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My Trip Down the Rabbit Hole of the 2018 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

June 26, 2019

guest post from Mitzie Munroe

The world of Outlander can be sourced as the inspiration for a number of newly-acquired Scottish-related interests, especially amongst fans. In my family’s case, most particularly, it would be our recent interest in learning more about our Scottish ancestry. We are most notably Munroes. Originally Munro, the “e” was added some time before my husband’s great-grandfather arrived in the US. His Scottish lineage has strong ties in that our first born son had to take the name Angus (either first or middle) to keep with family tradition that goes back hundreds of years. No pressure right? But how does one help their son who carries such a strong Scottish name understand why it was important that we give him that name?

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, credit gmhg.org

Being an avid Outlander reader and show viewer, I have not only started taking note of all the locations mentioned that are related to actual historical sites, but also the Scottish families that are woven into Diana’s world. Her storylines detail the true migration that some of these families made before and after Culloden and found their way to North Carolina.

These emigrated families are directly responsible for shaping our home state of North Carolina, and their influence can still be felt today. One of the most notable ways is the yearly gathering of Scottish-descended clans at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (GMHG) in Linville, North Carolina. Every year, for over 60 years, on the second full weekend in July, people travel from all over to attend this four-day event that has everything from music concerts to cultural lectures, demonstrations like piping and Highland dancing to sporting competitions, specialty food vendors to Highland crafters. Attending this amazing event is on many people’s bucket lists, and last year it was time that I finally see for myself what all the buzz was about and hope that my sons learn a bit about their ancestry.

The first decision that needed to be made was whether or not we wanted to camp on the grounds. This, I have heard, is a major attraction for a number of returning attendees. The camaraderie that forms in the campgrounds during the games is what brings people back year after year. It’s like a mini festival within the Games itself! Seeing as we had teenage boys attending with us and none are accustomed to being without creature comforts for more than a day, we decided to stay in one of the many cabins available for rent all around the mountain and also just a short drive from the Games. Some of the nearby towns, Linville, Banner Elk, Seven Devils, Valle Crucis, Boone and Blowing Rock having ample accommodations available, and we decided on a cabin in Valle Crucis. Not only are the GMHG a huge draw to this area, but also the many other sites that are a must-see if you find yourself in the area. We wanted to drop in at the original and famous Mast General Store that is located in Valle Crucis.  Not to mention one of our favorite wineries, Grandfather Vineyard & Winery, was just a short drive from our cabin, either going to or driving back from the Games, but it is the Games that are the true draw for us.

Enjoying some vino from Grandfather Vineyard & Winery by the Watauga River.

The first day (Thursday) was opening day with a few highlights: Highland dance performances, sheepdog demonstrations, a leisurely picnic and the beginning of the 5K Bear Foot Race that has runners start at the base of Grandfather Mountain and end at the top! I had hopes of running this race as one of my My Peak Challenge goals, but soon found that this race was a bit “unbearable” for me at the time, so contented myself with cheering on those amazing athletes as they funneled through MacRae Meadows before continuing up the mountain.

The definitive highlight, though, is the Opening Ceremony and Calling of the Clans. Come twilight, a representative of each of the attending Clans muster together in preparation for the Torch Lighting Ceremony. It’s at this time too that a reverie of pipers take the track and starts the mountain singing. There’s nothing quite like hearing the sound of the pipes announcing the opening of these Games!

Friday is the first full day of the Games. The mountain comes alive with Highland dance competitions, piping competitions, musical performances in the groves, cultural lectures and exhibitions like the Scottish Cultural Village and much more.

photo credits: GMHG: Rob Randall, James Shaffer, Mike Lacey

Though droves of people come to the Games for the event itself,  we were excited about taking a stroll through Clan Row and getting acquainted with our new-found friends at the Munro tent. I had become acquainted with a few of our US chapter representatives via email and was excited to not only pop in to say hi, but to learn what it is to be a member of a sponsoring clan or society. Those that find they have connections to a particular Scottish clan can visit that clan’s tent and learn about membership opportunities, make genealogical connections, learn about their own events, or simply find interesting information.

While hanging with our fellow Munros, we learned that Clan Munro is one of a handful of clans that still provide scholarships to young men and women who want to learn and perpetuate the Scottish arts of Highland dancing and piping. Recent scholarship winners were stopping by the tent to accept their certificates and took the opportunity to thank the organization for the award. Another interesting fun fact about Clan Munro is that the family seat of Foulis Castle in the parish of Kiltearn, Ross and Cromarty, Scotland is still a working estate that grows barley that just happens to be used for making whisky by Glenmorangie distilleries. Needless to say, we came away with a new appreciation for that particular brand of whisky and I am proud that the Munros have that affiliation! 

Competitions and demonstrations draw to a close by late afternoon in preparation for the highly anticipated Celtic rock concert on the grounds that evening. Our day ended with a bit of exploration of the surrounding areas and just kicking back and relaxing at our cabin.

Saturday is typically the busiest and most popular day of the Games. Attendance reaches max capacity and unless you have a coveted patron pass that allows you to park on the Mountain, you will have an adventure taking one of the area shuttles that winds its way up the mountain to MacRae Meadow. We started our day early, for there was still so much to see and hear. With the majority of the piping competitions concluded (and I can attest that my ears were still ringing with piping music come morning!) the highlights were the field competitions, concerts in the grove, and I was anxious for a special guest to arrive; being an avid fan of the Outlander television series, I was very excited to have had the opportunity to meet David Berry, who was a guest at the Clan Outlander tent!

