By David Coulson. July 17, 2018, GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN, NC — Bagpipers Kirk McLeod and Jon Pilatzke had just finished their final encore with Seven Nations on the late Sunday afternoon when they beckoned the concert crowd to follow them out of the music grove towards the athletic field at MacRae Meadows. As the 63rd annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games was drawing to an end, the throng of celebrants wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but they followed the lead of these two, modern-day pied pipers.
COVER IMAGE: Ye ole ancient hammer throw, in kilts. All photographic images by Nina Corbitt for Blowing Rock News, except where noted.
Meeting the pair at the top of the trail was another piper, EJ Jones of the band Piper Jones, followed by several other musicians who had entertained the large crowds throughout the four-day weekend. Dancing their way behind this musical procession, more and more people began to join the impromptu parade until it reached the official viewing stand.
From there, McLeod, Pilatzke, and Jones led the group through the stands, across the track and onto the field, inviting more guests to come along. It was a closing ceremony unlike any other at the venerable Grandfather games, but it symbolized the breath of fresh air that blew across MacRae Meadows throughout the weekend.
As the afternoon wound down, there was more playing, more singing and an outpouring of sheer joy between all involved. After a stirring rendition by those on the field and many in the crowd of Auld Lang Syne, these most remarkable games were officially closed.
But it was difficult for those on the field to say goodbye. Jones, the musical director for the games, started another procession, using his pipes to lead the group on the field out of the stadium just past the front gate and another half-hour, or so, of music commenced.
“I wanted to give the closing ceremonies the feel of a renaissance fair,” Jones said.
For those who have experienced one of the world’s most famous Highland games and for others participating for the first time, it was indeed as if this event had somehow found its rebirth.
From the stunning musical performances of the Scottish and Celtic artists to the high-spirited athletic competitions, the traditional dancing, and the food, there was a little of something for everyone at this Grandfather gathering.
Several years back, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games were starting to show their age. You could sense it in the waning enthusiasm, the dwindling ticket sales, patron sponsorships and a general malaise.
One of those stepping into the brink was Jones, who became the music director five years ago. After observing some additional decline in his first couple of years onboard, Jones convinced others among the foundation board to tackle the problems head-on.
They found ways to pay the artists for the first time, rebuilding some scorched bridges and mending some hurt and neglected feelings. Those efforts were in full flower this weekend and the crowd couldn’t help but notice the difference.
From the whisky-tasting, to the Bear five-kilometer run to the top of Grandfather Mountain and the touching torch-lighting ceremony on Thursday, through the Celtic rock concert on Friday, the Grandfather Mountain Marathon and Celtic Jam on Saturday, through four days of splendid athletic competitions and every other event these games will be remembered fondly by most involved.
For the third year in a row, Seven Nations was back where it belonged as the center of attention. For those of us who have watched the development of this band since their inception nearly a quarter of a century ago as Clan Na Gael, there is nothing closer to a games’ house band.
And those roots run deep.
McLeod, the group leader moved from England to the U.S. at the age of 12 and was soon taking piping lessons at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. He said on Sunday that his first year there he took notice of the beauty of some Scottish dancers, among the other stunning sights.
“I had my first kiss at 13 right behind those rocks,” McLeod remembered, pointing to the ancient outcropping behind the stage where he had performed on Sunday afternoon.
McLeod won the first John McFadden Award as the most promising piper that first year. He also said that he was inspired by the musicians he saw performing traditional Scottish tunes on the various stages.
“I knew I wanted to do that,” McLeod explained.
There have been a few lineup changes over the years, but with McLeod on guitar, vocals and bagpipes and another founding member, Jim “Strubby” Struble on bass, the band stayed true to its traditions.
McLeod said that Seven Nations’ ability to respect the roots of that Scottish heritage allowed him and the band to thrive.
They also are still tons of fun to watch on stage. McLeod, bagpiper Brad Green and fiddler/piper Pilatzke frequently venture off the stage and into the audience to inspire their crowds. And a mother and daughter pair of Scottish dancers added to the flavor this weekend, while others — young and old alike — danced at the side of the stage.
During their final performance on Sunday, several members of the band engaged in a marshmallow fight with some fans in the audience, adding still another flavor to the proceedings.
Another Scottish-tinged rock group to make its mark during the weekend also has its roots in the old Clan Na Gael days. Rathkeltair is led by vocalist and drummer Nick Anderson, who was another founding member of what eventually became Seven Nations.
Rathkeltair was at its best during its inspired instrumental sections and turned in a particularly stellar performance during Friday evening’s Celtic rock concert.
A newcomer to the world of bagpipes and guitars is Scottish Octopus and this band showed some promise as they married Celtic sounds with rock ‘n roll.
On the more traditional side of things, legendary fiddler Alasdair White — one of the members of the highly influential Battlefield band from Scotland — played with stunning elegance throughout the weekend and was the highlight of Saturday’s Celtic Jam.
Another delightful fiddler was Marybeth McQueen, whose father Gregory McQueen played with Jones in one of Grandfather Mountain’s favorite bands of the past, Clandestine. This red-locked, freckled-faced enchantress tantalized the crowd with her alluring, delicate violin-playing.
The Piper Jones Band was a pleasant discovery for those who attended the MerleFest this spring in Wilkesboro and they continued to win fans last weekend. Jones was doing his best Sam Bush imitation during these proceedings, running from stage to stage to sit in with various artists when his own band wasn’t performing.
