Grandfather Mountain: A ScotClans American Adventure…
A few months ago we received an email from Sue McIntosh president of COSCA (the Council of Scottish Clans and Associations) The email contained an invitation to join them over at Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina.
We considered the invitation for about half a second before jumping at the chance; Grandfather Mountain must be top of the ‘bucket list’ for anyone who gets excited by the sound of the pipes and the sight of American Scots doing things in their own unique way. Its been on our list ever since we started this business and we never seemed to find the time, now we really had a great excuse to get over there!
Our presence over at Grandfather Mountain would form three strands; the first two of these would be as part of COSCA’s clan caucus schedule. On the Wednesday before the games we would run a short workshop session on Clans and Social Media, then on the Thursday we would take a turn on the stand during the official clan caucus as part of the social media panel discussion alongside Charles Randolph Bruce of Scotland Rising and Hon Alex Leslie, chief of clan Leslie.
The third strand would see us up on the mountain alongside COSCA at the games itself where they do a fantastic job informing visitors about their clan connections. ScotClans and Tartan Footprint would be there to lend a hand and talk to visitors about what we do over here in Scotland.
If that wasn’t nearly fun enough we would also be travelling with walking encyclopedia and all round good mate Dr Bruce Durie. The man who puts the ‘genial’ in geneology.
So with the children safely packed off to their grannies for the week we set off on our American adventure! Our journey would take us from Edinburgh to Philadelphia and then on to Charlotte in North Carolina where we would pick up our hire car to drive to Linville. The journey wasn’t without its mishaps though when the ponderous process of going through US immigration led to us missing the connecting flight, fortunately the next one was only a few hours later but once in Charlotte the considerable amount of hanging around, tracing bags and sorting out car hire meant we missed the chance to enjoy the North Carolina scenery as we set off in the dark, finally getting to our motel rooms close to midnight.
The next day we were up and about and headed towards Banner Elk. Lees Macrae University is based in this very interesting little town and the campus was thrown open to COSCA to run their two days of events. While Dr Durie ran his workshop on genealogy we quickly brushed up our own presentation. The Wednesday workshop was a great chance to explain some of the facets of social media and how these could be used effectively for clan societies and other Scottish Organisations. The climax of the workshop involved Amanda building a clan website in real time complete with all the social plug ins while the attendees logged in to watch it evolve live on their screens. Some were even able to send us copy for the site allowing us to demonstrate the content management features that could be used to build a clan web presence quickly and effectively.
On the Thursday COSCA’s ‘main event’ the clan caucus was centre stage. The caucus lasts most of the day with contributions from various panel members including COSCA board and invited attendees. There were some fascinating discussions throughout the day including a discussion on heroes and villains, a presentation about the Scots dispora and a report on the future of international clan gatherings.
Our modest contribution was to take part in a panel discussion on Social Media alongside Charles Randolph Bruce, owner of Scotland Rising who do some great retail promotion and Hon Alex Leslie, chief of Clan Leslie. Alex has been part of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs new strategy in getting out in the ‘twittersphere’ and was responsible for launching the Standing Council’s revamped web presence.
Over the course of the 90 minutes or so that we had we were able to cover a fair bit of ground and deal with questions from the attendees. All in all it was quite a satisfying afternoon and great to talk to many of the COSCA members from all over the USA.
That evening as Dr Durie and myself relaxed on an old wooden bench outside our motel room we pondered the flashing electronic sign that was erected beside the reception. “there’s something that’s been bugging me about that sign since we got here” said Bruce, “there’s a spelling mistake, the time is 20 minutes slow and the date is 8 years into the future” After fidgeting for a few minutes he decided to go to confront the owner for an explanation. After ten minutes or so he came back, “My ‘weirdometer’ has officially melted” he confessed as he sat down. Bruce had popped his head into reception and asked politely about the sign, after a long silence the clerk looked up and said in his classic North Carolina drawl “It waaas struck by lightnin”. “I guess someone is going to have to fix it eventually” Bruce offered, “nah cant do that, Dwayne put the sign up”, “Where Dwane? Was he struck by lighting too?” “Nah,,, Dwayne’s in prison” At that point Bruce tactfully decided that asking further questions might not be the best idea and a quiet retreat was called for.
