LAURINBURG — The tradition and history of the Scotland County Highland Games runs much deeper than it’s nine years lets on.
Scotland County became the home of the Highland Games after the Flora Macdonald Highland Games in Red Springs was discontinued in 2009. The area’s original Scottish festival began as an offshoot of Red Spring’s “Colonial Muster.”
The “Colonial Muster” began in 1974 and ran through 1976 as a way to celebrate the 200th birthday of the United States and featured battle re-enactments to commemorate two Revolutionary War Battles which occurred in close proximity to what is now the town of Red Springs.
So much interest was expressed in the “Colonial Muster” after the 1976 celebration it was decided to continue the event each fall. The name was changed to the Flora Macdonald Highland Games in 1978 honoring the heroine for whom Flora Macdonald College was named.
The Flora Macdonald Highland Games were held on the Donald Humphrey family farm until 1987 when a permanent site was given to Red Springs by the late J.A. (Bus) Singleton, Jr.
In 1995, bad weather forced the festival to be moved from Singleton Meadows to the campus of historic Flora Macdonald College in Red Springs. The games were held on the college’s campus until they were discontinued in 2009.
Bill Caudill, the director of Scottish Heritage at St. Andrews University, saw the potential in moving the games to Laurinburg and jumped at the opportunity.
“The games in Red Springs were a bicentennial celebration that morphed in a highland games event,” said Caudill. “Flora Macdonald was run by one family and they ran out of volunteer help and the community interest dropped. Red Springs didn’t have advantage of hotels and a major highway like we do, so as soon as those letters went out, my phone started ringing.”
The Scotland County Highland Games were originally going to be named the “Scotch Fair Highland Games” paying homage to the annual trade and agricultural fairs that were held in the area back in the 1800s.
“Laurel Hill and Ellerbe had the cattle droving fairs in early May and November back in the 1800s,” said Caudill. “The Laurel Hill Scotch Fair was held on the grounds of the old Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church and it was that minister who led the movement to outlaw the event.”
Scotch Fairs were outlawed by the North Carolina General Assembly in the 1870s because of concerns over gambling and drunken festivities that occurred during the fairs, according to the Encyclopedia of North Carolina.
It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that people began to show a renewed interested in Highland Games, tests of strength and fitness anchored by events like the caber toss and hammer throw.
“Scotch Fairs had an almost 100-year run but towards the end became an event for rough necks and outlaws,” Caudill said. “When we moved the Highland Games to Laurinburg we originally wanted the name to have some historical link, so we suggested ‘Scotch Fair Highland Games’ but the committee later agreed to identify it with the county and location. But that first name at least got people interested in the event.”
To go along with caber tosses, hammer throws and Celtic dancing the ninth annual Scotland County Highland Games will feature 20 pipe bands, 50 Scottish clans and Celtic dancers coming all the way from Ontario, Canada.
“We received a special gift from an art group in Scotland who was looking to promote themselves and donated an extra $10,000 in prize money,” said Caudill. “The top pipe band will receive $6,000 and the top harp player and best male dancer will receive a $1,000 price. The oldest dances were a male exercise to demonstrate athletic skill.”
The Scottish festivities begin on Oct. 6 with a Whisky Tasting and Gathering at the Storytelling Arts Center, 131 S. Main St. at 3 p.m. This is the sixth year for this particular program to honor that hosts Noran Sanford and Alan Livingston have selected favorite drinks from the previous years for attendees to enjoy.
The whisky lineup includes: Glenmorgangie, a 10-year-old highland whisky from northeastern Scotland; a 12-year-old Macallan aged in sherry casks; Kilchoman Machir Bay; Bruichladdish Scottish Barley Classic Laddie and a 15-year-old Johnnie Walker Green Label.
The cost is $40 per person and tickets can be requested by calling Alan Livingston, 910-384-3942. The whisky tasting will also feature a raffle of a 1978 Port Allen — second release. Raffle tickets are $10 each and can be purchased online at www.whisky-raffle.com or at Bob’s Jewel Shop.
History enthusiasts will also want to check out the Scottish Heritage Center on the campus of St. Andrews University on Friday, Oct. 6 that is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. While on campus, visitors can also attend the Sponsors and Clans reception in the Henry Belk Student Center from 6 to 8 p.m.
Caudill estimates around 7,000 people will come out to enjoy the event, that saw much smaller numbers last year because of poor weather.
The Highland Games will officially kick off on the grounds of the John Blue House on Oct. 7. The site provides visitors a chance to immerse themselves into the Scottish-American history of the region. According to Caudill, it’s also a great family event with something for people of all ages to enjoy.
“If you’ve never traveled to Scotland this is the closest you’ll get without buying a plane ticket,” said Caudill. “The Highland Games will allow visitors to be totally immersed in Scottish culture. The John Blue grounds were built and associated with second or third generation Scottish Americans. This region Upper Cape Fear and Pee Dee region was the largest Scottish settlement in the United States. The Council of Scottish Clans will have information to see if you have any Scottish heritage in your family tree. People will just need to bring their family or surname and the council can look up your clan affiliation and your tartan.”
Tickets for the Scotland County Highland Games are $15 for adults and $5 for children ages five to 12 years old. Children under five get in free. There will be a $2 discount for active duty military and their spouses on Oct. 7.
Other discounts are available with advance tickets at www.games-tickets.com.
Amber Hatten can be reached at 910-506-3170.