attire.

Kids aren’t left out of the fun. Children’s activities include arts and crafts, and a variety of athletic events and workshops are held throughout the games, so even the little ones can take part in the fun.

Fast Facts

Type:Annual Event in Western North Carolina
Dates:July 7 – 10, 2022
Admission:Day passes and full weekend passes available visit the GMHG Website for full details
Location:MacRae Meadows, Linville, NC 28646
Phone(828) 733-1333
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Things to do at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games: Athletic Competitions, Music, Dance, Food, Demonstrations, family history

Map to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games