‘North Carolina is growing on me’; I thought
As darkness approached Amanda and I decided to investigate what many have described to us as the most unique feature of Grandfather Mountain Games. In the fading light back on the mountain crowds had gathered, a runner entered the arena carrying a burning torch, a memory of the fiery cross sometimes used to rally the clans in time of war, a torch bearer from each clan was given a light from this flame and one by one they announced their presence at the games, adding their torches to a large display in the central arena. The announcements were made with a great display of showmanship and more than a few slightly put on Scottish accents that had me wondering if maybe ‘clan shrek’ were also ‘here’.
With the ceremony over and everyone stumbling around in the dark to get to their cars we bumped into a great Facebook friend of ours and fellow admin of our Clans and Families group, Heather. I’m not entirely sure how Amanda managed to spot her in the dark but in no time we were whisked off into the woods and to ‘Gordonville’
The woodlands that surround the games play host to a very odd collection of tents, camper vans, trailers and other strange constructions, small communities spring up around the week of the games and the residents are such regulars that they all have their spot and have grown to know their neighbors very well, there is a great atmosphere around the camp fires with singing, dancing and the consumption of no small amount of whisky. We were shown a large stone oven constructed at next-door’s camp where the next day a whole pig was going to be slow roasted. I couldn’t help feeling that these people were here for a lot longer than a week and given half the chance they would live here permanently. If god forbid we found ourselves in the zombie apocalypse Gordonville might be the last stand of civilization!
And so finally the games weekend was upon us. Friday was a rather short day of helping set up the COSCA tent at the games and the Saturday was the busy day when most of the visitors descended (or should that be ‘ascended’) to the mountain. Getting to the mountain is an adventure in itself; park and ride facilities are set up in fields down around Linville and a procession of old school busses driven by some very ‘old school’ bus drivers lurch up the twisting path through the forest, leaving the tarmac road to follow a one way system through a rough forest track that emerges at the games entrance. The organisation is wonderful and you can tell that this is something that over the years has turned into a well-drilled operation.
Our next two days spent at the games were quite wonderful; for most of Saturday we set up camp alongside the lovely COSCA volunteers who spend their time helping people identify their clan connections and pointing the lucky ones in the direction of the appropriate clan tent among the hundreds that surround the games field. It was a joy to watch peoples faces light up when they discovered that they did indeed have a Scottish connection. One particular family sticks in my mind; they had come to me with a name that sounded more Irish than Scots and they were fairly convinced that this was indeed where they had come from, closer investigation though showed a link with the name MacQuarrie and I was able to pull up a map of Scotland on my tablet and show them the tiny island of Ulva off the coast of Mull where the MacQuarrie clan came from. Having travelled extensively in the area I was able to give them a detailed description of the landscape and talk to them about the many features. I have no doubt that those people were looking at flight tickets to Scotland for next year when they got home!
The work that COSCA do over the games weekend (and this is just one of many games they attend) is invaluable to clan societies and they provide an excellent public service. With a little cooperation from this side of the Atlantic and more joint projects there is huge potential to develop a long lasting legacy that will deliver assistance to the clans for years to come. The fact they are embracing social media for example is a sign that they are becoming more modern and streamlined though it has to be performed while still being sensitive to the ‘on the ground’ services they provide.
Sunday was an altogether quieter day on the mountain and COSCA were beginning to wind down their weekend, it was less relaxed for Amanda and I as we took this opportunity to tour round the clan village and speak to the people running them. I think that out of all the experiences of Grandfather Mountain speaking to the clans folk was by far the most enjoyable and rewarding. The warmth of welcome we received at every clan tent was overwhelming, especially when they picked up the Scots accent. Quite honestly we could have spent several days working our way round the clans and still not managed to speak to everyone and by the time we were halfway round people were beginning to pack up and go home. “ah well there’s always next year” we said to ourselves and headed towards the bus.
In what felt like no time at all we were sat at the departure gate at Philadelphia watching the lighting bouncing off the control towers and hoping that ‘Dwayne’ hadn’t been responsible for any of the electrical installations at the terminal. The long reverse trip over the Atlantic awaited.
For the last week it had felt like we had all been herded into a large metal tube and taken to a parallel universe that was a bit like Scotland but somehow magnified several times and distorted in an odd but not at all unpleasant way, it was sometimes comical, sometimes touching but never dull. That same tube would now take us back to our own reality and we were genuinely sad to be leaving.
There’s an image of ‘daft Americans’ coming over to Scotland and buying empty bottles of genuine ‘Scottish air’. We all snigger at the joke and think that it’s a great example of a wily enterprising Scot, however if they in turn could bottle enthusiasm of the sort we witnessed over our few days on the mountain then that’s a product we should be importing by the container load back to Scotland and i’ll take a few cases of that!