The Celtic passion still Burns

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008

Juneau residents get their chance to indulge in this delicacy (and whiskey, if need be) during Robbie Burns Night at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, at Centennial Hall. The celebration traditionally takes place Jan. 25, the birthday of the 18th century man known as the Immortal Bard of Scotland, honoring the hundreds of often blunt and humorous verses and songs that made him the country's best-known poet.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

The local tribute, hosted by the Stroller White Pipes and Drums band, does things a little different than many, emphasizing merriment over literacy. Scheduled performances in addition to Stroller White include the Celtic folk band A Blessing In Disguise, the Celtic rock band Fire On McGinnis, bagpiper Bruce McQueen of Wrangell, traditional Scottish Highland dancers and a group folk dance.

"The idea in some Robbie Burns nights is to really dwell on the bard and semi-educate people and listen to a lot of poetry," said Rai Behnert, a bagpiper and president of Stroller White. "That's for the real dyed-in-the-wool. We try to make this more of an entertainment thing, so there's a little bit of everything."

Burns (1759-1796) grew up in poverty as a farm laborer, with a girl who assisted in the harvest inspiring him to write his first poem at age 15. His struggles with farming and relationships continued much of his life, the latter inspiring more poetry and tarnishing his reputation in the community. But he gained literary acclaim throughout Scotland after publishing a volume of his works in 1786, leading to what many consider some of his best writings about Scottish culture and politics during the decade before he died of a rheumatic heart condition.

While Burns was initially an inspiration for liberalism and socialism in his country, conservatives also came to hail him because of his strong ties to a national identity. His works heavily influenced subsequent Scottish literature and his birthday is something of a second "national day" that is more widely celebrated than the official St. Andrews Day.

For Juneau residents not familiar with Burns' history, the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" during his birthday celebration is a reminder of his influence, said David Sheakley, a member of both Stroller White and Fire On McGinnis. He said the rock band's guitarist, Mike Burns, also turns Burns' writings into something to which younger people can relate.

"He is a real huge Robbie Burns fanatic," Sheakley said. "He takes an old Robbie Burns poem, and then puts it to music. Not only that, he puts it to kind of a rocky sound to ramp it up a bit."

Of course, the night wouldn't be complete without dining on haggis. The traditional recipe is sheep "pluck" (heart, liver and lungs), onion, oatmeal, suet and spices in a sausage-like casing. Sheakley said what's served at the Juneau celebration is somewhat different, but still a "hand-me-down" recipe with secrets the cooks guard closely, even from him.

"It sounds pretty horrendous," he said. "It's a word that doesn't sound too pretty. I've got to tell you, the haggis they put together, it blew me out of the water. It really was something."

Behnert, one of the cooks, said they'll do a ceremonial haggis that's traditional in appearance and a pan haggis with the same ingredients for the remaining guests. The cooks were initially planning to make a vegetarian haggis as well, but Behnert said they "thought better of it in the end." Instead the cooks will add green beans to the traditional Scottish meal to give vegetarians a little more to eat.

The feast will be accompanied by the Burns poem "Ode Tae a Haggis." Other events during the evening include a whiskey tasting, which Behnert said was popular when it was tried for the first time a year ago, and a silent auction that will include some Scottish items.

The local celebration alternates between a large and small event annually, with this year being a large gathering. Seating is limited to 350. And, while Sheakley said many people make preparations well ahead of time to show up in kilts and other full-dress garb, tickets will be available at the door.

"It's kind of a neat way to get in and learn a different culture," he said. "I myself don't have a Scottish background. And it just goes to show that you don't have to have a Scottish background to get in there and learn about Robbie Burns, and have a good time."

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