Scottish Heritage at Linville

This essay was composed for the Worth 1,000 Words project by CELESTE RAY. Ray is a Professor of Anthropology at Sewanee, the University of the South, specializing in ethnic studies of Ireland, Scotland and the American South, ethnoecology and sacred landscapes. Ray is the author of numerous books on Scottish heritage in North America, most recently 2005’s Transatlantic Scots.

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In his 1997 proclamation of a state “Tartan Day,” Governor James Hunt stated that North Carolina had more people of Scottish heritage than any other state or country in the world (including Scotland). While Americans of Scottish descent do outnumber Scots in Scotland, which has a population of just over five million, California now claims the greatest number of residents of Scottish descent (partly by having attracted the most Scottish expatriates). Nonetheless, North Carolina does remain one of the states with the highest percentage of its population claiming trans-generational awareness of Scottish ancestry and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey, is the state with the highest percentage of inhabitants self-identifying as Scots Irish. The greatest concentration of Scots Irish is in the west of the state, from Charlotte through the mountains.
Three Scottish ethnic groups settled in North Carolina with different cultural backgrounds and different reasons for immigrating. Lowland Scots tended to settle along the eastern seaboard with the English and to make their way into Appalachia for mercantile interests, particularly from Wilmington and Charleston. More Highlanders came to North Carolina than any other state and settled predominantly in the flat sandhills of the Cape Fear River Valley. The Scots Irish came to the mountains via the “Great Wagon Road” from Pennsylvania. Estimates vary, but at least a third of North Carolina’s mountain population was of Scots-Irish origin prior to the Civil War. They brought with them the folktales, ballads, farming strategies and some of the vernacular architectural traditions that would come to characterize the Southern Appalachian region. The ethnonym “Scotch-Irish” (Scots Irish) was first employed to distinguish Patriot Ulster Scots from Highland Scots (mostly Loyalists) and later to distinguish between Protestant Scots from Ulster and the Catholic “Famine Irish.” The distinctiveness of these three ethnic groups is often elided today in contemporary heritage celebrations, as Scottish Americans commemorate ancestral Scots with the colorful material culture and expressive arts of Highland Scots. When North Carolina’s Scottish heritage revival developed in the 1950s, Hugh Morton had his camera poised and his photos chart the growth of a cultural movement across almost five decades.
The style of heritage events are largely creations of “Highlandism” a type of romanticism peculiar to Scotland that developed long after the ancestors of many of today’s Scottish Americans had emigrated. Sentimentalizing the Jacobite Lost Cause and the final defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s predominantly Highland army in 1746 at Culloden Moor, Highlandism led non-Gaelic-speaking Lowlanders who were not part of the clan system to forsake the ancient Highland/Lowland cultural divide and embrace bagpipes as a national symbol, don tartans and experiment with highly accessorized new versions of the kilt. Likewise, the landscapes of the Highlands, once considered “wild” and “ungodly,” became the stereotypical image of Scotland. Today, even Scottish Americans of Lowland or Scots-Irish ancestry may happily compete in Highland Games, join societies modeled on the Highland clan system, and sport “clan tartans” (though the association of clan name and tartan pattern was largely devised in the nineteenth century).
Since the Scots Irish formed the largest Scottish presence in the mountains, the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain in Linville might at first seem more “in” Appalachia than “of” it. Yet the conceiver of the event, Agnes MacRae Morton (mother of Hugh Morton), was a descendant of Highland Scots who immigrated to Wilmington in 1770. She co-founded the event with journalist Donald F. MacDonald in 1956, never expecting it to achieve the significance it has for Scottish Americans nationwide. MacDonald had recently attended Scotland’s most prestigious event, the Braemar Highland Gathering, which served as his model, and the Grandfather Games have since become known as “America’s Braemar.” The first year’s Highland dancing competition drew only as many dancers as there were prizes and took place only because MacDonald himself performed a “Highland Fling,” which Hugh Morton captured (see above right). The first event took place on August 19th, being a significant Jacobite anniversary (the 1745 raising of Prince Charlie’s standard at Glenfinnan), but eventually moved to the weekend following the Fourth of July. The Games now annually attract more than twenty thousand visitors to “MacRae Meadows” for four days of events, during which many North American Scottish clan associations hold their annual general meetings.
