2022 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games Brings Triumph & Tragedy - TribPapers

2022 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games Brings Triumph & Tragedy

James Dunbar, Clan Dunbar, at the Calling of the Clans. Photo by Chris Robinson.

Asheville – During summer, Grandfather Mountain is known for its lush greenery and the kaleidoscope colors of myriad blooms. In July, however, guests can add an entirely different palette to that mix—plaid, and lots of it.

Almost a mile high up on Grandfather Mountain, you will find MacRae Meadows, the field where the 66th annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans occurred last weekend, July 7th through the 10th. These games are brimming with bagpipes, Scottish athletics, Highland melodies, Celtic cuisine, crafts aplenty, and tons of tartans, and they hearken back to the rich cultural traditions of Scotland in a setting not so different from the mountains and glens some 3,600 miles away.

If you’ve read the Outlander books or seen the TV shows, you will know that many Scots were forced to flee their homeland, and many came to North Carolina, where they preserved their highland customs. Emigration to the colonies soared to 145,000 between 1707 and 1775.

The History of the Games

The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans was founded in 1956 by Agnes MacRae Morton, mother of Grandfather Mountain founder Hugh Morton, and former Charlotte News reporter Donald MacDonald. More than 10,000 people attended the very first Grandfather Games, which were modeled after the famous Braemar Gathering in Scotland, which MacDonald had attended in the past. The Grandfather Games have continued to flourish throughout the decades, with thousands of people coming from all across the U.S. and Scotland to learn about and share the love of their Scottish heritage.

The honored clan this year was Clan Baird, with Richard Holman-Baird, of Rickarton, Ury, and Lochwood, Scotland, as the chieftain of this year’s games. Richard Baird also had the distinct honor of being officially installed as Commander and Hereditary President of the Baird Society Worldwide at this year’s games. A first and an honor for the Grandfather Games.

The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games are well known to the folks in Scotland. Richard Baird shared that he was recently asked, “Have you heard of Grandfather Mountain? I’d give my eyeteeth to go there, “to which he grinned cheekily and said, “I’m going.” When asked how the American games compare to those in Scotland, he said, “They’re bigger and longer.” We can only manage one day.” Baird was very impressed with the games and especially the music, which plays throughout the weekend in natural grottos and on stages around the field where the athletics occur. He said, “Yesterday they had a band and a piper, and he could dovetail in with their music. Your music scene here is very enjoyable.”

Tragedy Stops “The Bear” Race

Thursday evening’s “Calling of the Clans” and “The Bear” race, a 5 mile run up to the top of Grandfather Mountain, are two of the most anticipated events that kick off the games. Not an easy task. Tragically, there was an accident at the start of the games as the hundreds of runners gathered to start their assent up the mountain. Many of the people were in the road waiting for the start of the race when a van ferrying people to the race crashed into the crowd. One couple, Johnathan and Michelle Ard of Jacksonville, Florida, came up specifically to run in the race. They said, “Everyone was excited and getting ready when they suddenly heard loud noises and screams.” It was later reported that three people had been seriously injured, and one woman, Julie A. Holderness, 72, of Greenville, SC, died at the scene. Holderness and her husband were there to cheer on the runners. The race was canceled.

Steve Quillin, President of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, said in a statement, “Those people up there care about each other, and they care about the bear runners, and they care about the people that were affected by the accident very much. On behalf of myself and the entire Grandfather Mountain Highland Games organization and family, we are deeply saddened by tonight’s devastating event and extend our condolences to those affected.”

The Games Go On, Reverently

The accident was announced to the people in attendance, a moment of silence was observed, and though the games continued, there was an air of sadness over everything. In a way, it made the Calling of the Clans ceremony even more poignant. The whole purpose of bringing the clans together is to share family, honor, tradition, and camaraderie. So it was with a feeling of solemnity and reverence that the clan representatives all gathered on the field and lit each other’s torches. Then, one by one, each announced the presence of their clan. The torches were then put into a special rack on the field, creating one fire from many.

As the games continued throughout the weekend, awards were given for athletics, Scottish dance, and piping competitions, but still with the feeling of reverence and care for those affected by the accident.
If you would like to learn more about the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games or your Scottish heritage, go to gmhg.com.