Wondering if you should attend a Scottish Highland Games? Here’s our top 10 list of reasons why you should consider getting your ticket right now!
If you’ve ever been to a Scottish Highland Games event or are contemplating one, this list’s for you. Kilts, food & whisky aplenty, live entertainment, occasional celebrity sightings and more, these events held around the world provide a fantastic venue for connecting to your Scottish roots (ancestral or acquired) and fellow Scots-obsessed pals.
Still on the fence? Here are my Top Ten Reasons You SHOULD attend a Scottish Highland Games event, inspired by my recent experience at Grandfather Mountain Highland Games held in North Carolina, aka Outlander’s Fraser Ridge country (confirmed by Diana Gabaldon).
#1 — Kilts
Plain and simple, everywhere you look, you will see lots and lots and lots of kilts — on adults, children, even dogs. Need I say more?
#2 — Travel
Visiting a Scottish Highland Games could be a good excuse to tour Scotland, true home of the Games, even if they may have been created for tourist purposes. As you might imagine, they are held all over Scotland. But if hopping a flight to Scotland isn’t an option, you can likely find a Games event closer to home as they’re held in many countries around the world. Think Australia, France and the Netherlands. If you live in the US, you can pick from more than 45 Games, from north to south and coast to coast. Here are two lists to help you find one near you: Celtic Festivals and Highland Games.
I’ve now got two Games experiences under my belt. My first was the Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival and Highland Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Same type of event as Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (GMHG), only on a much smaller scale. Still worth the time because, well, see Reason #1. My second, of course, was GMHG, held in July.
Photo Credit: Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival
For the GMHG, we made it a girls’ weekend. I met my friends Sexy Beast and Fangirl (names changed to protect the innocent) in Atlanta and we drove north together. As we moved from urban sprawl to the beautiful Georgia countryside and into North Carolina, I was reminded that travel, particularly through this part of the country, always feeds my soul. We passed through forested areas dotted with small towns and large farms green with acres of corn or other crops stretching as far as the eye could see. It is still “a land of considerable riches” as Diana Gabaldon had Outlander’s Governor Tyron describe it to Jamie Fraser in Drums of Autumn.
As we headed into the foothills, the air began to cool and, I swear, smelled a little sweeter with each switchback. I envisioned many pioneers, like Jamie and Claire, who had navigated these woods on horseback and in wagons. Winding further up through the thick forest, more childhood memories flooded back — of summer trips from my home state of Alabama to Cherokee and Hickory and to the “old Highlands homeplace” as my Grandma called it. A crumbling foundation and chimney on the outskirts of town, overtaken by vines, is all I recall. It was left by my Griffin ancestors who had traveled there by train from Maine in the 1800s before moving further south. [Note to self, get back there and see if any trace still exists.]
The Blue Ridge Mountains and Scotland will always feel like home. They are in my blood, from my Griffin roots and my Western Scotland Kennedy heritage to my Scottish-sounding Birmingham birthplace, South Highland Infirmary. Even my early education had a strong Scottish influence thanks to administrators and teachers who had their own Caledonian connections. They taught us about the bigger world, like the far-away Outer Hebrides, and we sang “The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond” and danced to other Scottish tunes. Treasured memories!
The only word that I’ve heard that comes close to the feeling I experience when I’m in those mountains or in Scotland is the Welsh word hiraeth. Loosely translated, it can be used for nostalgia, homesickness, missing something, missing home. Yes, yes to all of those.
#3 — They’re Scottish, so … Outlander
Word of warning to any non-Obsessenachs, you might want to skip down to #4. Reason #3 is all about Outlander.
At a Highland Games, we Obsessenachs can bask in all our Obsessenach glory. Wear Outlander clothing and someone is bound to strike up a conversation about our shared obsession (you know I’m talking about you, Lisa). You’re likely to hit the jackpot and meet a few Outlander Cast Clan Gathering members, too! I ran into these lovelies, Christine Sylvester and Ginger Mentel, in the Novel Adventures tent. Hey, ladies!