Citing the Robert Burns line “from scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs,” organizers attribute the event’s success to the Scotland-like setting and have adopted a tartan specifically created for the event with a green, grey, and blue sett (pattern) symbolic of the Grandfather Mountain landscape. Participants universally comment on the perceived resemblance of Grandfather Mountain to a Scotland romanticized in the nineteenth century as “the land of mountain and stream.” In lieu of the ultimate pilgrimage to physically experience ancestral lands in Scotland, Scottish Americans claim to visit the Grandfather Highland Games to see “a wee bit of the Scottish Highlands” in America. Perching bagpipers on its highest peaks and photographing the mountain from the most spectacular vantage points with the event field and surrounding clan society tents nestled at its base, Morton capitalized on this appeal.
Enshrining this sense of clan lands at Linville, the Games field has accumulated its own toponyms: “pulpit rock” is the scene of the annual Sunday “kirkin of the tartan” (a church service); military re-enactors claim a portion of the camp grounds known as “Jacobite Glen” and musicians play day and night in wooded areas called the “Celtic Groves.” Geopious descendants of the eighteenth-century Highland Scots who settled in the Cape Fear Valley erected memorial cairns at local churches to honor their immigrant ancestors and, in 1994, the tradition came to MacRae Meadows. The memorial cairn on Grandfather Mountain has inset panels with seventy-four polished stones contributed by as many clan societies, most brought from the clans’ homelands in Scotland.
In the mid-1960s, efforts to instill a ‘sense of Scottish place’ in the North Carolina mountains had included plans by Agnes MacRae Morton and her son Julian Morton to build a two thousand acre Scottish village at Linville. Never completed, “Invershiel” took its name from Clan MacRae territory in the Scottish Highlands, a place by Loch Duich and near the site of the decisive 1719 Jacobite battle in Glen Shiel. With the success of the Highland Games, Hugh Morton’s brother Julian spent ten years planning the development, and traveled to Scotland to design a delightful pastiche of architectural traditions from across the country. Buildings alternately combined sod and thatched roofs common across the Highlands and Aberdeenshire with chimney pots of the Lowlands and leaded glass windows copied from Stirling Castle, or employed crowstepped gables and pantiled roofs with “riggin” (ridge tiles) and walls constructed with local stone to imitate Scottish “rubble build.”
The photo included here is of Agnes MacRae Morton’s “Croft House” (a farm house, if somewhat deluxe) and was one of several of Hugh Morton’s photos appearing in a 1967 Palm Beach Life feature on the Invershiel project. Most eastern Scottish burghs had “tolbooths” which were usually near a cross designating the local market area (the “mercat cross”). Tolls on market good were conveniently collected at these sites which also served as home to the burgh council, the sheriff court and the jail. At Linville today, the “tolbooth” from the Invershiel development is the centerpiece of the local shopping complex.
For an almost a half-century from the beginning of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games into the twenty-first century, Hugh Morton documented the Scottish scene in and around Linville. Described as “a workaholic’s workaholic,” Mr. Morton nevertheless always spared time to talk with researchers interested in the various subjects he had photographed and generously gave them permission to use his photos in too many books to mention. His archives will continue to be a rich resource for scholars. With particular regard to the Scottish-American community, his photography records both continuity and change in visions of “heritage” and also documents the creation of the Scottish place at MacRae Meadows — now considered a cultural omphalos for Scottish Americans from across the country.

