The Highland Games in Boone, North Carolina is like the craziest family reunion you’ve ever been too. Held annually in July on the slopes of Grandfather Mountain, it isn’t the easiest location to get to. You have to park and ride a school bus on a gravel road up the mountain. The cool mountain air, even in July, makes the lack of air conditioning on the bus unnoticeable. Sometimes the bus drivers actually see black bears on this road as it is carved out of virgin forest.
Once you clear the trees at the end of the road, you are dropped off at the campground. I have never seen so many people packed so closely together in all my life. Some of the campsites are decked out like a band of Vikings just ran off to pillage a local village. Others resemble a gypsy fortune teller’s campsite. The trails that run through the campground are just big enough for a golf cart. You get the sense that at night, this place is one big party where the whisky flows freely despite rules against it.
As you clear the camp, you begin seeing tents as you climb up the last incline to the location of the main events – MacRae Meadows. Everywhere you look are kilts, corsets, bum rolls, and all manner of medieval wear. Some of it is very appropriate, but other bits probably belong more at a Renaissance Fair than here. I don’t remember any Scottish person I ever met who had pointy elf ears, but to each their own I guess. Its a little bit Scotland, with a dash of Vikings and Middleearth thrown in for good measure.
Even the little ones got into the dressing up action.
The perimeter of the main field is covered with tents, each one proudly flies the tartan of the particular clan occupying that tent. Inside the tents are all sorts of literature to explore about the clan in question, along with a member of that clan on hand to eagerly talk genealogy and about the good ole days – you know, back before 1746 – back before the Highland Clearances and the outlawing of the tartan and bagpipes.
Some tents have weapons on display as well. For example, Clan Wallace proudly displays a five foot long claymore like the one William Wallace might have wielded. Clan MacGregor displays all kinds of stuff on Rob Roy, their most famous member. You might even catch a star from the television show Outlander about.
On the field itself are contests like the caber toss – a sport where grown men toss telephone poles like they are toothpicks. The goal is to see who can balance it best and actually get a complete flip during the toss. Women and men participate in the stone put as well. There are highland dancing competitions going on and demonstrations of sheep dogs herding ducks and flocks of sheep. If you’re hungry, you can even grab some haggis from one of the food trucks – if you are brave enough.
Fancy a scone with strawberries and cream? You can get that too, along with pretty much anything else you can imagine. Beyond the food and sporting events, there are constant music concerts going on all around – everything from harp playing to bagpipe competitions to full out highland marching bands.
It’s obvious that many of the people come year after year and make a full weeks long vacation of it. They greet each other like old friends, even if they just met. It’s amazing how a bunch of literal strangers can feel such a kinship all these centuries after their ancestors left Scotland. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they keep the memory of the old country alive by coming together like this year after year. They tell the same histories, listen to old ballads, and relish the sound of the pipes echoing through the mountains. There is a ragged pride in their heritage that time, wars, and distance cannot stamp out.
I don’t know if you can see the changes that have come over me
In these last few days I’ve been afraid that I might drift away
So I’ve been telling old stories, singing songs, that make me think about where I come from
That’s the reason why I seem so far away today
Let me tell you that I love you and I think about you all the time
Caledonia you’re calling me and now I’m going home
But if I should become a stranger you know that it would make me more than sad
Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had
I have moved and I’ve kept on moving, proved the points that I needed proving
Lost the friends that I needed losing, found others on the way
I have tried and I’ve kept on trying, stolen dreams, yes there’s no denying
I have traveled hard sometimes with conscience flying somewhere in the wind
Now I’m sitting here before the fire, the empty room the forest choir
The flames that couldn’t get any higher they’ve withered now they’ve gone
But I’m steady thinking, my way is clear and I know what I will do tomorrow
When the hands have shaken and the kisses flow then I will disappear
– Caledonia by Dougie MacLean
All photos by the author.