The Games and Gatherings in the Meadows at Grandfather: The Beginning

"Scottish Clans 1956" by Hugh Morton (cropped by the editor).

“Scottish Clans 1956” by Hugh Morton (cropped by the editor).

The 61st annual “Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans” takes place in Linville’s MacRae Meadows from July 7th through July 10th, 2016. This spectacular happening has become one of the most popular and colorful events of its type in all of North America. As we celebrate once again this mountain event, Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks at the first “gathering and games” back in 1956.

. . . there is the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of the Scottish Clans, which must be seen to be believed.  Powerful men wearing skirts compete in tossing telephone poles about.  Who can explain such a thing? It is Scottish.
—CBS News legend and Hugh Morton’s friend, Charles Kuralt, June 7, 1996

Sunday, August 19, 1956 was a special day at MacRae Meadows in the shadows of Grandfather Mountain. On that day, the first Highland Games ever held in the South were staged to the delight of about 10,000 spectators according to The Asheville Citizen issue of August 20th.

Many months of planning and preparation had gone into the event and according to the 1976 Souvenir Programme and Review booklet, the idea for a gathering began to take shape when Mrs. J. W. Morton (Agnes MacRae) read an article about Scottish gatherings in other areas and began talking about the idea for a gathering at Grandfather Mountain. One of the people she contacted, in 1955, was Donald F. McDonald of Charlotte.

Donald MacDonald dancing the Highland Fling while an unidentified woman plays accordion at the first Highland Games in 1956 near Grandfather Mountain, N. C. (Hugh Morton photograph, cropped by the editor.)

Donald MacDonald dancing the Highland Fling while an unidentified woman plays accordion at the first Highland Games in 1956 near Grandfather Mountain, N. C. (Hugh Morton photograph, cropped by the editor.)

McDonald had attended Scotland’s famous Braemar Gathering in 1954 and suggested that highland games would attract more visitors than just a reunion of individual clans.  Morton and McDonald planned for a one-day event, based on the Braemar Gathering with performances of Scottish songs and dances along with athletic events including foot races, wresting, the high jump, and the shot put.  Even today, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans is often called “America’s Braemar.”

The festivities started that morning in 1956 at 11 o’clock with a church service conducted by Mr. MacDonald.  Honored guests were introduced next.  Two bands were present: the Washington, D. C., St. Andrew’s Society Pipe Band under the direction of Pipe Major Gene Castleberry, and “The Fighting Scots” Brass from Scotland County High School in Laurinburg, N. C.

The highland dance competition was held on a large platform as was the piping competition.  Major Castleberry won the professional bag piping competition, and William Firestone of Cumberland, Virginia took home the novice piping honors.

The field activities took place in both the East and the West Meadows.  A racing path was marked off in the same area where an oval track would be built in 1958.  The track and field competition included a 60-yard and a 100-yard dash, a 2-mile cross-country race, pole vaulting, and a tug o’ war.

Man tossing caber with spectators in background at the first annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in 1956. Notice the caber tosser is in stocking feet and that the judge is barefooted. Photograph by Hugh Morton.

Man tossing caber with spectators in background at the first annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in 1956. Notice the caber tosser is in stocking feet and that the judge is barefooted. Photograph by Hugh Morton.

One of the highlights of the day was the caber toss (sometimes called “turning the caber,” which requires the athlete to flip a telephone pole-sized tree trunk end-over-end for distance and accuracy). Ronald Patterson, a student from Appalachian State Teachers College (today’s Appalachian State University), won the competition.  He tossed the 200-hundred pound caber 36 feet, 10 inches.  Patterson also won the shot put contest. Other track-and-field winners included Leslie Taylor of Charlotte, high-jump; Clyde Autin of Boone, cross-country; Paul Arrington of Charlotte, broad-jump; and Vance Houston of Charlotte, 60-yard dash.

Girl in Scottish attire dancing on a wooden platform, with crowd watching and Grandfather Mountain in the background, during the 1956 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. Photograph by Hugh Morton.

Girl in Scottish attire dancing on a wooden platform, with crowd watching and Grandfather Mountain in the background, during the 1956 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. Photograph by Hugh Morton.

The Asheville newspaper described the Highland dance competition winner as “an Asheville lassie, little red-haired Margaret Fletcher.”  She also received the trophy as the best all around dancer.  (An interesting side note here: little Margaret Fletcher’s older sister, Maria, was crowned Miss North Carolina in the summer of 1961 and went on to become North Carolina’s only Miss America that September).

