Bears and Bairds
Paul finds himself at the American Highland games, surrounded by Bairds, bears and rattlesnakes.
The following recounts a trip across 'the pond’ in the mid-nineties to the American Highland Games.
“Let me get this straight”, I said.” When you said we were going to a Highland Games, I assumed you meant going to Braemar across the border. You’re talking about AMERICA?!”
I had left Border television in the nineties to set up my own company. At the same time, my dear friend Fiona Armstrong and I had set up a company to make videos about the Scottish clans to sell to the Americas. Ever since Mel Gibson had cried freedom in the film Braveheart American interest in their Scottish heritage had boomed.
As we were based in the English and Scottish borders, we were in a perfect location to make programmes based on local clans. Fiona herself was the chairman of the Armstrong clan (as it didn’t have its own clan chief) and she was the driving force behind the whole endeavour. I provided the pictures and was the director.
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The first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, had once visited the area to trace his roots, so we could even boast that the Armstrong clan had gone where no man had gone before.
Fiona was not joking about America though. The biggest Highland games outside Scotland was held in North Carolina at Grandfather Mountain, and she had managed to get an invitation for us to attend with our crew.
So off we set, me Fiona and our crew of three, for the deep south of America. Nothing could prepared us for what we found. The country was vast. We landed at Raleigh Durham airport and picked up our hire cars. We’d selected Raleigh Durham because on a map it didn’t look too far, how wrong we were.
The old timer handing out the rental keys said to me in a deep southern accent “where are you going, son?” Banner Elk, I replied. “Should’ve gone to Charlston, son, Banner Elks a mite far from here (as he chuckled). Yes, we’d picked an airport 200 miles from the games, the crew were seriously unimpressed.
The journey was long, but for us, the sight of thick forest mile after mile was incredible. We arrived in Banner Elk as darkness fell. Although our accommodation was organised, it took some time to find our contact, who proceeded to lead us deep into the forest.
I had assumed that we would all be in a motel, not so. As we pulled up to a lonely cabin, I could feel the crew’s unease click up a notch. As we approached the front door large gouges could be seen scored across the surface. “What are these “said the cameraman, “bars” said our guide, puzzled I said “you mean made by steel bars?” “Nope black bars, best keep your door closed” he said with a grin. I had, in fact, misunderstood his accent, and found out that “bars” was actually “bears” and North Carolina was home to the largest on the planet! Only the promise of setting up a large well-equipped whiskey bar inside the cabin placated the crew. So, there we were, Fiona, me, a cameraman, an electrician and sound recordist all locked in a cabin in the back woods of North Carolina. Sounds like the set up to a bad joke…
We needn’t have worried however about our welcome. The organisers were amazing and we could not believe how many people from Scotland settled in this area. I met more Baird’s in Banner Elk than my whole time at home.
As I was born in Scotland, and my middle name was McDonald, I had three kilts of my own and had taken the decision to wear them from the minute I stepped off the plane in Raleigh Durham. (For those not sure as to what a kilt is, it’s a form of Scottish dress where large amounts of material are gathered together to form a skirt worn with a bag at the front called a sporran.) Fiona and the crew were dubious about how it would go down (to be honest, I wasn’t too sure either) but this was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was a star! Everywhere I went people knew my name. Have you heard, they said, “of the crazy film guy in a kilt?”. Every morning I went to the games everyone had to show a pass except me. “Good morning Mr Baird, how do we find you today, sir? delivered in a great southern accent “Mighty fine” I would say “thank you for asking, sir” I think I thought I was in a movie.
The programme we made was everything we wished for and time after time we were surprised how welcoming everyone was. The only slight problem was the day Scottie, our cameraman, said to me he wanted to climb higher above the games arena to get a big wide shot. I persuaded one of the gatekeepers to show us a path.
The three of us started climbing through the woods when Scottie grabbed my arm and said “What’s that noise, it sounds like a babies rattle?” Asking our guide, yet again with that understated drawl we were now used to, “Oh that’s a “rattler”, (rattlesnake). “Now, you don’t need to worry boys, he has that noise to warn you when he’s annoyed, now the Cottonmouth, he’s really dangerous snake cause you never hear him till it’s too late.” Scottie, to his credit, insisted on going to the top to get the shot but we certainly looked where we were going!
The photograph at the top is me with Scottie and Alan both good friends and great crew. And the tee shirt I’m wearing (and still have)? It was given to me by a native American Sioux Indian in full ceremonial dress who proudly told me his name was Scott and his ancestors came from the Scottish Borders. I loved my job!
Hopeful Traveller is a weekly newsletter and archive of stories about broadcasting in the 1970s and 80s. It is written by former-newsreader and programme maker Paul Baird. For new stories each week, subscribe.