On the second weekend of July, 30,000 people descend upon the small town of Linville for the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. This tradition dates back to 1956, when Agnes Morton and Donald MacDonald organized the first event.
Today, the event formed by Morton and MacDonald are some of the biggest, most authentic Highland Games found outside of Scotland.
That should come as no surprise.
North Carolina has a rich Scottish heritage. Until the 19th century, we were home to the largest settlement of Highland Scots outside of Scotland. The descendants of those settlers show up in full force and full Scottish dress for the Highland Games.
After my first trip to the games, I understand why everyone shows up and shows out. As soon as you arrive, the sound of bagpipes fills the air. Sheep and herding dogs frolic across the field. The smell of full Scottish breakfasts lures you in. The Highland Games are more than an event – they’re an experience.
I’m so glad I attended this year – and I encourage all of y’all to go next year. If you’ve never been before, don’t worry! I’ve got you covered.
Since it was my first trip, I noted some of my mistakes and successes. I thought it might help y’all out if you’ve never been either. Below you’ll find 13 tips for attending the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. Enjoy!
13 Tips for Attending the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
Research The Area
I wish I had known more about the area before we scheduled our trip. I have deep roots in Haywood County, so my idea of a trip to the mountains probably isn’t the same as someone with no ties to Western North Carolina. I was looking for solitude, small towns, and tons of hillbilly culture where we stayed in Boone.
Boone is not the place for that. Neither is Blowing Rock. Lesson learned.
Do some research before you book your stay. If you want restaurants, nightlife, and shopping nearby, stay in Boone or Blowing Rock. They’re beautiful towns that can cater to your desires.
If you want a more authentic experience, find a campground or Airbnb in one of the smaller communities around Linville.
Since I attended as a guest of Clan Cochrane, I was hand-fed tips before we scheduled our trip. I knew in January that I needed to purchase tickets online as soon as they were available and book our lodging as early as possible.
Why? People from all over the country (and some from other countries) attend the Highland Games. Everyone is trying to lodge as close as they can to Grandfather Mountain. Places run out of vacancies months in advance.
Do yourself a favor and book early.
Be Prepared For Traffic On Steep & Winding Roads
On the way to our Airbnb, the smell of burnt brakes was overwhelming. We saw multiple near-hits and one nasty accident in the two days we were up.
Driving in the mountains is not the same as cruising on flat land, y’all. If you’ve never driven down steep inclines, check out a few YouTube videos on how to drive safely in the mountains. Better safe than sorry!
The general public cannot park on-site for the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. Instead, they must park in designated areas and catch one of the shuttles. Shuttles begin running at 7 am. You’ll want to arrive early; otherwise, you could face long wait times.
Pack a Hiking Bag
On our first day at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, we suffered a series of misfortunes: blisters, migraines, and sunburns. The next day, we were smart and packed a hiking bag.
Pack anything you think you might need. We brought ibuprofen, bandaids, sunscreen, and bug spray. Next time I’ll make sure to bring ponchos too.
Show Off Your Tartan
There’s going to be a lot of people dressed in tartan. Don’t be left out. Find your tartan ahead of time and wear it to represent your clan.
Dress in Layers
The weather of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is fickle. Even in July, the mornings can be chilly, and the afternoons sweltering. Plus, this part of the mountain range is a temperate rainforest. At any moment, a rain shower can pop up. Luckily, I was well aware of this before my trip.
Since we were inside one of the tents, I didn’t bring ponchos. We did layer every day, though. We might have got a little wet, but we didn’t freeze or sweat to death.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
On my first day at the Highland Games, I wore a pair of canvas Vans. HUGE mistake! By the end of the day, I was limping in pain from blisters on both heels.
I showed up the next day in Rainbows. A pair of plushy sneakers would’ve been better. But we live, and we learn.
Bring Camping Chairs
Tons of people bring blankets to sit on, but folding camping chairs are a much better idea. I felt terrible for everyone who had to spread their blankets out on the wet ground after the rain on Day 2.
Bonus points if your chair has built-in cupholders! We used ours a lot over the course of two days.
Pack A Cooler
You are allowed to bring coolers to the event, and you should. The food vendors are crazy expensive. Save yourself some money by bringing your own drinks and snacks.
Make Sure You Have Plenty of Spending Cash
The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games features dozens of incredible vendors. We saw everything from sheep skins to tartans to handcrafted jewelry while we explored. I wasn’t prepared for it. Next time, I’m bringing home a carload of Scottish goods!
Buy A Program
After running around the games blind for two days straight, I discovered event programs for sale at the entrance. The programs include a map laying out where the vendors and restrooms are located. Save yourself some time and trouble by investing in a program.
Find Your Clan
One of the biggest reasons to visit the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is to connect with your roots! If you attend the games, find your clan.
Clan tents offer clan history, genealogy, tartan information, and if you’re lucky, storytelling sessions. 😉
I had a great time at the Highland Games this year! Not only was it a lot of fun, but I learned so much about my family.
I’ve been invited to attend the upcoming Scotland County Highland Games and to return to Grandfather Mountain next year. Even if that wasn’t the case, I’d highly recommend everyone make at least one trip to your local games. It’s worth it!