The Highland Games of Scotland County, held on the grounds of the John Blue Home and Historical Complex in Laurinburg, celebrate the rich Scottish heritage of the Upper Cape Fear and Pee Dee regions of the Carolinas. Even though events extend over three days, the primary day is Saturday (the second day), when the field opens to the general public at 8 a.m. The opening ceremonies feature pipe bands and a parade of tartans. The morning activities typically include Scottish athletic events, sheep dog demonstrations, piping and drumming competitions, and other entertainment. In the afternoon, more music and athletic competitions are held, including children games. The games continue a tradition of Scottish games in the area (that began in 1976 with the Flora MacDonald Highland Games, which had been held annually in nearby Red Springs but were discontinued in 2007).
The athletic events seem particularly archaic when compared to today’s popular sports, such as football that emphasizes throw, punt, and run skills or basketball with a focus on dribble, pass, and shoot proficiency. However, the Scottish contests demonstrate skills needed in arduous conditions for taming both native and foreign lands. For example, one event – turning of the caber – involves throwing a caber (a tree that can range from 17 to 21 feet and weigh up to 160 pounds) so that it turns end over end with the large end striking the ground before the small end follows through and then strikes the ground. The champion wins by landing a caber in a perfect 12 o’clock position (on an imaginary clock). In contrast, competitors in other events are judged by the height or distance that they can throw a cumbersome object. The highest toss wins for these two events:
- Sheaf toss. A sheaf (bundle of twine wrapped in a burlap bag), which weighs up to 16 pounds, is tossed with a pitchfork over a horizontal bar.
- Weight over bar. Using only one hand, competitors toss a weight (up to 56 pounds) with an attached handle over a horizontal bar.
- Open stone. A stone weighing up to 22 pounds for men (12 pounds for women) is thrown (or “put”) from the shoulder with only one hand.
- Heavy weight toss. A competitor throws an implement weighing up to 56 pounds with one hand.
- Light weight toss. Similar to the heavy weight toss, this event also uses an implement but a lighter one (28 pounds for men and 14 pounds for women).
- Scottish hammer throw. A hammer (with a shaft of 50 inches or less), weighing up to 22 pounds, is thrown over the shoulders using both hands.
Music seems to be playing continually during the Highland Games of Scotland County. Although a central entertainment stage has continual performances and demonstrations of music and dance, the main music attraction is the piping and drumming competitions. Because the sweet and melodious tunes of the bagpipe have been heard in the Carolinas since the 1730s when the first Highland Scots arrived in the region, the music competition for pipes and drums bands is intense.
The music competition honors the Argyll Colony that arrived in 1739 in the Upper Cape Fear region and was the first group of a large emigration of Highland Scots that continued for about 100 years. As they arrived, music was an indispensable component of social life and prominent in several historical settings. For example, pipers during the American Revolutionary War were known for creating a ruse to confuse Patriot forces as to the location of Loyalist forces. Because suspicions arose about the “alien British” community in the region during the War of 1812 and they were pressured to assimilate into American ways, piping became less prominent.
As a result, piping was replaced by fiddling in providing music for dance, even though the local conservative Presbyterian clergy typically viewed music and dance as irreconcilable with spiritual life. Recovering slowly from this decline, pipe bands began to appear in the Carolinas by the mid-20th century. An early example is the Blue Ribbon Caledonian Pipe Band, established around 1947 in the N.C. Triad area, that played for the inauguration of Governor Scott in 1947. A few years later in 1955, The Citadel in Charleston began a pipe band that is still part of the cadet music program.
However, even with these early encouraging examples, piping and pipe bands were not part of this region of traditional Highland settlements until recently. Typical competitors at the Highland Games include the oldest continually organized pipe band in North Carolina. Wearing the Carolina tartan (the state tartan of North Carolina), the band, organized in 1968 by graduate students, is from N.C. State University. Formed in 1991 (earlier than most other bands) is the pipe band from St. Andrews Presbyterian College, which regularly competes throughout the U.S. South. Other bands in the Carolinas, formed mostly after the mid-1990s, from Raleigh, Columbia, Huntersville, and Jamestown also vie for music awards.
Food is another way to connect culturally to previous generations. During the Highland Games, many Scottish foods are available. For example, Scottish meat pies, sausage rolls, haggis puffs, and Forfar bridies (a meat pastry) made by Cameron’s of Kearny from Sumter, SC, were tempting. Drinks included Irn-Bru (a popular Scottish carbonated beverage) and ginger beer. (The meat pie was an excellent mid-afternoon snack.)
Scott’s Keltic Kitchen & Bakery of Murrells Inlet, SC, delighted spectators with Scottish desserts. I was particularly impressed with the clootie dumpling with devon custard that I had never tasted before. The bakery was also offering scones with strawberries and cream (very popular) as well as sticky toffee pudding, cream meringue, and chocolate bread pudding (with chocolate sauce).
Family Bonds and Other Heritage Connections
Although the food selections are popular, the vendors detain the attendees only briefly from the main gathering area of the clans. The primary game field is encircled by more than 40 clan tents where families, societies, and other groups mix and mingle. On display are histories, migration patterns, insignia, and tartans (the symbol of the family association or home district). Each clan, a gathering of families for economic and political protection as well as social support (who are not necessarily related by blood), in Scotland had its own tartan.
Several vendors from throughout the Carolinas set up tents for the Highland Games to display and sell Scottish merchandise – metalworks, fine arts, clothing and fabrics, utensils, and souvenirs. The booths were quite popular and attracted serious as well as casual shoppers.
Although some competitors and vendors seem to request divine intervention throughout the weekend, the primary religious event occurs on Sunday morning when worshipers at the nearby Old Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church (founded in 1797 by Highlanders) conduct a “kirkin’ of the tartans” service. According to Scottish legend, the ceremony can be traced to the Parliamentary Act of 1846 in England. The act banned the kilt, plaid, or other tartan garment to destroy Highland clan identity. In defiance of the British Crown, the Scots ignored the ban when they went to church and carried remnants of their tartans in their pockets, and the minister added a blessing into the service for the clans represented by the tartans. The first kirkin’ was held in Washington, D.C, in 1947 by the Saint Andrew’s Society (whose members are all Scottish descendents). A growing number of Presbyterian churches in the Southeast celebrate this service annually to recognize the transfer of faith to America by clans whose families arrived almost 300 years ago.
The Highland Games of Scotland County are an excellent way to learn more about the cultural history of the American South and traditions of previous generations. The skill contests — athletic as well as music — celebrate a heritage shared by many families. Because many Southerners live near venues that host Highland games (such as Grandfather Mountain, NC; Stone Mountain Park, GA, The Plains, VA; Tallahassee, FL; Greenville, SC; Maryville, TN; and San Antonio, TX), these games will continue to increase in popularity. Attend one soon and observe the past in the present.