You might even see an Outlander cast member or other special guest. Novel Adventures brought David Berry to the GMHG this year, and Graham McTavish and César Domboy have also been to Fraser’s Ridge country for Novel Adventure’s special events. Diana Gabaldon attended GMHG, too, back in 2008! The Scottish Highland Gathering and Games, held recently in Pleasanton, Calif., boasted none other than Outlander’s own Chief of Clan MacKenzie, Glaswegian Gary Lewis!
My personal experience with cast members, though limited, has most definitely been positive. David Berry is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met for sure. He gives Mr. Heughan stiff competition in the “nicest guy ever’ category.” Over the GMHG weekend, I had the opportunity for two wee chats with the quintessential Lord John Grey. He was delightful in the midday photo opp at the Games, chatting about my Outlander Cast Staff tee.
When I saw him again at the Novel Adventures Ceilidh on the Ridge that evening, I had changed into a dress and he cheekily said in his lovely Australian accent, “Well, you clean up nice.” As he autographed a printed copy of the Lord John delicious expressions post I wrote for Outlander Cast, he took the time to chat again and drew a cute Lord John face beside his autograph before taking a photo. Aww, right?
Oh, he also confirmed that his mother-in-law talked him into taking the Lord John role. That excited me more than having my photo taken with him again but I did have the presence of mind to ask him to relay our thanks and tell her we love her!
You can hear Mr. Berry’s dulcet Aussie tones as well as some other insights he provided to in a recent Outlander Cast podcast episode. Our most sincere Outlander Cast thanks to Mr. Berry, Kim of Novel Adventures and Outlander Cast Clan Gathering member Angela Hickey.
#4 — The Games
The GMHG is a good proof point for #4 on my list, the actual games. To set the stage, this photo from the GMHG website gives you a bird’s eye view of MacRae Meadows, the fantastic setting near Linville, North Caorlina. That track and large field in the middle, where the competitions took place, is rumored to be the highest track east of the Mississippi.
There was always something to see, hear and do during the four-day event. The tents served as home base for the Clans and vendors as well as respite for spectators from the sun and inevitable rain shower. Bands played in the Celtic Groves under beautiful shade trees. Large US and Scotland flags welcomed us as we walked up the path through the Grandfather Mountain campsite to the main entrance. It looked as if the camp was fully booked and campsites were fully stocked, including many stylish liquor cabinets seen here and there. It was surely the modern version of the Outlander Castle Leoch Gathering.
Here’s a small sampling of some of the activities you could pick from:
• the Calling of the Clans Torchlight Ceremony. It was reminiscent of the one in Drums of Autumn with representatives from clans like mine calling out, “The Kennedy Clan is here! Avise la Fin!”
Photo Credit: Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
• Athletic events galore, including, but not limited to Highland wrestling, caber toss, wood-handled hammer throw, kilted miles and tugs of war.
• Artistic competitions. Adults and children of all ages played the harp, fiddled, drummed, piped and danced for the coveted GMHG trophy plates.
Photo Credit: Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
#5 — Culture and Entertainment
The Clan tents provided hospitality, history and genealogy studies along with opportunities to join in on their GMHG fun. I found my Kennedy Clan and, another terrific surprise, my name twin! The Kennedys also know how to roll. They kindly poured a dram of our choice, either Auchentoshan, Macallan or Glenmorangie. Couldn’t go wrong with any of those in my opinion!
#6 — Participation
Still looking for excitement? Numerous demonstrations, workshops and clinics offer visitors a chance to try their own hand at everything from playing the jaw harp to heavy athletics.
For example, we spent our Friday night at the GMHG attending a Scottish Country Dance Gala at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. A group of all ages provided a wonderful demonstration of Scottish reels and jigs that are the ballroom dances of Scotland. We took great pride in joining in when the dancers invited audience members to participate in two dances. With the help of our exceedingly kind instructors, we made our way through the relatively simple steps and got a wonderful cardio workout.
We also took in the Banner Elk nightlife scene. By took in I mean watched the younger folks booze it up from the comfort of a nice patio.
#7 — All the Scottish-inspired Goods
Remember those vendors I mentioned? I lost track of the multitude of options in the Scottish Village. One lovely Scottish gentleman took special care of my purchases. Thank you, Jamie (as I choose to remember him), for your kind consideration! With his help and that of all the other kind folks, Sexy Beast, Fangirl and I were able to snag more than a few special non-food souvenirs.
