Muscles, Music Keep Tradition Strong at Highland Games

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
July 7, 2005

In the fading light of sunset today, about 120 Scottish clan chieftains will gather in a mountain meadow, assemble in the X shape of a saltire cross, and light torches.

The assembly is an ancient ritual from the days when Scottish clans gathered to prepare for battle. But this tradition-laden ceremony won't be taking place in the highlands of Scotland to prepare for war. The chieftains, along with thousands of other people, will be assembling at North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain to open the 50th annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

The event brings thousands of visitors from around the world to nearby Linville, a picturesque little resort town tucked deep in the Appalachian Mountains of northwestern North Carolina.

"It's a 10-horse event in a one-horse town," joked Frank Vance, the games' general manager and vice president of operations.

As many as 45,000 people may attend the games and accompanying entertainment, which will run from July 7 to July 10. They can watch a continuous blend of athletic events and music and dance competitions. Or they can drift into one of three tree-shaded groves to listen to musicians playing everything from ancient Celtic harmonies to contemporary Celtic-inspired rock.

The event has evolved into one of the world's premier Scottish festivals. More than a dozen similar highland games are staged across the U.S., but the Grandfather Mountain games draw the largest crowds.

Old Sights, New Sounds

Hundreds of athletes will compete in traditional track and field events. Dozens of musicians and dancers will vie for such honors as the best bagpipe player or the best sword-dancer.

But for non-competitive musicians providing entertainment, playing at these games carries such prestige that there's a waiting list of bands willing to perform without pay.

"We've been fortunate to work all over the country," said Robert "Scooter" Muse of Florence, Alabama. Muse plays guitar and banjo in Henri's Notion, a band that specializes in Celtic music.

"A lot of that work came as a result of the exposure we received at the games," Muse said.

Donovan Murray of Grassy Creek, North Carolina, organizes the non-competitive music for the games. He said the Grandfather Mountain games were among the first of the highland games to add non-traditional music to their concert lineup.

Continued on Next Page >>


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