Lads, Lassies Twirl Tartans, Roll R’s —The Greensboro Daily News, August 20, 1956

The continuing success of the highland games at Grandfather is due in large measure to the beautiful setting.  Agnes MacRae Morton’s father, Hugh MacRae, developed the town of Linville at the foot of Grandfather Mountain in Avery County. The rugged terrain is similar to the landscape of some areas of Scotland. Morton volunteered the use of MacRae Meadows and the Morton family has continued to support the gathering and games for over sixty years with Agnes Morton’s son, Hugh MacRae Morton, taking a significant role in the promotion of the events with his magnificent photographic and public relations skills prior to his death a little more than one month before the 2006 games. For the 1956 event, Morton was able to land a magazine cover image for The State showing Donald MacDonald, Chieftain of the ’56 games, beside Angus MacKinnon MacBryde of the Isle of Mull, Scotland.  The August 11th issue promoted the upcoming games on the 19th.

The gathering and games, now held annually the second full weekend in July, regularly attract more than 30,000 and have made not just the event, but the entire region synonymous with Scottish heritage.  Hugh Morton, in his 2003 book, Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, says “the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games are considered one of the best Scottish-heritage events in the world . . .”  And Harris Prevost, who as News Director for the 1984 games, proclaimed in a news release: “Some people may attend highland games but the people who come to Grandfather live them!”

A “wee bit” of Scotland in NC

“Brawny athletes, delicate dancers, noisy bagpipe band parades, rocking Celtic music and a spectacular highland setting makes this colorful celebration of Scottish culture the ‘best’ highland games in America . . .” (or so says the website).

The 55th Annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games were held this past weekend in MacRae Meadows, at the base of Grandfather. The continuing popularity of the Grandfather Games is perhaps the most visible indication of a long history of Scottish settlement and the continuing influence of Scottish culture in the North Carolina Mountains. In our latest Worth 1,000 Words essay entitled Scottish Heritage at Linville, anthropologist CELESTE RAY explores these traditions and the role of the Morton family in attempting to maintain them. (Did you know, for example, that Hugh Morton’s mother and brother Julian began the development of “Invershiel,” a replica 16th-century Scottish village in Linville?). Read Ray’s essay to find out more.

And finally, for those of you in the Wilmington area, I’d like to offer one last reminder of our Worth 1,000 Words event this coming Monday. Details below; hope to see you there!

Monday, July 19, 5:30 p.m.
New Hanover County Public Library, NorthEast Branch, Wilmington
Information: Paige Owens,, (910) 798-6327

Who Am I? – Highland Games edition

Every year, the second full weekend in July sees the arrival near Linville, NC of the largest collection of Scoto-philes in Eastern America . . . As North Carolina’s largest Tartan Jamboree, this Track & Field, Bagpipes and Highland Dance extravaganza must arguably be America’s ultimate spree in ethnic indulgence.

This quote comes from page 1 of a recently-published book, America’s Braemar: Grandfather Mountain and the Re-birth of Scottish Identity Across America, by Donald MacDonald (2007). MacDonald, first President and co-founder of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (with Hugh Morton’s mother, Agnes MacRae Morton), has written what surely must be a definitive history—at 487 single-spaced pages, I can’t imagine anyone having more to say! (I only wish it had an index.) The book, which is heavily illustrated with Morton photos, can be ordered online.

With the 53rd annual Games coming up this weekend, I’m hoping readers can help identify some of these Morton images. Perhaps, even if you don’t recognize the people involved (or they’re too small to see), you can tell us about the events depicted? What are your Highland Games memories? (I’ve only attended once, as a child, and pretty much all I remember is that it rained really, really hard). I do know that the two images below were taken at the very first Games, in 1956.

The man shaking the runner’s hand below I know to be N. J. (Nestor Joseph) MacDonald, President of the Games from 1962 to 1977—Morton photographed him often. Any ideas on the runners?

And lastly, I assume this man is singing? Or bellowing? Or doing some kind of highland yodel?

A Contemporary of Morton

I don’t have to go far to get “A View to Hugh”—all I have to do is literally look over my shoulder. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by first introducing myself. My name is Patrick Cullom and I was hired this past October as a Visual Materials Archivist; I share an office and processing space with Elizabeth Hull. I grew up in North Carolina and had seen images taken by Morton in books, posters, and other places without fully appreciating who he was or what his work had done for the state. Now I have the unique opportunity to be present while the collection is processed.

I have often heard my position in the photographic archives described as “Processing the photographic collections that are NOT Hugh Morton.” That’s sort of accurate, I suppose. The first collection I have been working with consists of photographic materials created by Edward J. McCauley, a newspaper photographer for the Burlington Times-News (NC). McCauley took photographs for the Times-News from 1949-1974 as well as running his own personal photograph studio. The collection consists of approximately 100,000 images and presents an encompassing view of Burlington from the 1950s-1970s.

