By day, the Honorable Alexander Banner Lyerly serves as the Chief District Judge for the 24th Judicial District in North Carolina.
But every July since 1956, Lyerly has traded his robe for a kilt.
The 50th Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, an annual celebration of all things Scottish, happens July 7-10 in Linville, N.C. At 5,964 feet, the hosting peak reigns supreme in the Blue Ridge chain. And while there are hundreds of Scottish games held every year in North America, the four-day fete near Boone is considered the genre’s crown jewel.
“We really are the premier Games in the U.S.,” says Lyerly. Back when it started, he reminds us, the Grandfather Mountain event was just a one-day affair — but its longevity and success is no surprise: North Carolina has one of the highest percentage of Scots-Americans in the country, according to statistics furnished by the Governor’s office. Grandfather Mountain has become a pilgrimage of sorts for those seeking a stronger connection to their Celtic roots, especially extended families, or clans. To Judge Lyerly, the Games represent ” … an opportunity for your children to appreciate their heritage.”
And a deep heritage it is. The amiably named Donald McDonald, cofounder of the Grandfather Mountain Games, used Scotland’s 900-year-old Royal Braemar Games as a blueprint. Founded by King Malcolm III, this ancient competition determined the fastest and strongest in a search for royal messengers.
Victors in the modern Games aren’t rewarded with royal employment, but the level of competition remains fierce. “I love the athletic competition … people competing at whatever level they are at and enjoying it … it is almost too much to take it all in,” notes the judge.
Beyond signature events like the caber (telephone pole) toss, Grandfather Mountain boasts both a world-famous marathon and The Bear, a five-mile road race climbing 1,568 feet to the summit. But athletic events are offered for every age and skill level, so even the inexperienced or out-of-practice can take a shot at a medal. While the experts are herding sheep (and geese … yes, geese) with their highly trained border collies, somewhere rowdy kids are engaged in so-called “Highland wrestling.”
Artistically speaking, the remarkable variety of family tartans alone makes the Games worth watching. (Plaid-clad volunteers will gladly help attendees find even the remotest drop of Scotch blood running in their veins.) For many, though, the prime allure is music. Juried contests in bagpiping, drumming, Highland dance, Scots fiddling and harp aside, it’s Celtic rock that rules these days. Returning this year is Clann an Drumma (Children of the Drum), a group whose bumpersticker-worthy motto is: “Keep it Tribal.” Based in Glasgow, the five-piece percussion band (plus a sole piper) swiftly became a hit at the Grandfather Games and other events worldwide. With their surreal combination of medieval dress and huge sound, they represent a newer trend for the Games.
“A few years ago, we started getting bands that played more modern music,” explains Judge Lyerly. “Some people wondered if this fit in … but this is a whole new world, and we have to come along with it. The Games have grown, and not just in numbers.”
And how do the Scots feel about a bunch of Americans who’ve got Braveheart-borrowed dialogue too ready to spout?
“They love the enthusiasm of the Americans,” says Donovan Murray, entertainment coordinator for the Games. Indeed, the folks in Clann an Drumma must like something here — they’re paying their own way over for their only stateside appearance this summer.
Murray goes on to reveal an interesting irony: “Americans take liberties with the clothing and such — but their participation is much greater than [at gaming events] over in Scotland.”
[Xpress staffer James Fisher, of the McKillops (a sept of the Donald clan), has been attending the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games since 1996.]
The 50th Grandfather Mountain Highland Games will be held Thursday, July 7 through Sunday, July 10, at Grandfather Mountain in Linville, N.C. Tickets for kids (5-12) are $5 all four days; tickets for adults are $10/Thursday night, $15/Friday, $25/Saturday, and $15/Sunday. Some evening concerts are separately ticketed. For more information, call (828) 733-1333 or visit www.gmhg.org.