–Celeste Ray


Covington, Howard. Linville: A Mountain Home for One Hundred Years. Linville, N.C.: Linville Resorts, Inc., 1992.
Leyburn, James. The Scotch-Irish: A Social History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
Raveson, Betty R. “Invershiel…A New Old World.” Palm Beach Life September/October 1967.
Ray, Celeste. Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

4 thoughts on “Scottish Heritage at Linville”

  1. The irony is that the Grandfather Games’ have not just affected Scotland’s image in America, but Scotland’s image in the British Isles as well. I was lucky enough to interview Fiona Ritche, founder of the internationally popular “Thistle & Shamrock” Celtic music radio program, and was startled to discover that a trip to the Grandfather Games actually led to her launching the show. More than that, her radio program “returned to Scotland” from its initial base in Charlotte and her influence went on to include elevating the status of Celtic music back in the British Isles, indeed globally, through radio and television on BBC. Below is an excerpt from my Charlotte Observer article that tells that stirring story (it appears on my Website, under “My Writings,” entitled “Soundtrack of the Mountains”). The excerpt is brief—but my longer interview with Fiona in “Hemispheres Magazine,” when I edited United Airlines inflight magazine, goes into the story much more deeply and I’d be happy to generate a PDF of it for inclusion with this topic if asked. Here’s the vignette—
    “The story of former Charlotte resident Fiona Ritchie startlingly illustrates the impact of the Southern mountains and their musical events. Ritchie’s “Thistle & Shamrock” Celtic music show, born on Charlotte’s WFAE (90.7-FM) went national 20 years ago, and she’s gone on to international acclaim as host of one of National Public Radio’s most popular programs. WFAE airs the weekly show at 8 p.m. Saturdays. The anniversary was celebrated last month in the United Kingdom with an hour-long BBC documentary.(FYI—That 20th anniversary was in 2001, I believe).
    Years ago, when Ritchie and some college friends took off on a lark from Charlotte to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, there was no Celtic section in most music stores. “I went off with my cutoff denim shorts and white T-shirt,” she says, “looking like an American, while the Americans were walking around looking quite authentically like Scots.
    “And then I had a really powerful experience,” she says. “I saw a family who looked like they weren’t of great means. The children were sitting quite reverentially as their father was recording the sound of all these pipe bands with his little tape recorder. They looked as if they were from the mountains, and I felt moved by them and what they obviously thought was a connection to their roots. That made it real and important for me, that family trying to catch something that they could take away. I realized that magical musical connections exist between my part of the world and many others. I was an interesting door that opened for me that day.”
    That led to The Thistle & Shamrock. That program, and thus the Games, have played a significant role in what has become the global resurgence of Celtic music. The Grandfather Games have also influenced the spread of other highland games events and piping in the United States. Check out my 2007 article, also on my Web site, “A Ritch Tradition… A Scot in the Carolina Highlands,” that describes the role of the Games and Harvey Ritch, owner of “Everything Scottish” in Linville, in that process.

  2. Thanks for your interesting interview with Fiona Ritchie. She and I have been friends (and call each other “Cousins”) ever since 1992 when the college that I named (St Andrews) in Laurinburg honored us both for promoting Scottish traditions in NC and the Southeast. I suggested to Mrs Agnes MacRae Morton (Hugh Morton’s mother) jn 1955 that we should start a Highland Games for ALL the clans rather than what she wanted, a Clan MacRae meeting, as I had previously started the American Clan Donald (the MacDonalds) Society at Red Springs, NC, and it had been a quite dull, totally “dry” venture. So she agreed and in 1956 we began the GMHG, with myself as organizer and president (for the first 7 years) and with our Games (based on the Games I had seen at Braemar, Scotland) .We became a two-day event in 1960. It’s now a four-day event with an estimated 30,000 people and although I , a native Carolinian and UNC Chapel Hill graduate, emigrated to Scotland in 1959, and married a Gaelic actress/singer (Mairi MacLeod) from the Hebrides and decided to stay, I still come over from our home in Edinburgh every year…In fact, i’m just back from Linville four days ago. When I next see Fiona I’ll alert her to your website in case she doesn’t already know it, although I should think that she probably does. There’s a photo of both of us in my 489-page book, a 50-year history of the GMHG, entitled “America’s Braemar: Grandfather Mtn. and the Re-birth of Scottish Identity Across USA”. You may want to check it out for authenticity, for I’m sorry that some of the reminiscences about High Morton, his mother and grandfather and families–essays and lectures promoted by a UNC Library organization– aren’t altogether accurate. If you’re interested, check the website or the e-mail: and part with just $20 for a copy of the GMHG history for a good cause…the scholarship programme at the Highland Games. Leis gach deagh dhurachd, (in my wife’s language)….which means “With every good wish”. Donald MacDonald. 4 Braid Hills Rd, Edinburgh EH10 6EZ, Scotland….

  3. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, Randy! I had no idea of the connection between the Grandfather Games and the Thistle and Shamrock, one of the most popular and longest-running music shows on National Public Radio. I do love the sound of Fiona Ritchie’s voice.

  4. We knew Donald F very well while he was in Edinburgh and spent many happy times with him .Now he’s back in US South Carolina . so we miss him ! A great MacDonald ! Sandra ms MacDonald & Raymond Train

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