When representatives of Clan MacDuff stood before the Scottish Parliament in 1384 to be recognized by legislation as the first official clan, they undoubtedly couldn’t conceive of the idea that 635 years later, one of their ancestors would still be honoring their traditions.
By day, Bill Kilgore is an equipment replacement specialist for Russell and Abbott, the Maryville-based heating and cooling company. In his spare time, however, he’s a proud descendant of those noble Scotsmen and serves as president of the Smoky Mountain Scottish Festival and Games, which returns to the Maryville College campus May 18 and 19.
The Kilgores served as a sept of Clan MacDuff — a branch of the family tree, so to speak, that answered the call in times of distress and war.
His own father, back in the 1980s, researched the Kilgore lineage all the way back to the 1300s, Kilgore told The Daily Times this week, and that sense of tribal pride that comes from possession of such knowledge is one of the attractions of the festival every year.
“Six generations back, my sixth great-grandfather was the first Kilgore to come to the United States with his four brothers, and all of us Kilgores are related,” he said. “He was wounded at the Battle of King’s Mountain in the Revolutionary War, and thanks to my dad, I’ve got quite a bit of knowledge about the Kilgores. It’s been really neat to learn about that, and to follow where my ancestors have come from.
“At the Games, there will be a guy who does this. Anybody who walks up and says, ‘Hey, my name is so-and-so,’ he has software programs to access family histories, and he’ll tell you where you’re from and what your family has done.”
And while not every visitor to Maryville College will have as keen an interest in genealogy, many of them do. Last year, attendance at the event topped 9,000, and Kilgore, who was elected as president of the board of directors last July, expects that number to surpass 10,000 this year. That’s roughly 4,000 more than the number of visitors who came in 2011, when the festival first moved to Blount County from Gatlinburg.
Previously, the event was known as the Gatlinburg Scottish Festival and Games and was held each year at Mills Park. When organizers 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.
The long-term goal is to rival the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina, the Stone Mountain Highland Games in Georgia and the Greenville Scottish Games in South Carolina in terms of attendance and popularity. That first year, attendance at Maryville College doubled, but in 2014, organizers felt the name put too much of an emphasis on the athletic competitions and not the inclusion of everything else.
“It’s fun to stop by and watch things like the caber toss, but there are so many things to do besides that,” said Elaine Martin, whose family band, the Celtic Martins, will perform on the music stage. “There’s sheep herding and fantastic Irish and Scottish food; there’s a little bit of everything. You can spend all day, and you won’t run out of things to see and do and music to listen to and dancers to watch.”
In 2014, the Smoky Mountain Highland Games was rebranded as the Smoky Mountain Scottish Festival and Games, and in the years since, organizers have made a hard push to tie the event into the Scots-Irish roots of many East Tennesseans. One of the biggest draws to the event, as Kilgore pointed out, is genealogy: Attendees can visit the booths operated by the various attending clans and search for their surname, or their mother’s maiden name, in a book of names that fall under the banner of that particular clan.
“I think a lot of people come because they’re interested, and you’ll hear a lot of them say things like, ‘My grandparents said they came from Scotland,’ or, ‘My mom and dad told me we had Scots-Irish blood in us,’” Kilgore said. “That makes them want to go check it out and see what that’s all about, but they find that even if you’re not Scottish, you can have a really good time at the festival.”
The allure of claiming Scottish ancestry, especially in East Tennessee, is indicative of the admiration Americans have for their Scottish kin, and many of those Old World qualities were called upon to survive in the often unforgiving terrain of the Appalachians during the nation’s infancy. 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, made for ideal settlers in East Tennessee.
That hearty spirit is celebrated at the games, which it is as much a display of brute strength and brawny displays of physical prowess as it is the accompanying musical entertainment. The various athletic events hearken back to the days most people associate with the film “Braveheart,” when Scottish clan life centered around the village, agriculture was a way of life and war was an ever-present possibility. From the tossing of sheaves with a pitchfork to the heaving of a 56-pound stone hammer to the flipping of a 150-pound caber — essentially the size of a telephone pole — Highland Games athletes are every bit as competitive and fit as their professional counterparts.
And there are plenty of other events for the whole family: Children can compete in their own lighthearted series of athletic challenges, with beanbags in place of 20-pound sheaves and fence posts in place of cabers. Adults can sample Scotch whiskey and other beverages. The entire family can take in the sheepdog demonstrations, tour the vendors of various weapons and clothing and dine on traditional Scottish dishes such as haggis. Pipes and drums will ring out across the intramural fields at Maryville College, Celtic rock will stir the dust beneath the entertainment tent, gentle ballads and warrior anthems will serenade those who attend Saturday night’s “Ceilidh Under the Stars.”
“We’ve got a couple of bigger bands, like Highland Reign and Albannach, but we’ve also got the biggest number of pipe and drum bands that we’ve ever had this year — 14 of them,” Kilgore said. “A few of them are juvenile bands, so we’re extremely excited about having kids come who have gotten involved in piping and drumming. That’s something they don’t teach in middle school. They’ve picked this up on their own, and it’s really neat to see young people who attend say, ‘Hey, there are other kids doing this, too.’ That’s one of the biggest things for us this year.”
While attendance at the event has grown steadily over the years, there are still many Blount County residents who are unaware of its existence. It’s puzzling, given the coverage by local media and the advertising blitz (“I don’t know what you do that you don’t see that!” Kilgore said), but nevertheless:
“I meet someone every day who’s never heard of the festival, and I’m always astonished, because it’s huge,” he said. “Even when I wasn’t involved, I knew about it.”
In some ways, out-of-town visitors are more aware of the festival than local residents. Already, the “Highland Half Marathon” and “Scot Trot 5K” have gotten registrants from seven different states, Kilgore said, and the clans and vendors who will set up tents will be traveling from across the Eastern Seaboard.
Given that visitors will stay in regional hotels and likely pump money into the local economy, the festival is a financial boon for Blount County as well, he added.
“When you think about ‘heads in beds,’ and how everybody from out of town will probably eat a couple of meals, at least, in our local restaurants, then the economic impact is huge,” he said.
And it’s all done on the backs of 250 volunteers — or less, he added. While the hope is to slowly grow the festival even bigger, there’s always a concern about it outgrowing its location, or outpacing the number of volunteers who can help pull it off.
But in the end, that’s a good problem to have, he acknowledged.
“The question is always how we can make it grow at a peaceful pace that’s controlled,” he said.
“The bigger it is, the more people we can get to share our experiences with. Because for everyone, talking to people from different parts of the country is neat, especially when we all have that common interest in all things Scottish.”