Even though the scopes of our collections are quite different, Elizabeth and I often discuss similar topics and issues that arise when working with each of our collections. Morton and McCauley were contemporaries, so it makes sense that they might have been at some of the same events with statewide importance, including political and sporting events. At this point in my work, I cannot not say definitively that McCauley and Morton knew each other well, but it is clear from some of the images I have processed so far that they did cross paths at least a few times. I know that McCauley attended some of Morton’s famous camera clinics.

I have included two images in the McCauley collection that show a connection between the two collections. The first is a detail cropped from a group portrait of photographers attending the Miss North Carolina Pageant sometime in the 1950s. Morton is in the passenger seat of the car and McCauley is behind him next to the pageant contestants (third from the left).

Miss North Carolina Pageant Ca. 1950’s

To put the detail into its larger context, I have also included a full version:

Group portrait of photographers attending Miss North Carolina Pageant ca. 1950’s
The other image I have included doesn’t contain McCauley or Morton, but McCauley made the photograph at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games sometime in the late 1950s. He took this image at of one of the events at the games and it is part of a series that includes members of the McCauley family at Grandfather Mountain.

View of Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
Who knows where else these two photographers crossed paths (or cameras)? I will be sure to drop a note when such images surface.

“It’s a big noise.”

Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band on Grandfather Mountain, 1961

“They weren’t designed to be played in recording studios. They were designed to be played on the tops of mountains,” the voice-over said on the radio as bagpipes in the background played “Amazing Grace.” I stopped making my morning tea when I heard that. A Hugh Morton photograph just flashed in my memory. “There’s no escaping that collection!,” I thought (in a good way).

I was listening to NPR early Sunday morning when that promotional spot for Weekend Edition Sunday aired, but Ollie, my dog, needed to be walked and I missed the story. Fortunately NPR posts its news programs on its Web site so if you missed it too, you can hear “Royal Scots Dragoon Records ‘Spirit of the Glen'” featuring the album’s producer Jon Cohen. Cohen talks about the challenges of working with the military band, and how orchestrating the sound of bagpipes compares to producing recordings for bands as diverse as the Backstreet Boys and the OperaBabes.

The Hugh Morton photograph that came to mind Sunday morning is actually a postcard in the Durwood Barbour Postcard Collection. It depicts a group of bagpipers and drummers on top of Grandfather Mountain during the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. See the North Carolina Collection’s short history about the games in the “This Month In North Carolina History” entry written this past August. And now would be as good a time as any to mention the large ongoing project of digitized North Carolina postcards by the NCC staff.

You know, the strands of serendipity wend their ways on the strangest paths. I did a bit of fruitless searching for the original color slide, so I asked Elizabeth if one of those boxes you see on the table in her post, “A Processor’s Perspective,” had any Highland Games negatives. She pointed to the box and I grabbed the first envelope I saw with black-and-white negatives (easier to scan!) labeled “’61 Games—GMTN.” Inside were several 120 format (2-1/4 inch square) negatives, and one looked very similar to the post card. I scanned it, but the image had some lens flare across a bagpiper’s face so I dismissed it. I did noticed, however, that a bass drum in the upper left corner had on its skin: “Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band.” It was the last negative on a roll of film—the only image of the group on the mountaintop—and it’s not like Hugh Morton to command a group of people to very tip of the mountain only to make one exposure. So I went back to the box to see if there was another envelope from 1961. There was, labeled “Highland Games ’61”; it did not, however, have any more images of the band.

I started my search anew for a different image. Further down in the box was a blank envelope on which Elizabeth had penciled a note: “H.G. late 50s-e.60s.” (That’s archivist talk for Highland Games, late 1950s or early 1960s). I peeked inside and saw three 4×5-inch black-and-white negatives and some 120 negatives. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the 4×5 negatives was the Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band. I scanned that negative and prepared it for loading onto the blog, cropping the image to my liking.

For my post, I wanted to link to the Durwood Barbour postcard and draw your attention to that project, which includes several Hugh Morton postcards. I searched for the image and found it. Would you believe the postcard in the Durwood Barbour collection shows the very same Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band?! The postcard doesn’t state that, nor the date of the image. We can now add that information to the postcard’s descriptive information.

Do you think there’s any coincidence that my brother graduated from Carnegie-Mellon and that my father was an assistant football coach there for twenty years? I don’t know, but if my best friend from high school calls me up one day soon and says, “I never mentioned this before, but my father played the bagpipes on Grandfather Mountain during his Carnegie Tech days,” I’m going to get the shivers.

Carnegie Tech Kiltie Band on Grandfather Mountain, 1961