Nearly 100 born Scots, Scottish descendants, and honorary Scots turned out for the Martha’s Vineyard Scottish Society’s Annual Burns Supper Nicht at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, the 28th consecutive such event. It is always held on the Saturday night closest to the Jan. 25 birthday of poet Robert Burns, who was born 256 years ago.
There are Burns suppers and celebrations around the world, which all supposedly stem from the handful of friends who gathered, perhaps rife with drink, at his birthplace in Alloway, upon his death at age 47 in 1796.
As with the around-the-world fetes, our fare was traditional Caledonian, as the Romans called it, including an Island-made haggis, a curious dish of sheep parts akin to what sausage is to pork products. The phrase “acquired taste” keeps cropping up.
This year the haggis was presented in a dish with a serve-yourself method as opposed to individual servings served up on past nichts.
There were toasts, plenty of them, dauntless but discreet and clever, by master of ceremonies Christopher Scott. He welcomed the assembled, introduced the Procession of the Haggis, where the dish is paraded throughout the room, followed by men attending in their kilts — a form of dress perhaps traced back to China and derived from the Norse kjalta.
And each marcher was emblazoned with his family tartan or plaid, originally a regional identity, depending on the ancient wool and varieties of natural dyes available in different regions, but by the 1800s, designated to particular families or clans.
Even Harbor View Chef Daniel Kenney wore a kilt. He was celebrated for baking the dish, led by piper James Joyce of Edgartown.
The offering, which can resemble a darkly roasted, limbless chicken, was next sanctified by the “Ode Tae a Haggis,” warmly recited by Alan Reekie of West Tisbury, but originally from Glasgow. He met his wife Anne when both were objecting to a seal hunt in the Orkneys, she as a protester and he as a Sea Shepherd.
We are a scrappy bunch. Some studies indicate that Glasgow has more violent incidents per capita than Rio de Janeiro or New York City. Also, proportionate to population, Scotland gave the lives of the greatest number of soldiers in World War I. There is an ancient Viking proclamation to “be wary of Scotland.”
And we’re skeptical: In Scottish courts, the 15 jurors can find a subject innocent, guilty, or not proven guilty, which is kind of a “you might have gotten off, but you’re not fooling me.”
However, the Edgartown evening was steeped in tradition and respect. Pastor Richard Rego led the grace, the gracious Mary-Jean Miner united the diners with a passionate but good-natured toast to President Barack Obama, leading to Alan Renfrew’s salute to Queen Elizabeth II; after all, she is a Stewart.
Another Stewart scion is Dorian Lopes, a brilliant tenor and disciplined, fruitful musicologist who graced the event with his works. He, a grandson of a Vineyard Scottish Society co-founder, and Doug Stewart put to music a wistful ode by Steve Ewing, poet laureate and a son of Society co-founders Jo-Ann and the late Harvey Ewing.
It was not only a fitting extension of the Island’s Scottish community but a lovely ballad. I’d refer to Steve and Dorian as “gifted,” but feel that term seems to detract from the hours of toil and intellect crafted into their final product.
Ed Pierce of Edgartown is the society president and more or less the executive producer for the event, this year built around the cordial, cheerful wit of Chris Scott with a support flank of the Ewing boys — Colin and Steve, pillars of the community, the society, and the dinner — and unseen forces of Scotia assembly, such as Madeline Fisher of Edgartown.
On Monday morning Steve Ewing stopped hauling boats enough to say that the music was his favorite part of the evening. “The food was great,” he said,” and so was the music, and there was a lot of music.”
Philip Dietterich led the “Internationally Acclaimed Scottish Society Singers,” and there were solos, with perhaps the most memorable being the Doug Stewart-Dorian Lopes-Steve Ewing joint composition, “Highland Song.” Steve also hastened to say that the Burns supper actually sold a fair portion of Martha’s Vineyard tartan items, a plaid designed by Dr. Phillip Smith, 12th generation descendant of Thomas Mayhew and his Scottish wife, parents of Hannah Mayhew Daggett, who died on Feb. 7, 1722 in Edgartown.
Then there is the saucy Scottish side. Elizabeth St. John Villard lifted sort of high the memory of Robbie Burns in her extremely clever and well-researched salute and tribute. He was a colorful character, a bit of an 18th century Andy Warhol, a darling of high society with a slightly dangerous edge, forever redeeming himself with smooth words and even a “sly tongue.”
The Bard, as he has fondly become known, is considered a father of the romantic movement in poetry and in life. He is credited with a total of at least 12 children by an acknowledged four women, with an alleged number of at least seven more offspring, often born way out of wedlock: His firstborn was with the maidservant.
Robert Burns, or “Rabbie,” was glib and reverent of words, and set out for Edinburgh on a borrowed pony on Nov. 27, 1786, to introduce the world to his poems. In that year, one John Wilson reportedly sold some 612 of the Kilmarnock Edition pamphlets for three shillings each.
Among those who were inspired by his verbal passion was Sir Walter Scott, who first heard the Bard recite when he was a lad, and always spoke admiringly of him. Both Abraham Lincoln and singer Michael Jackson were avid fans. Bob Dylan is said to have been influenced by Rabbie’s romanticism of a rose, and author J.D. Salinger drew the title of The Catcher in the Rye from the Burns poem “Comin Thro the Rye.” John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men arose from the Burns poem “To a Mouse.”
Our tribute to the Bard ended with the dignity and purpose of nonrowdy celebration which was appropriate. Society president Ed Pierce and stalwart Steve Ewing offered Closing Thoughts, the crowd sang a basis of Burns immortality, “Aulde Lang Syne,” and Rick Hamilton of Edgartown recited in perhaps perfect Scottish dialect, although the exact one may be in question, the “Gaidhlig Farewell.”
We all pronounced our blessings upon one another until next year at the same approximate time, while piper Jim Joyce piped “Amazing Grace,” a popular bagpipe tune, as both the instrument and song have only eight notes, or so a piper once told me.