If you should pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway in July here at Linville in western North Carolina, you may spy some men walking along in Scottish highland dress, their kilts swaying with their gait. Far in the distance you may hear the drone of bagpipes echoing off the surrounding hills. That's because Linville is the site of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, which attract participants and visitors from all over North America.
The games here -- basically a weekend event, but with preliminaries that begin on a Thursday evening -- represent the largest such gathering in the United States. Each year it is scheduled for the second full weekend in July -- this year the 12th and 13th. It's a time when the laurel is in fine bloom along the parkway, and the summer rains and mist seem to duplicate the mood of Scotland.
The games are held on MacRae Meadows, a huge clearing on the side of Grandfather Mountain, over which the mists drift in and out. Main events are held on the oval-shaped track and field. Encircling part of the field are the clan tents, waving their brightly colored flags. Some 30,000 spectators usually line the banks surrounding the other half of the field. Outside the gates, vendors specializing in Highland dress and accessories can fit you for a kilt or sell you a Balmoral or Glengarry (traditional headwear).
The field itself offers more activities than a three-ring circus. After the 7 a.m. start on Saturday, runners from the Mountain Marathon, one of the toughest courses in the US, make their finish at the track. The pole vault and high jump are just two of the many track and field events held on both Saturday and Sunday. Traditional Scottish athletic events include tossing the caber and throwing the weight and the hammer.
While these events are progressing, the highland dance competition is also in full fling. The Grandfather Mountain Games includes the Atlantic International Championships, one of five Scottish country dancing championships held annually in the US. Girls and boys from all over North America don their kilts, blouses with lace jabot, velvet vests or jackets, and argyle hose, along with leather ballet shoes called ghillies. The competition is fierce. A few dancers misstep and leave the boards, but most are wonderfully graceful and agile. Even the beginners, at ages six or seven, can execute the intricate footwork of the sword dance, or, clad in Royal Navy dress, perform a hornpipe worthy of a sailor.
At the other end of the field from the dance contest, the pipe and drum competition goes on. Pipers are judged on their timing, tuning, and expression in jigs, reels, and marches. Like the dancers, some pipers start quite young, and the quality of the piping is said to be improving every year.
One of the most popular events at the games is the demonstration of border collies at work. These fine black-and-white dogs herd sheep or ducks through wooden barriers on the field and then return them to their pens. The dogs are commanded by the trainer's whistle, and they work with total concentration, despite the athletic events going on around them.
Although any event here can enthrall a spectator, the tents that surround the field, making the meadow resemble a medieval festival, are central to the Highland Games. Each clan posts a prominent list of the septs, or surnames, which it traces back to a common ancestor. Some people come here to see their tartan displayed and to register as a clan member. In the clan tents the camaraderie is palpable; even the newcomer is treated like a long lost brother or sister.
On Sunday morning, the clans appear in full regalia for the Parade of Tartans. Tartan flags are assembled for a 9:30 outdoor church service, where the Kirkin' (or blessing) of the tartans is a fitting start to the pageantry. Massed pipe bands march to ``Scotland the Brave'' and ``Morag of Dunvegan.'' As the drumsticks twirl, pipe majors salute the guests of honor, and the clans are announced.
Utimately people are what the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games are all about. The clans emphasize a sense of family, and the Games foster a kinship among Scots -- and everyone involved. Some visitors come just for a glimpse of another culture. Others come to find their roots. Everyone experiences the spirit of Scottish tradition. Practical information
The gathering begins on Thursday evening with a picnic and continues through Sunday afternoon, with the competitions scheduled on the weekend.
From Asheville, take highway 40 E to US 221 to Linville, or take the Blue Ridge Parkway (allow three hours). From Charlotte, take 77N to 40W to US 221 to Linville. At Linville, there are fields for parking, with bus service to the Games. Daily entry fee is $8 for adults and $4 for children under 12.
For a list of accommodations call 800-438-7500 from the eastern US, 800-222-7515 from North Carolina, or (704) 264-2225 from other areas.