The North Carolina Visitor Center




Scottish High Times

Scottish High Times

The mountains of North Carolina host the Scottish Highland Games, the largest gathering o’ the clans.


It’s enough to make your eyes go plaid. The tartans come in all colors and varieties of horizontal and vertical patterns: green interlocking with navy, white and black bisecting fields of reds with shades of blue crisscrossing each other with geometric precision.


The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans, July 9–12 this year 2009 at North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, is known for being the largest gathering o’ Scottish clans in the world. That’s right. Games in Scotland may attract more people—though Grandfather Mountain’s average attendance of nearly 40,000 isn’t small potatoes—the GFM fling draws more clans and usually has 38 states, 4 foreign countries, and four provinces in Canada represented.


Medieval Games

It’s believed the highland games originated in medieval times, when fleet-footed messengers were in high demand. Kings would arrange competitions to determine which young lads were best suited to race up and down the hills of northwest Scotland to deliver royal edicts to the masses.


Today these competitions have morphed into celebrations of Scottish culture, featuring not only athletic contests but other events reflecting Scottish traditions. Grandfather Mountain is a perfect venue because the land is similar to the Scottish Highlands.


Weekend Overview

The games’ main events are neither for the weak-of-limb nor faint-of-heart.


For example, Turning the Caber involves throwing a pine log in such a way that it somersaults and strikes the ground in a 12 o’clock position on an imaginary clock. Tossing the Sheaf requires competitors to use a pitchfork to heave a bundle of straw over a raised bar. Participants of the Weight Throw must sling a heavy metal disk as far as they can. The winner is the one whose disk goes the farthest.


Finally, there’s the Scottish Hammer Throw. In this event, the competitor swings a 4-foot shaft with a metal ball affixed to it around his or her head before releasing it. Because the centrifugal force is so great, the athletes risk sailing into the air along with the hammer. Many wear special shoes to stay planted in the ground.


Other events include men wrestling in kilts, hundreds of runners racing to the top of Grandfather Mountain (elevation 5,964 feet) and the old Scottish stand-by, golf.


In addition to the grunts and groans on the athletic field, the sounds of traditional instruments fill the air along with the sight traditional dancers.


Musicians compete and perform using a variety of instruments, from the clarsach, a small harp played in 17th-century Scotland, and the lochaber trump, a type of fiddle the early Scots brought with them when they settled Appalachia, to bagpipes and drums.


There are two types of Scottish dancing, and it’s a toss-up as to which is more fun to watch. The Highland dance is more familiar, consisting of solo dancers performing highly prescriptive dances that involve specific steps and precise footwork. The lesser-known Scottish country dance, where dancers have partners and dance in formations, more closely resembles American square dancing.


Educational Opportunities

In addition, festival-goers can watch border collies herd sheep, learn to speak Gaelic and research Scottish genealogy and history in special clan tents.


The fun continues with traditional Scottish ceildhs (pronounced kay-lees), which is Gaelic for “informal parties.” Here people don’t have to be strong, swift or even be able to carry a tune in order to participate. While amateurs and professionals alike sing, dance, drum, fiddle and pipe, people are welcome to just clap along with the syncopated rhythms.


After the games have ended, those who want an extra dose of Scotland can stop at the aptly named Everything Scottish store in Linville. Along with imported specialty foods, Celtic jewelry and tartan blankets, customers can order a kilt of their own.


Planning Your Trip

This year’s games will be July 9–12 at Grandfather Mountain near Linville, N.C. For more information, visit