Randy Johnson Books

 

A Ritch Tradition… Highlands Games at Grandfather Mountain

High Country Magazine, July 2007
By Randy Johnson

On April 1st, 1973, with an inch of snow on the cold spring ground, a High Country tradition was born. That was the day Harvey Ritch opened Everything Scottish, Ltd., the import shop in the stone Tolbooth at the then sparsely developed intersection of NC Highway 105 and 184.

Now enjoying a perfect pairing in Linville with the offices of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans, this fixture of the area is much more than a purveyor of kilts and all things Caledonian. And the owner himself is an icon of sorts.

To the hundreds of thousands of visitors who get their first taste of the area and the Highland Games at Everything Scottish, Ritch is the owner of a unique, hit-the-brakes and pull-off the-road importer.

But unknown even to most of us in the High Country, Ritch is nothing less than a major force in the now widespread celebration of Scottish culture in the South—and beyond. Harvey Ritch is the High Country’s Pipe Major—and much more.

He has instructed and inspired more than a generation of bagpipers, and personally founded a few bagpipe bands, one of them, our own Grandfather Mountain Highlanders (co-founded with Agnes MacRae Morton), is among the best in the world in its grade. In addition, several of the better pipers and drummers in the U.S. have come up through the ranks playing with—and learning from—Harvey Ritch. And through years of his support for the region’s fledgling highland games, the number of such events in the South has grown from a few to nearly 40—8 or 9 in North Carolina.

Ritch had a journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and was selling advertising for Modern Bride magazine when he launched his shop in Charlotte in 1971. Six years earlier, he learned to play the pipes, at age 35, from Jack Smith and late pipe major Sandy Jones.

“I don’t know what sparked it,” Ritch says. “I’d seen the movie Gunga Din, and Hollywood had hired the spectacular Cameron Highlanders Pipe Band. I just loved pipe music and wanted to learn.” Ritch carries that book among the wide range of kilts, clothing, clan memorabilia, resource information, and even UK foods found in Everything Scottish.

Ritch got involved with the Charlotte Caledonian Pipe Band—it’s said someone heard he liked bagpipe music and contacted him. He later launched the Charlotte Scottish Pipe Band, that “people still say was the best band to come out of the South,” says Sally Warburton, president and business manager for the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders and the only person, other than Ritch, who’s been active with the band since its founding.

Ritch took off for the mountains in the early 1970s, enticed by an offer from Agnes MacRae Morton and Julian Morton to build a classic Scottish Tolbooth structure for his shop at the Invershiel development, now Tynecastle at the corner of NC 105 and 184.

“I can’t tell you how many thousands of times I had to tell people that building was not, never was, and never will be a church,” Ritch says, still seeming to bristling at the questions that echo in his ears from those days.

Ritch could often be seen wearing a Kilt in the store “until the socks started itching the hell out of my legs,” he says with a laugh.

When Ritch and Agnes MacRae Morton founded the Grandfather Mountain Highlanders in 1974, the Grandfather Highland Games kicked in some initial funding. He tried at first to interest local schools in sponsoring the band, but with more traditional music programs of their own, no one was interested.

The band adopted the MacRae tartan. Thanks to the antiquing expertise of Donna Witt, the now indispensable manager of Everything Scottish, two classic wing chairs were found for the shop. They’re covered in the MacRae tartan cloth and Ritch can often be seen relaxing in one by the shop’s fireplace.

His teaching efforts accelerated with the band’s growing success—it won a Southern Championship in 1975 when the average age of band-members was 16. The band has had more than 200 members over the years.

Ritch has weekly encounters with people who “want to learn to play bagpipes,” says Sally Warburton. “They come into his shop and he could sell hundreds of $800 bagpipes to people who’ll never learn to play—but he doesn’t. He’ll sell them a practice chanter, a tutor book, and after an informal lesson, he’ll try to hook them up with a teacher where they live.”

One walk-in that Ritch didn’t send away with a practice chanter was Gordon Warburton, Sally’s husband (long before the two were married). “I hadn’t played the pipes in years,” says Warburton, a supervising Wildlife Biologist for the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, “so I dropped into Everything Scottish to pick up some reeds. Harvey looked at me and asked, ‘You play the bagpipes?’ I said yes and the next thing he asked was, “Do you want to play in a bagpipe band?’ Didn’t miss a beat.”

That was 1985 and Warburton joined the band and met his future wife, who plays bass drum for the band. Warburton has just ended a ten-year tenure as the Grandfather Mountain Highlander’s Pipe Major. The couple’s 13-year-old son Andrew plays, too.

“It’s no exaggeration to call Harvey the forefather of piping in the South,” Gordon Warburton says. “The bands you see today, and the quality you hear out there, are all branches of a regional tradition that can be traced back to him. In a lot of ways, he’s the roots of that tree. His contribution is irreplaceable. People go into his shop and may not realize that he largely invented the current scene.”

“You also can’t overemphasize Harvey’s influence as a youth teacher,” Warburton continues. “He has a real talent for working with kids. Granted Harvey can be a buzz saw at times—but if you get used to that—you make a great piper. And he’s helped start a variety of young ‘feeder bands’ that bring kids in. A lot of what he does happens behind the scenes.”

The Highlanders themselves have just spawned a Grade V band but can boast a significant, longtime lineup of topnotch pipers. Their names and contributions would take another article, but among would be Bert Mitchell, Donald Kelemen, and Scott McLeod, the Highlanders pipe major from 1994-96 and now considered the number one professional piper in the nation.

