Celebrating the Spirit of Scotland

Burns Night has become an evening to revel in things Scottish -- from music and dancing to poetry and the traditional dish of haggis

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

Robbie Burns, poet and songwriter, champion of the working man, Scotland's Shakespeare and a lover of women and whisky, was born 243 years ago this month. Juneau celebrates his life Saturday night at Centennial Hall with music, food, dancing, poetry and performance.

Burns has become a kind of patron saint of Scotland, and Burns Night is a celebration of Burns, Scotland and all things Scottish. On Burns night Saturday, kilts will be worn, bagpipes will be played and haggis will be tasted.

"It's definitely a family event," said Romer Derr, who will serve as master of ceremonies for Burns Night. The Stroller White Pipes and Drums group sponsors the event and will perform in full regalia throughout the evening.

"There's quite a contingent of young dancers as part of the band and they also will be performing," Derr said. "Laurie Whistler teaches highland dancing and we have some quality dancers."

Highland dancers won't be the only ones kicking up their heels. Dance caller Tom Paul will lead a dance, with Lis Saya's group Blessing in Disguise providing live music.

"The dances are called out and demonstrated, so people get the chance to learn the dances," Derr said. "Once you've watched the demonstration and walked through it, it's pretty easy."


The work of Robbie Burns (1759 to 1796)

"Auld Lang Syne," 1788.

"To a Mouse," written in 1785 after his plow turned up a mouse's nest.

"The Jolly Beggars" in standard English, considered one of his masterpieces.

"Scots, Wha Hae," 1793, now a national song of Scotland.

"Tam O'Shanter," his famous ghost story poem.

"My Heart is in the Highlands." Although Burns was from the lowlands in the south of Scotland, he traveled throughout the country.

"Green Grow the Rushes."

"My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose."

"Coming Through the Rye."

"A Man's a Man."

Robbie Burns the writer

A bit of Scotland and Robbie Burns touches America every New Year's Eve at midnight when celebrants raise their voices to sing the chorus of "Auld Lang Syne."

Juneau writer Dave Hunsaker said Auld Lang Syne translates as "old long since" meaning for old time's sake.

"It's a wonderful custom that it is sung," Hunsaker said. "If you look at the verses it's so beautiful. It's a great song about friendship and a really sad song."

Burns is referred to as one of the greatest English writers, and Hunsaker said many consider him to be in the same league as Shakespeare. He said that Burns wrote in Scottish English, which takes a bit of deciphering. Some today perceive Burns as difficult to access, which is unfortunate, Hunsaker said.

"When you get into it, you understand that he was a man of amazing ideas and amazing words," he said.

Performers also will highlight Burns songs and poems.

Burns wrote more than 400 poems and songs during his short life. He grew up in the late 1700s in the Scottish lowlands, the son of a poor farmer who appreciated literacy. Young Burns was encouraged to study and write, and by his mid-20s his writing brought him fame. Scotland's upper crust invited "The Ploughman Poet" to Edinburgh parties.

But Burns despised the bourgeois and the pretensions of the wealthy. He attended the parties to meet women and enjoy expensive liquor but he was not a success at hobnobbing. He supported proletariat causes such as the French Revolution and was vocal in his disdain for the upper class. Wealthy patrons found him disrespectful and ungrateful. He worked a menial government job to support himself and his family, and he died poor in 1796 at the age of 37. He was still famous, however, and more than 10,000 people attended his funeral.

Stroller White has sponsored the event for two decades, in recent years celebrating Burns night biennially.

"In past years we've always served a full meal," said Mike Barnhill, one of the organizers of the event. "This year we're going heavier on the entertainment. We're not serving a full dinner this year, but there will be some haggis."

Haggis is the quintessential traditional Scottish dish, made with boiled and minced sheep kidneys, heart, lungs and tripe, then mixed with roasted oats and sewn into a sheep stomach and baked.

There will also be short bread and athollbrose - a traditional Scottish drink made from the milk of oats, sweetened with honey and sometimes spiked with whisky.

Barnhill said he's looking forward to seeing the Burns night guests, the Midnight Sun Pipe Band from Whitehorse. It's been eight years since the funloving pipe and drum band from the Yukon participated in Juneau's Burns night.


"The last time they came was 1994 and we had a great time," Barnhill said. "After we shut down Centennial Hall at midnight, we formed a parade out in the middle of Egan Drive and marched down the street to the Red Dog, where the party continued."

Singer Joyce Parry Moore also will perform. David Hunsaker and Andy Ferguson of Juneau will play cittern and fiddle, and Hunsaker will sing some of Burns' ballads. Hunsaker said the cittern is a 10-string traditional Celtic instrument, sort of a cross between a guitar and a mandolin.

Burns' Night starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Hall and festivities will run until about midnight. Anyone with a kilt is encouraged to wear it. Ticket prices vary; see the events calendar.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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