Francis Cunningham of Piper Jones won the hearts of many as she was busy throughout MacRae Meadows as well on the unique-sounding bouzouki.
Atlantic North met as faculty and students at nearby East Tennessee State University and showed plenty of promise during a busy weekend of performance. Helena Hunt’s soft, charming vocals were memorable.
The success of the musical program this year was due in a large part to the tireless work of Jones, who has earned a deep appreciation from his fellow musicians.
Jones said that finding the right acts to perform at the festival is a constant chore that is still being tweaked even a few days before the games begin. It is also a balancing act that entails booking artists that will not only appeal to the diverse tastes of the audience but also give the proper respect to Scottish musical traditions.
Jones said that understanding that dynamic is the key to selecting performers.
“I want to bring in musicians that not only play music that is rooted in Scottish tradition, but also will inspire the next generation to want to pick up instruments, form bands and come back and play here someday.”
TRADITIONAL SCOTTISH ATHLETICS
For Amanda Ford, competing in the unique slate of events that make up the Scottish athletic games isn’t a stressful endeavor. After serving two tours of duty in the U.S. Marines as a helicopter machine gunner, tossing around the clachneart, the 28-pound weight, the 14-pound hammer, and the caber are more of a fun challenge.
Ford, a 35-year-old who lives in Wilmington and has been competing in Scottish heavy athletics for four years, went into the final event of the six-event format (the 28-pound weight toss for height) with a chance to win the overall competition. She set a stadium record with a throw of 98-feet, 5.5-inches to win the 14-pound hammer event and won the caber toss with a perfect 12 o’clock throw (getting the caber to turn completely over).
Ford finished second behind friend and competitor Aslynn Halvorson of Anderson, S.C. in four other events. Halvorson won the final event with a 14-foot-high weight throw to beat Ford by one foot and win the competition for the second straight year.
“It was pretty amazing because I love the hammer,” Ford said. “But this year was really tough. I knew Aslynn was going to come with a big game, and she sure did. We were tied all the way up to that last event. She killed it, like always. It was good.”
Halvorson has gravitated to Scottish heavy athletics after competing at the University of Tennessee as a college track and field performer.
“This was my second win and my second time coming here,” Halvorson said. “I’m still very new to this, but I’ve had some awesome people around me who have really helped me grow very quickly, and there’s just some God-given talent. Part of it is that, and then just people willing to help me out.”
In the men’s events, Braidy Miller of Lebanon, Tennessee won three events to repeat as champion, edging out his brother Brent Miller of Gordonsville, Tennessee again. Wes Kiser of Gibsonville tied Brent Miller for second.
TRACK AND FIELD
For the second year in a row and the fourth time in five years, Caleb Masland of Boone dominated the field to win another Grandfather Mountain Marathon Saturday. The 51-year-old event is one of the premier events of the Highland Games and is considered the toughest in North America as it climbs from Appalachian State’s Kidd Brewer Stadium to MacRae Meadows.
The 37-year-old Masland won with a time of 2:43.12. Tanner Cook of Johnson City was second at 2:59.19 to edge out Atlanta’s William Harden (3:00.22).
After finishing second in her first attempt at the Grandfather Marathon, 34-year-old Mary Michaels of Moody, Alabama said she learned the lesson of patience from a year ago to help her win the women’s event in her second try.
Michaels was 11th overall and finished with a mark of 3:15.39 to beat Melissa Bell by nine minutes.
Versatile Ryan Hastings of Raleigh was literally the run-away winner in the track and field competition with wins in the 100, 220 and 440-yard dashes, as well as the 880 and the mile runs. Hastings edged out Aaron Hale by a total of five seconds in the 440, the 880 and the mile to earn athlete of the meet honors.
Christian Carswell of Morganton won the long jump, triple jump, and high jump, but placed only second in the 100 and 220 to finish behind Hastings overall.
Carissa Chambers from Johnson City, Tennessee won a pair of events, the long jump, and the triple jump to highlight the women’s track and field events.
Track events began on Thursday evening with the 24th annual Bear five-kilometer run from Linville, N.C., through MacRae Meadows and finishing on the top of Grandfather Mountain. And it was a night to remember for Watauga County athletes.
Michael Holland, a Beech Mountain native, a Watauga High graduate and a current Clemson student, won the men’s race for the second time with a mark of 33:13.1, beating a throng of 930 runners to the mountaintop after a 1,800-foot climb. Holland edged Matthew Bourneman of Madison, Wisconsin by less than four seconds.
Amanda LoPiccolo of Boone repeated as the winner of the women’s Bear. The 35-year-old stormed to a time of 38:34.7 to edge out 16-year-old Watauga High sophomore Sophia Ritter, who finished at 38:33.1.
Ritter, who has only been running competitively for two years, was third last year and shaved over three minutes off her time from 2017.
Cool, foggy weather made for great running conditions for both the Bear and the marathon this year. The eery haze was enough to make all of those with Scottish roots feel like they were back in the Highlands.
Photographer Nina Corbitt lives in Banner Elk and has owned and operated Buckhead Banner Elk Studios for the past five years, specializing in portrait photography. She is also nationally known for her work as an equestrian photographer.
Writer David Coulson is a free-lance journalist from Boone, who has covered events in the High Country for over 25 years. He has worked as a writer, editor and nationally-syndicated columnist for over 40 years for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, the Charlotte Observer, The Sports Network and CBS College Sports. He also taught journalism for four years at Appalachian State University and is the managing editor of College Sports Journal.