#8 — Food
One can feast for days on the food and drink at a Games event. In North Carolina, we partook in what I call, “Fair Food with Flair.” There was your standard local BBQ, turkey legs and some really delicious kettle corn. Then, there were the Scottish delicacies such as banger rolls, bridies and haggis. For drinks, there were many to be purchased but the ever-popular BYOW (Bring Your Own Whiskey) was my favorite. So, when you go, take a bottle to share with your clan.
#9 — Fun for the Whole Family
If you have kiddos, a Scottish Highland Games event is a perfect family-friendly place for a day trip or, when available, an overnight camping extravaganza. There was a Children’s Tent at the GMHG with fun activities, such as face painting. Many of the demos were specifically geared for children. And don’t forget the sheep — kids loved the sheep! On Sunday afternoon, we saw a great tug-of-war competition between adults and children. To sum it up, it’s a great outdoor setting where rambunctious kids are not only encouraged, but celebrated.
#10 — Bonus Activities
When you select a Games to attend, check for other activities and attractions in the area. You might find something you’ve not heard of before or you might have an opportunity to do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time that you can squeeze in.
On this trip, it was the latter for me. For years I’ve wanted to tour the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Luckily for me, Sexy Beast and Fangirl wanted to go, too. We made it our first stop as it was practically on the way. There was an added bonus, too — a Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit on display until Oct. 7. We all love Chihuly, so it was meant to be.
Things to Know Before You Go
Logistics: Traffic and parking can be tricky at a Scottish Highland Games event, so give yourself plenty of time to get to the location. If there’s a shuttle option, I highly recommend paying any extra fee. If onsite camping isn’t available or just isn’t your cup of tea, book your accommodations early. Also, if air conditioning is important, check before you book. Mountain accommodations often rely on the cooler temps and breezes but it can get pretty warm even at higher elevations.
Traveling with Friends: Another “highly recommend” from me! Sexy Beast, Fangirl and I met through My Peak Challenge and immediately bonded over our fitness goals, our shared love of Outlander and everything Scottish, and our Southern upbringing — the good, the bad, the ugly and the Sweet Tea of it. Between this trip, the 2017 Scotland MPC event in Glasgow and our get-togethers in between, we’ve generated enough material for multiple blogs. I’ve been sworn to secrecy, though, and anything you’ve heard, we’ll deny!
Learn More: Before you go, familiarize yourself with the history of the area where the event is taking place so you can have a more immersive experience. For example, the Grandfather Mountain area of North Carolina is steeped in Scottish history, providing greater context to the historical fiction of Drums of Autumn and later books in Gabaldon’s series. To learn more, listen to Mary and Blake’s History of Colonial North Carolina podcast episode featuring North Carolina historian Ed Ayers, who hosts the Backstory podcast. After listening to Mr. Ayers sprinkle in Outlander tidbits, I suspect he may be an Obsessenach, too.
Find Your Bliss in the Chaos of the Crowd: Mine is photography, so I am compelled to share two of my favorite photos from the Games trip. The cross caught my attention as I went in search of food that first night. It’s a memorial to Agnes MacRae Morton who, along with former reporter for The Charlotte News, Donald MacDonald, founded the GMHG in 1956.
The last was my view as I waited for Sexy Beast at the ATL airport. Do you see what I saw?
If you’ve attended a Scottish Highland Games event, what would add to this list? Any advice to share for first-time visitors?
I went to the New Hampshire Highland Games & Featival (the one Roger sang at in Voyager) soon after discovering Outlander in 2014, and I’m planning my 4th trip there with some My Peak Challenge friends. It was there that I first tasted scotch (Laphroaig)…good times. As an “Honorary Scot” I’ve adopted myself into the clan and feel part of this wonderful culture. If you can go, do so…you’ll be welcomed!
I attended the games in Pitlochry in 2019. We had an amazing time. We will be attending Grandfather Mountain Games this year. I’m so excited.
Loved your article! We’re 79/80 & curious about seating (bring our own?), and walking from shuttles. Thanks!