When Donald MacDonald returns each year to the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain, he’s truly in his element. The gathering clans celebrate their Scottish heritage with song, dance, games and stories.
This year’s 56th annual event began Thursday and continues through Sunday in MacRae Meadows. It’s a good time, and MacDonald is all about that. He loves to tell stories, to laugh, to talk about Scottish ancestry, to get up and do a quick song-and-dance number, maybe have a drink. And the festivities roll.
But MacDonald sees the Highland Games from a perspective like no one else’s, because he is one of the event’s founders.
The Games were started in 1956 by MacDonald and Agnes MacRae Morton Sr., wife of Julian Morton Sr. The Mortons were longtime owners of Grandfather Mountain and developed it into the attraction — and the protected biosphere — that it is now.
MacDonald had been looking into creating a gathering in the Laurinburg, N.C., area where he lived, but the summer heat, and the fact that many festival attendees would be clad in wool, made him look for cooler climes.
Agnes Morton, meanwhile, was interested in creating a gathering on Grandfather for her extended MacRae family. MacDonald, recently returned from Scotland where he’d attended the fabulous Braemar Gathering, saw the opportunity to combine their visions — to put on a gathering on Grandfather that was open to all Scottish clans, including Scotch-Irish.
“I said, ‘Let’s honor all clans,’ and I showed her my program from Braemar,” he said. “And I’d attended a singing they held on Grandfather in MacRae Meadows, and it looked so similar to Braemar that you almost can’t tell the difference.”
It proved a successful formula. Throughout the Southeast, and particularly in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, people of Scottish and Irish ancestry abounded. About 1,000 people showed up for the first Highland Games and Gathering of the Scottish Clans, a one-day affair.
MacDonald was thrilled. He was a newspaperman at the time and helped organize and promote the games. But before long he married a Scottish woman and moved to Scotland, where he still lives in Edinburgh — although his wife, Marietta MacLeod MacDonald, has passed away.
The Games continued, though, to the point where they now draw an estimated 45,000 people over four days. MacDonald returns every year to spend the long weekend on Grandfather, and each year he is honored for his efforts in founding the games.
“It is so marvelous,” he said. “I have so much fun. I’m really proud of it. And Mrs. Morton carried it on and did so much work with it, promoting it.
“It’s gotten so big I can’t believe it! And it’s so well-known over there in Scotland it’s phenomenal.
MacDonald’s colorful career includes work as an award-winning journalist as well as doing public relations, writing for advertising, teaching journalism and serving in the U.S. Navy. He also teaches Gaelic, the native Scottish language, and has always been a talented singer, songwriter and musician.
In 2007 he published a comprehensive book, “America’s Braemar: Grandfather Mountain And The Re-birth of Scottish Identity Across U.S.A.” The cover is graced by a photo of MacDonald as a young man, posing with Agnes MacRae Morton.
These days MacDonald will laugh as he admits that “I’m a fake!” — that despite living in Scotland for more than 50 years and having Scottish ancestry, he’s really not Scottish, having been born a low country South Carolinian.
He is a natural and tireless storyteller who also seems to love listening and learning when others tell stories. MacDonald’s recollections can lead in many directions as he makes connections and draws from his vast experiences, and his charm and energy keep listeners entertained.
There is no shortage of behind-the-scenes stories — such as the time MacDonald accidentally mooned Gov. Luther Hodges and his wife while dancing in his kilt, or the time he dyed his hair red so certain people wouldn’t recognize him, or the time the Highland Games dance competition needed another participant in order to stick to the rules of having more competitors than prizes in each category.
“I think there were three young girls and three prizes, and the rules said we needed at least four people competing. So I jumped in!” he said with a laugh. “And of course they all beat me.”