It's more than just a game to him

It's been 60 years since Ross Morrison Jr. first launched his fervent Scottish doings, but at this year's Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, he accepted a special award for the games at MacRae Meadows.

Morrison received a coat of arms issued by the Scottish Lord Lyons, a court that approves then designs and issues the prestigious awards.

"It's a distinct honor," said Morrison, 79, a native of Cabarrus County, who is in his 14th year as president of the games. Over the years, the vibrant, colorful competitions near Linville have grown from the 1956 picnic-basket Sundays to today's weeklong event that attract more than 30,000 Scots-minded visitors every July.

"The (British Broadcasting Corp.) covered our games this year," said Morrison. "I think it was the first time."

Personable and outspoken, Morrison lives on many acres in Cabarrus, where his family has lived since the mid-1700s. He graduated from Harrisburg High School and served on a Navy submarine during the Korean War. After his discharge from the Navy, he attended the University of Hartford - "majoring in history, of course," he said. He also studied at a heavy-equipment company school "up north."

"Even as a child I loved history," he said. "I grew up on National Geographic and encyclopedias."

Morrison's grandfather, E.A. Morrison, ignited his love of history, especially local history and his near obsession with anything Scottish, he said.

The tradition came from earlier Morrisons, "dating back to when Cabarrus was a part of Anson County," he said. His Highland Games career, colorful and demanding, began in 1959. He was hooked. He quickly teamed up with Donald MacDonald, a reporter for the old Charlotte News and another Scots aficionado. They worked together to promote the games.

"We did a lot of ad-libbing those early years," Morrison recalled. "We were a loose organization."

He pointed out the late Agnes McRae Morton; her father, Hugh MacRae, bought Grandfather Mountain in 1885. She helped keep the games afloat and growing, Morrison said.

A major boost came when the games began to push the clans.

"Most people are interested in their family history," he said. "People need to know where their roots are, where they came from."

Early on, Morrison's bad back kept him from competing, but he became known for his eye as a judge, particularly in the heavy events, like the caber toss, the hammer throw and the sheaf toss. Word spread of his work, and he now is judge at least 16 highland games, some as far away as California.

Morrison was elected president of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in 1997 and says he has no plans to retire.

"I told them, when you get tired of me, you can sell me. I have a heck of a good staff."

With his wife, Ruthie, who died seven years ago, Morrison has three children: Ross III, Johnna Ritchie and Krista Eason - all of whom still work with him at the games.

Between games, Morrison had his own big-machinery repair business and flew airplanes. He also holds a real estate license.

"I kept going 'til my knees gave out on me," he said with a grin. He retired from this work in 2002.

Visitors in his home are awed by his collection of Scottish items - large and small, old and older, all authentic. They overflow the house.

He was in Scotland once, in the Cowal region, representing the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

Over the past 60 years, Morrison has seen the games soar to greater heights. Classes have been added to the week's activities - lessons in Gaelic, dancing, Highland and Irish jigs and English hornpipe. Organizers have welcomed visits from the powerful Scottish Duke of Argyle, who declared the Grandfather Games the best in the world, "bar none," and the Duke of Hamilton.

Morrison has received several awards, including the N.C. Long Leaf Pine, "the highest award the state gives," he said, and the Agnes McRae Morton award, for his work with the games.

Morrison attributes much of the success of the games to the South's traditional Celtic heritage, which is highly family-oriented, as opposed to the more Anglo-Saxon heritage of the North.

"The way these two groups think is vastly different," he said.