John Shell makes that list. He came to Harvey from a previous teacher, joined the Highlanders at age 12 in 1977 and stayed until 1994. Over the years, Shell won first place “Champion of Champions” finishes in both Grade I and II from the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association.

Now a junior high school science teacher at Cloudland High School in Roan Mountain, Shell lives in Elizabethton, teaches pipes and plays frequently at private gigs. “I never dreamed playing the pipes would be something I’d do every day,” he says. “But that’s the norm. Harvey’s pipers never seem to leave piping if they’ve been in the band.”

“Harvey has the drive and determination to create an excellent piper,” Shell says. “He was always good about referring people to other teachers and classes, as well as the North American Academy of Piping and Drumming in Valle Crucis.” That program, founded in 1971, celebrates its 37th anniversary this year.

Shell credits Ritch’s approach to teaching for part of his success. “My playing started out with a lot of humbling experiences and failures in competition,” he says, “but learning from Harvey could be humbling too. He’d tell you exactly where you were going wrong. As disagreeable as that could occasionally be, he had the goal of developing great piping, in individuals and the entire South—and I’d say he reached it.”

Sally Warburton seconds that gruffer side of Ritch’s personality. “He can be a curmudgeon, and a bit grumpy. He’s just a character—a real piece of work! But he’s the most generous, kind person I’ve ever met.”

Part of that generosity is a philanthropic side of Ritch, whose continuous financial and moral support, even scholarship money for formal training programs, has benefited his students, many pipe bands, and fledgling highland games as well.

At 37, just the longevity of Everything Scottish is an achievement. “Drive 105,” says Sally Warburton, “and notice how many businesses have come and gone in that period of time. It’s amazing with such a niche business.”

Staying on 105 hasn’t been easy. Ritch was considering moving the shop off of that main thoroughfare, but he asked Hugh Morton what he thought. “Hugh said ‘Don’t get off 105,’ so I didn’t,” Ritch says.

After three relocations from his first shop—he’s been at two locations in Foscoe—Everything Scottish now calls Linville home. But that hasn’t been easy either. Hurricanes Frances and Ivan in 2004 so completely flooded his shop that it had to be demolished and burned, leaving the shop in a trailer-type structure. Only last summer did Everything Scottish move into its new building in Linville below the offices of the Grandfather Games.

Unless he’s traveling to one of the region’s many highland games, where he sets up a tent to show his wares ten or eleven times a year, you’ll see him in his shop (ditch Witt).

Believe it or not, Ritch had never been to Scotland till the year 2000, and he’s returned every year but one ever since. “That’s pretty amazing—but people he’s trained have been taking the music back to Scotland,” Gordon Warburton says.

At this point in his career, Ritch revels in his love of the mountains. “I treasure the weather,” he says—and the people—“the natives especially. They’re honest, sincere people, and that’s refreshing. Up here the Buchanans pronounce their name “buck cannon,’ like they do in Scotland.”

He loves the High Country, but laments that “it’s being overdeveloped.”

Ritch eats out often and is an inveterate and informal reviewer of the High Country’s restaurants. If the rule is—“one satisfied or dissatisfied customer will tell ten others”—the rule with Mr. Ritch easily morphs to a hundred or more. He’s got a “bully pulpit” of endless tourist questions and he answers with the blunt frankness that characterizes the man.

He could often be seen at the snack bar at the Grandfather Nature Museum having lunch with the mountain’s late owner Hugh Morton. He sorely misses the quaint Swiss specialty restaurant in Banner Elk called Heidi’s, but lavishes praise on the Thursday night seafood buffet at Linville’s Eseeola Lodge and Louisiana Purchase in Banner Elk. He loves many others too, mostly modest eateries, such as Henry’s in Linville and Christa’s in Pineola—the latter a “‘honey, darlin’ kind of place,” he says.

With that said, why wouldn’t Ritch be a man remembered by many, especially his students, for the memorable meals shared after piping successes on the road.

Gordon Warburton says, “ Harvey’s philosophy is ‘the pipe band that dines together, stays together.’ We’d celebrate our victories with a meal, and going to dinner with Harvey always made it special. You hear all the tales, sense the history of the organization.”

That kind of camaraderie in Scottish culture, the fellowship around the table, with toasts to music and success at playing it with excellence, is in microcosm what Ritch’s efforts have given to thousands in the South.

Whether recommending a hometown highland games to a visitor, or a far-way pipe instructor to a potential student, Ritch has ushered countless people, and our entire region, to a greater awareness and appreciation of what in fact is part of the cultural heritage of the High Country.

As a local denizen for decades, I’m accustomed to hearing more than my share of moving bagpipe tunes in the oddest places. One summer, a few years ago after the Grandfather Games, I was at a friend’s house at Grandfather Lake in Linville and was lucky to see John Shell step up to a rocky wall by the lake, pipes in hand. As Shell’s resonant melody echoed across the lake and up toward the sunlit peaks of Grandfather Mountain, I couldn’t help but think of Harvey Ritch.

I raised a Scottish ale to the High Country’s pipe major. He’s inspired much of the music that echoes all around us.

 

Randy Johnson once helped Harvey Ritch move his Everything Scottish shop to a new location. He’s still sore, but keeps hiking, to write books such as his new 2nd edition of Hiking North Carolina.

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