CALLING ALL CLANS: The Smoky Mountain Highland Games offers something for everyone, regardless of heritage
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
For those unsure about whether to attend this weekend’s Smoky Mountain Highland Games on the Maryville College campus, Games President Cliff Fitzsimmons has a message: Please do. Your family is waiting on you to find them.
Because really, that’s what the games are all about — a gathering of family members of various Scottish clans who come together to compete on the athletic field and celebrate their combined heritage with music, food, dance and more. It’s open for all to attend, and those who do show up might just find a place for themselves under the banner of one of those clans.
“When you go to a clan tent, they’ll have a list of all the names under that clan,” Fitzsimmons told The Daily Times this week. “When people come to the games and walk up to the clan tent and say, ‘I’m looking for my clan,’ there’s a book you can look in. All of the clans have it. It might be your mother’s name that gives you your clan ties — with my ties, I could have joined Clan Campbell, Clan Armstrong, even Clan Buchanan.
“Because of my mother, I chose Clan Graham. But I think the people in each clan feel the same way I do. I’ve made friends all over that feel like family. I can call up people all over the country in Clan Graham, and it’s like talking to a relative.”
This weekend marks the inaugural Smoky Mountain Highland Games, which prior to this year was held every spring at Mills Park in Gatlinburg and was known as the Gatlinburg Scottish Festival and Games. When organizers of the nonprofit event began looking for an alternative location because of traffic congestion and growing competition from other events and tourist attractions in Sevier County, Maryville College officials stepped in and made the board an offer.
The deal was signed, and the festival was renamed the Smoky Mountain Highland Games at Maryville College. Given the college’s ties to Scotland, from the institution’s mascots to a number of revered traditions, it made for a natural partnership. Last spring, the games drew roughly 3,000 people to Gatlinburg; officials hope this first year in a new location will be similarly successful, and in years to come, the college, Maryville city officials and board members would like to see the games rival three of the region’s largest — the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina, Stone Mountain Highland Games in Georgia and Greenville Scottish Games in South Carolina.
The appeal of the event lies in both its exotic nature and its familiarity — it’s a celebration of a foreign culture but not one so far removed from that found in East Tennessee. Which is only natural, according to Scottish musician and historian Colin Grant-Adams, who will present a program at 11 a.m. Thursday (May 19) at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend designed to highlight the similarities between Scotland and the East Tennessee region.
“I’ll be talking and singing about the songs of Scotland and some of the battles that took place that led to some of the people being ousted from Scotland,” Grant-Adams told The Daily Times. “Some went to Nova Scotia — known as New Scotland — and then started coming down through the coastlines. I’ll be talking about how the Scots came here and about the games — how they’ll see the clanspeople in a little village to themselves and how they can go around, ask about their names and see if there’s any connection with their heritage.”
Many participants in the games discover their relationship to a particular clan quite by accident. Fitzsimmons attended his first Scottish games in 1996 in Savannah, Ga., when his mother — who had been active in Clan Graham for several years — invited him and his children to attend with her. Back home in East Tennessee, he discovered the Gatlinburg games and attended one weekend, where he got involved in Clan Graham and became an active member.
“The first thing that captured me was the family spirit of the clans,” he said. “You made friends the minute you walked in and said, ‘I’m a Graham.’ That got me started; then because I’m a football fan, I saw these great big guys out there doing this stuff and thought, ‘Hey, that’s pretty neat.’”
Therein lies the fascination on the part of Americans with Scottish culture — rough-and-tumble mountain people from the highlands of the British Isles, many of whom labored under oppressive kings for centuries while scraping a living out of the land. Films like “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy” capture some of that mystique, and the allure of the Scottish “warrior-poet,” as William Wallace is described in “Braveheart,” brings many newcomers to the games every year, Grant-Adams said.
“It’s kind of a fascinating history, especially in regards to the Appalachian Mountains, which are very steeped in Scottish and Irish and Celtic traditions,” he said. “The Scots who came here were very rugged people, and when you see movies like ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Rob Roy,’ you see that they had to be to survive the way they did.”
That hallmark of Scottish culture (and popular culture) — brute strength and brawny displays of physical prowess — hearken back to the savagery of the battle scenes in those films. And while bloodshed won’t be on tap this weekend, there will be some impressive feats, whether you belong to a clan or not. Throwing 56-pound weights for height, slinging a ball on a chain for distance and the caber toss — all are spectacles that shouldn’t be missed, Fitzsimmons said.
“The caber toss is basically throwing a telephone pole — one man who has to squat down and pick up this object that weighs 240 to 275 pounds, balance it on his shoulder, run forward and throw that thing to make it flip,” he said.
Which makes it inadvisable to make fun of such men for wearing kilts, which will be plentiful this weekend. As will another aspect of Scottish culture that stirs even the hardest of hearts, Fitzsimmons added.
“I think the next thing that captures you is the sound of the bagpipes,” he said. “They tend to send chills up people’s spines. I think that’s the one thing that attracts people, whether they’re Scottish or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching TV or a parade, when you hear those pipes, you’re suddenly paying attention.”
But there’s more — highland dance competitions, music performances, authentic Scottish food for sale, sheepdog demonstrations ... it all takes place Saturday and Sunday, with a number of activities taking place around the games — such as Friday’s downtown Maryville parade and free performance by participating Celtic rock band Mother Grove — designed to welcome the event to Blount County and set the stage for its future success.
Which means that those who show up and discover their ancestral ties to Scotland can return in future years and feel right at home in their proverbial backyard.
“When they find out they qualify to belong to one of the clans, their first reaction is, ‘I really am a Scot? I thought I was Irish!’” Fitzsimmons said. “That’s what they always say. And then they start asking questions like, ‘Does our clan own any castles?’ What they should know if they’re thinking about going is that there’s probably a whole family they didn’t even know about out there looking for them.”
But even if they don’t find a clan to whom they belong, Grant-Adams pointed out, going to the Highland Games is a little bit like St. Patrick’s Day — everyone there is Scottish for a day.
“You don’t have to have a Scottish heritage to enjoy it,” he said. “There are lots of interesting things to see, and a lot of interesting things for the children. It’s a good weekend out with all kinds of things for all walks of life.”