David Berry, Outlander’s Lord John Gray, and an ecstatic me!

But of course my day’s excitement didn’t stop there (though how do you top meeting David Berry?!). I had the opportunity to be fitted for authentic Highland attire at one of the vendor tents. I had long desired having an outfit that I can wear during one of my many planned events where period clothing is not only welcomed, but expected. I found myself at the Wolfstone Kilt Company tent and fell in love with all of the beautifully-made garments on display for both men and women. One of the wonderful ladies that creates these amazing pieces actually did the fitting, and I can’t recommend enough the importance of having this done. Starting from scratch, I was on the market for not only the basics, but for universal items as well. When I finally pulled myself out of there, (wallet lighter and me heavier), I was donning my new shift, lovely stays, bumroll, stomacher (I chose one with bees in anticipation for Diana’s next book Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone), full skirt in the Wolfstone tartan, jacket and a fishu. I spent the remainder of my day wearing my new Highland attire with pride, but boy, it was it a joy taking it all off when I got back to the cabin! I have such a new-found admiration for the women of the time who not only wore these items all day but while also performing their daily work. 

My wonderful period costume from Wolfstone Kilt Co. Don’t you just love my BEES stomacher?!

Sunday is the day Grandfather Mountain gives a long sigh as the Games draw to a close, but not before a few more field competitions are completed, the kids races commence and the Parade of Tartans. Any attendees that wish to walk with their representing clans gather around the outer ring of the track to take a stroll around the inner track, arrive in front of the announcer’s stage and have their clan announced to the crowd. 

Myself and my family dressed out in our Munro tartan for this occasion and I have to admit I found myself carrying a new sense of pride in being able to truly call myself a Munro while walking with my new “family” and friends!

As our week at the 2018 GMHG came to a close, we said our goodbyes to our friends and to the Mountain, and we decided then that we would come back again, and I have been eagerly counting down the months, weeks, and now days, until the 2019 event.

A year has gone by and in that time we have had another season of Outlander. It was in this season that we got to see Roger and Bree attend these very games set in 1970 in an episode entitled “The False Bride.” While the writers took certain liberties when creating their version of the games, many scenes did have a factual foundation. Bree and Roger traveled to North Carolina for a Scottish festival in the vicinity of Fraser’s Ridge which does coincide with the GMHG’s long standing location. Their festival was full of dancing, music and games; just like our games. Even the calling of the clans and burning of the stag fits right in with our modern games (substitute a the tower of torches for the show’s wicker stag). I have delusions of hoping to find Roger at this year’s Games singing his version of “I Once Loved a Lass.”

Not only do we have this comparison, but we also had Diana’s version of a Highland Gathering in The Fiery Cross. I will have to leave it to the history books to confirm any of the comparisons of this 1770 gathering to what may have transpired in the past, but a little birdie did tell me that in the coming season of Outlander we will see the Frasers attending The Gathering at Mount Helicon (aka Grandfather Mountain).

This year’s Games will no doubt be another memorable event for me and my family. We have decided to explore a new area around Grandfather and rented a cabin in Seven Devils this year. We also decided to purchase the Highlander Patron package to better experience this year’s Games with being able to attend the reception banquet, whisky tasting, secured parking and a few other perks.  I’m also looking forward to possibly seeing another Outlander cast member, Gary Lewis, who played the role of Colum MacKenzie. While he leads Clan Outlander around the track, I hope I have the opportunity to hear him shout “Tùlach Àrd”!

The mountains are calling and I must go–I hope to see you all there!

Thank you, Mitzie, for sharing your first GMHG experience with us!

Have you ever been to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games? Are you planning on going this Summer?

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4 Comments

  • Reply Jan Grupp June 26, 2019 at 7:40 am

    Love this Mitzi! The photo of lovely you and lovely David Berry is priceless!! and the rest of the pix are a wonderful addition to your family’s memory bank & my pleasure in reading your blog.! Scottish Pride indeed👊♥️

    Have a great vacation. See you at the Ridge!

  • Reply Lisa Margulies June 26, 2019 at 8:45 am

    So glad this was posted! Loved reading your great inside scoop. I’m having fantasies of attending this year at the last minute. What are my chances? Probably not great but I do feel like I know what to expect, how to navigate, and how much excitement I’d feel because of what you’ve shared! Thank you so much! I’ll look for you if I get lucky🤞🏻! And, can’t wait to hear your report this year – enjoy!

  • Reply Lynne Bryant June 26, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    My Red Hat group is planning on attending this year so at least I’ll get to be there!!!! I’ll have my tartan and my Red Hat on!!!!

  • Reply Alysen June 28, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks Mitzie for giving us this glimpse … and I must also thank you for giving us a glimpse of Lord John!! I can imagine your nervousness, his smile is gorgeous 🙂 . Also, I wonder if your kids came away with a new-found interest in their roots? And, do you have Scottish ancestors too? Only a couple of weeks now! I’ve put this post in my To Do, To See file, since I’m still doing my Mom Care stint …

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