On a foggy mountaintop in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, a crowd of thousands gathered to watch a kilted handler and his two Collies, Luke and Lucy, herd a flock of sheep back into their pen.
“Get down!” the handler hollered to his dogs over a microphone, and instantly, down his well-trained companions went. “Now go back!” Back they went, encircling the sheep, who were just trying to enjoy a late breakfast of the green grass at MacRae Meadows as the audience watched in tense, fascinated silence. Luke and Lucy stalked their prey obediently, trailing the sheep like wolves before guiding them harmlessly back into their enclosure.
Then they did it all over again, except this time, he whistled his commands—two different pitches for two different dogs.
It was the day’s opening act of last weekend’s Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, one of the biggest annual celebrations of Scottish sport, heritage and culture in the world.
Sheep herding was not the only traditional Scottish activity on display. A myriad of athletes celebrating their history converged atop Grandfather Mountain to show off their warrior-like skills in events such as the caber toss, in which burly men fling literal utility poles through the air, and the sheep toss, in which competitors try to hurl not a sheep but a bundle of hay over a bar suspended 30 feet in the air. This was all alongside the more typical track-and-field events you’d find at any meet, such as the high jump and long jump.
However, the highlight of the weekend began before all this. Early Saturday morning, in Boone, some 26.2 miles away, the Grandfather Marathon kicked off. The race, featuring miles of hills and cutbacks and ending atop the mountain, is often described as one of the most strenuous marathons in the entire country. Caleb Masland from Boone finished first with a time of 2:43.12, and all finishers came home with a medal.
Even if athletics isn’t your thing, there was still plenty to do at the Highland Games. Music is as central to the Games as it is to the sports, and there was never a quiet moment. Bagpipers played all day throughout the festival, drowning the backdrop in a constant (but not unpleasant) shrill drone. A procession of pipers and drummers, some hailing from NC State as indicated by the decals on their drums, made their way around the track in the opening ceremonies, playing Scottish tunes for a half-hour, much to the foot-tapping merriment of attendees. Children tap danced on stages around the playing field. This culminated into a set tone, no pun intended, that remained consistent and friendly all day.
Hungry? There were plenty of food choices, ranging from meat pies and Cornish pasties to more conventional fair food like hot dogs and hamburgers. Prices varied from cheap to hefty depending on the food stand, but those prices were nothing compared to the lofty $30 per person entry fee into the Games. Along with the $5 bus pass (no day parking on the mountain, enjoy the bumpy ride) and all the merchandise for sale, be prepared to spend at least $40. Be sure to bring a backpack, refillable water bottle and sunscreen as well.
All in all, at its core, it’s easy to see that the Highland Games is about culture and history. That’s why they play sports that their ancestors played in order to train for battle. That’s why they wear kilts and blow on bagpipes. That’s why the ancestors of ancient clans—essentially a Scottish chiefdom—gathered on top of a mountain, adorned in their respective tartans. It was a sight to behold in a safe, fun place, all set to some of the most gorgeous views in the state.
So, why not come on up next year? It’s every second weekend in July.