As the wife of a clan chief, Fiona Armstrong welcomed the duty of
accompanying her husband to a gathering in Atlanta
Fiona Armstrong is a broadcaster and writer (with ITV Border/Tyne Tees), but in another life she is married to a Scottish clan chief. Being the wife of Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor has opened up a world of tartan and history... Here she reflects on a recent trip to one of the world’s biggest Highland Games – Stone Mountain in Atlanta, Georgia.
I crossed the Atlantic with family warnings about what I should eat and drink: say yes to the TB (a T-bone steak), but avoid the TT (Tennessee tea, a mix of Jack Daniels, lemon and Coke); also, go easy on the seafood. Back in the 1950s my husband’s grandmother, the then Lady MacGregor of MacGregor, had arrived for her first American Highland Games with her husband, the 22nd clan chief. He was fearsome, but she was perhaps more so; a redoubtable woman, she had nursed soldiers at the front in the First World War, and living in the wilds of west Perthshire, was completely undeterred by the bleakest weather, or the drunkest Scotsman. But despite her robust constitution, half an hour before the Game’s opening ceremony, she was completely floored by a dodgy prawn.
At least I had the right outfits. When MacGregor of MacGregor, as honoured Clan Chief, donned the red and black tartan, so would I; ditto with the red and green. Belts, buckles and brooches were packed, as was the ancient sporran found on the field of Culloden. The only thing missing was the family tiara which, over the years, had traditionally travelled with the Chief ’s wife. Because of the nightmare of airline security, it stayed in the bank. My husband’s newly sharpened sgian dhu was also left at home, but we did pack the eagle’s feathers; a clan chief may wear three in his bonnet, while the Queen sports four.
When it comes to Highland Games the Scots can most certainly outdo the Americans in dress and history, but we cannot better them in numbers and enthusiasm. Imagine the scene: tens of thousands of Scottish mad, tartan-clad people converging on a sprawling Deep South park, all in praise of the motherland. They do things big time over there. Their sporrans are hairier and scarier than ours, and though we have peaks to be proud of, we have nothing like the Stone Mountain. It is the largest piece of greywhite granite in the world.
Our senses were immediately assailed by a riot of colour and sound. In the woods were 100 and more clan tents, some manned by Braveheart lookalikes, others by generations of the same family. As well as the usual lineup, there were some interesting additions, including Clan MacMedic. Motto: ‘I fix’.
The stories abounded about other American Games. There was the tale of the clan chief who enjoyed himself so much at the whisky tent that he fell off the stage when he tried to make a speech. Then there was the year the clans refused to march behind the Campbells…
In an adjoining field, while bulky men tossed the caber, graceful girls flirted with sharp swords. At one stage in the main arena we counted 800 pipers and drummers, their wail literally gone with the wind… For those still fighting the Civil War (and there are plenty), this musical army would put the fear of God in the enemy. Clothes were much commented on. My husband was informed that, after Prince Charles, he was the world’s best-dressed Highlander. ‘I just love your stockings. Where can I buy those?’ When he explained that they were 70 years old and had been knitted by his grandmother, it was, ‘Gee, will she knit me a pair as well?’ The adorned bonnet was also noted. ‘God dammit, he’s got chicken feathers in his head’, someone shouted. ‘Chicken feathers? I think he needs to buy a bird book!’ muttered the Chief, his own feathers definitely ruffled.
From the stage the Scottish-born singer Alex Beaton thrilled and reassured, with old favourites like ‘These are my Mountains’ and ‘Flower of Scotland’. But for me, the most memorable part of the Games was The March. This is where the clans line up in alphabetical order, and wait patiently to be called ceremoniously into the parade ground. It is an event that runs with military precision, as families from the Andersons to the Youngs stride purposefully and proudly past the reviewing stand. There must have been seventy or so, young and old, some carrying banners, others armed to the teeth. A lump came to my throat as I realised the effect that this small Scottish nation has had, in rousing such spirit around the world.
There are hundreds of Highland Games that take place all over the world and they are all in honour of Scotland. This one was Stone Mountain’s 36th and when they celebrate 40 years, they may ask all previous honoured chiefs to go back (with wives). To that, I say yes please!
Field Facts Stone Mountain Highland Games October 16 – 18 2009. Atlanta, GA www.smhg.org