Let the Games begin: Highlanders descend on Maryville for weekend’s Scottish extravaganza
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
As the sun set behind the buildings of downtown Maryville on the north side of Broadway Avenue, a lone bagpipe began the first mournful notes of “Amazing Grace.”
The crowd hushed as one — bikers wearing the cuts of their clubs, law enforcement officers, downtown business owners, Maryville city officials. After the first refrain, the assembled cadre of the Knoxville Pipes and Drums, all dressed in matching Scottish attire, joined in, and the sound of that revered song carried on the evening breeze throughout the city center.
It wasn’t the first bagpipe to be played at this weekend’s Smoky Mountain Highland Games, nor will it be the last. But it set the stage for a cultural bridge between the old and the new, from the highlands of Northern Scotland to the foothills of the Appalachians. It was, in a sense, the perfect kick-off to the inaugural event that moved from Gatlinburg last year to the Maryville College campus this weekend.
“We’re very pleased with the turnout this evening,” said Shaun O’Malley, executive director of the Maryville Downtown Association, which sponsored Friday night’s pre-Games parade by Knoxville Pipes and Drums and post-parade performance by Celtic rock band Mother Grove. “One of the big things we wanted to do was show that the downtown can start doing things like this to bring people here and spice the area up. More activities means more people, which means more businesses, which means we renovate more buildings.
“We’re really excited that the Highland Games are here, and we’re going to continue to work with them. We’re already talking about having a kickoff concert next year at the (Theatre in the Park) amphitheater down below the courthouse.”
As Mother Grove prepared to take the stage before the crowd assembled in the Founder’s Lot where the Maryville Farmer’s Market is set up every Saturday, O’Malley’s day was drawing to a close. He’ll be in attendance at the games this weekend over on the Maryville College campus, where Friday afternoon vendors and organizers were just getting started.
Cliff Fitzsimmons, president of the games, patrolled the festival grounds in a golf cart, taking care of last-minute media broadcasts and overseeing the last few vendor load-ins. So far, he said, set-up had been smooth.
“We’ve had no problems, and we’ve had cooperation from the college for everything we need,” he said. “It’s gone smoother than expected for a new venue. I think we’re going to have a real smooth flow.”
Already, he added, the soccer fields at the college, which will serve as festival grounds for this year’s games, have proven to be more accommodating than Mills Park in Gatlinburg, where the event was known as the Gatlinburg Scottish Festival and Games.
“We have over twice the space, and we don’t have the drainage problem we had there,” he said. “It’s rained this morning, but the field is dry.”
Such conditions are certainly more desirable for vendors who dabble in moisture-sensitive wares like steel. At the Scottish Armoury, father-and-son team Dick and Greg Lucas from Central Arkansas set up displays of various blades of all shapes and sizes, from “battle ready” spring steel swords to show pieces modeled after weapons in such films as “Braveheart” and “Highlander” to “sgian dubh” knives, small blades that Scotsmen fit into their hose.
“No Scotsman ever goes anywhere unless he’s armed,” said Dick Lucas, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Marines. “Just like there are people who can’t own enough guns, there are those who can’t own enough swords. I guarantee, everybody who comes through that gate will come here. Everybody, because everybody likes swords. All ages, races, sexes — if they can walk, they like swords.”
These aren’t toys. Smaller blades start at $50 or more, while some of the larger two-handed swords like Mel Gibson’s William Wallace character used to lop off heads in “Braveheart” go for six or seven times that amount. Many are for display as conversation pieces, but all have an edge, some sharper than others.
“We don’t sell to anyone under 18, unless they have a parent with them,” Dick Lucas said. “Another thing we ask is that people don’t pick one up without asking. And do not, under any circumstances, swing them. Basically, you don’t need to own a sword if you don’t know how to handle one around people.”
No less risky, perhaps, is the Scottish cuisine that will be for sale at the games this weekend. Alex Robb came to the United States from Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1963, settling in Waynesboro, N.C., where he and his wife own St. Andrew’s Square, one of the event’s food vendors. Scottish eggs, meat pies and haggis — it’s all for sale when the “open” sign goes up, and even the latter dish is a big hit.
“We can’t make enough of it,” he said.
The biggest challenge for Robb is trying to get work done. His authentic Scottish accent is so charming to American ears that patrons often don’t want to stop a conversation.
“People say, ‘Keep talking! Don’t go away!,’ but I’ve got work to do,” he said with a chuckle.
As do so many others. With two full days on tap, the athletes, assembled clans, vendors and visitors will find plenty to occupy their time and their hunger for a culture that’s both exotic and so very closely related to home. In fact, Robb said he often marvels at the similarities between the Appalachians and his native country, especially when he gets off of the main roads and travels back into the mountainous countryside.
“When we take a detour, I’ll be driving through certain areas and passing by all of these places and think, ‘Boy, I could be back home,’” he said.