Scottish Society Singers bring the Highlands to the Island

Phil Dietterich, left, leads the Scottish Society Singers. —Ralph Stewart

Scot or not, an upcoming program at the Edgartown library should appeal to anyone with a passion for traditional folk music or an interest in Scottish culture. On Saturday, March 11, the Scottish Society Singers, under the direction of Phil Dietterich, will present a program called “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” a selection of Scottish and Scottish-influenced music, described in a press release as “songs of nature and love, hope and pride, with melodies full of the long, tender melancholy of northern twilight.”

Of course, Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, will be heavily featured in the program. Burns was a collector of Scottish folk music, and he often set his lyrics to traditional melodies. The Scottish Society Singers, accompanied by piano and pennywhistle, will perform 10 of Burns’ songs, as well as one new composition, “Highland Song,” written by Edgartown’s poet laureate, Steve Ewing, with music by Dorian Lopes.

The program follows on the heels of another appearance by the group last Thursday, at the opening of a temporary exhibit devoted to the Scottish Society of Martha’s Vineyard at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The society is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and the Spotlight Gallery exhibit, which features kilts and other traditional garb and items, as well as video and audio clips, will be on display through April 2.

The appearance at the museum and the upcoming program at the library represent

rare appearances of the Scottish Society Singers for the general public. The group, which formed about 15 years ago, has traditionally only appeared for Scottish Society of Martha’s Vineyard functions — most recently at the traditional Robert Burns dinner at the Harbor View Hotel in January. They have also traveled to Cape Cod a few times to perform with the Highland Light Scottish Pipe Band. Due to the small number of bagpipers on the Island, that traditional instrument will be missing from the library performance, though kilts and tartans will abound.

“Over the course of our 12 years or so, we’ve developed quite a repertoire,” says Mr. Dietterich, who notes that he and Mr. Lopes have done the arrangements of the group’s selections. “It’s interesting. Culturally, these songs have the smell of the Highlands. Some are melancholy, some are tender, some are protest songs or love songs. Bobby Burns liked women; he wrote a lot of poems for women.”

Among the well-known Scottish songs with lyrics by Robert Burns that the group will perform are “Loch Lomond” and “Auld Lang Syne,” which Mr. Dietterich explains will be presented in two versions: set to the tune that most people are familiar with, and set to another traditional folk melody that Burns actually preferred. Audience members will be encouraged to sing along with some of the numbers.

The Scottish Society Singers’ next outing will be a performance at a Tartan Day Celebration at the Chilmark library on Saturday, April 8. The national holiday is celebrated by the Scottish Society members every year. In fact, it was an Islander — and a co-founder of the Society — who was instrumental in establishing Tartan Day in the U.S.

Duncan MacDonald of Edgartown had led a very successful career as a TV and radio producer and writer whose work appeared in, among other publications, Yankee Magazine and the Old Farmers’ Almanac before she moved to the Vineyard in the 1980s and became a Dukes County commissioner, and then The MV Times’ first features editor. Ms. MacDonald was among those who established the Scottish Society of Martha’s Vineyard in 1986.

As a member of the Scottish Coalition USA, Ms. MacDonald urged Congress to recognize Tartan Day (April 6). She was the honoree at this year’s Robert Burns dinner. Mr. Dietterich refers to Ms. MacDonald as “the sparkplug to proclaim Tartan Day in this country.” An article in the Scottish Society’s newsletter observes that Tartan Day affords an opportunity to remind everyone of the countless contributions that have been made to the world by Scots and Scottish-Americans alike.”

Mr. Ewing has drawn a parallel between the Vineyard and Scotland by reworking a poem he originally wrote as a welcome to the Obamas, and as a nod to his Scottish roots. The song was first titled “Island Song,” but has now been transformed into “Highland Song,” with music by Dorian Lopes. The lyrics are an ode to the natural beauty and simplicity of life in Scotland, but Mr. Ewing clearly pictured a reflection in the Vineyard landscape and lifestyle.

Highland Song

Feel the peace of solitude

along our burns

and on our bens

Pick the fruit of summer

from our meadows

with your friends

Drink the cool fresh bounty

deep beneath our strands

Eat our freshest harvest

reaped by Highland hands

Walk our windswept stretches

where ships have

come to grief

Stroll our heathered hillsides

let them lull you

off to sleep

Lay upon your back

as the stars hang down

on high

Stretch your fingers out

till they touch

our jet black sky

May the peace of Highland living

settle in your bones

May the lightness of your being

stir memories of your home

May you cherish our first greeting

dear as our last song

May you always feel the blessing of the Highlands

all life long

Steve Ewing

December 2014