Day Trips: Grandfather Mountain Highland Games are dressed to kilt

A parade of pipers circles the field at the 2014 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. The Games return for their 60th year through July 12.
A parade of pipers circles the field at the 2014 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. The Games return for their 60th year through July 12. Skip Sickler

The keys to a wildly successful ethnic festival? Make it about a nationality that (1) blended into the American mix early and for keeps, but (2) have traditional and head-scratchingly different cultural ways that make it easy to spot descendants and devotees from at least a block away. Guys wearing kilts and squeezing bagpipes? It works.

While the Braemer Gathering, held in Scotland in September, is often credited as “ground zero” for such events (it dates to the 1830s), the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games – near Linville – is nothing to sneeze at.

North Carolina’s Scottish blowout attracts some 30,000 spectators over its four-day run, which starts Thursday. It is one of the largest such events in North America, drawing people to Grandfather Mountain for a gathering of descendants of Scottish clans, enjoying traditional and updated Gaelic music and witnessing an assortment of “Braveheart”-style athletic competitions a die-hard Celt would appreciate.

Packages for camping on-site for the festival’s duration are long gone. Though the roads to the site – off the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Avery County, south of Blowing Rock – get pretty jammed, day admission is still achievable. Area lodgings are jammed for the 60th annual Highland games, so opt for a day trip: Shuttle buses run from nearby Boone to Grandfather Mountain’s MacRae Meadows, where the games have been staged since 1956.

Things get cooking after the Thursday night torchlight ceremony. On Friday, there are preliminary Gaelic athletic competitions as well as competitions among pipe bands, fiddlers, drummers and harpists. Friday night, the Celtic rock concert features the high-energy band (and GMHG favorite) Seven Nations.

Saturday, the ethnic athletics – tossing a glorified phone end-over-end, throwing a hay bale over a bar, wrestling, throwing boulders and war hammers – are for serious competitors. (Sunday, the sports meets are repeated with amateurs and seniors working up a sweat.) Saturday evening brings Celtic Jam, a concert of Gaelic-tinged rock bands.

Competitions Sunday include those for Scottish fiddling, Highland dance and other tussles – notably the clan vs. clan tug of war. The top event is the magnificent Parade of Tartans, with those in the procession togged in their clan kilts.

Every day, there’s an array of music in the Celtic Grove area. Bring money: Merchants sell everything from kilts to pottery; food vendors will be there, too.

Organizers know “Auld Lang Syne” is a better song than a business model: The event is tweaked yearly. New for 2015 is a Scottish Cultural Village, where experts will demonstrate aspects of traditional culture, including blacksmithing, the sports noted above, bagpiping and more. There will also be whisky and beer tastings, with experts from Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries and Asheville’s Highland Brewing.

Bordsen is the Observer’s travel editor.

Mad for plaid

The schedule for the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, plus other visitor info, is at Hours: 4-10:15 p.m. Thursday; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 7:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $15 Thursday, $20 Friday; $30 Saturday, $15 Sunday. Daily admission for ages 5-12: $5; 4 and younger, free.

Round-trip daytime shuttle to the GMHG is $10 from the parking lot at Caldwell Community College, in Boone. No shuttle for evening concerts.

Getting to the Boone shuttle lot from Charlotte: I-85 South to Gastonia’s Exit 17; U.S. 321 North to Boone. Download map info: