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Burning bright: Lehi gathering celebrates the life of Scotland’s poet laureate

SHARE Burning bright: Lehi gathering celebrates the life of Scotland’s poet laureate

If it's true that on St. Patrick's Day everyone's a bit Irish, it is also true that on certain days everyone feels a bit of Scottish kinship.

Robert Burns Day is one of those occasions — it can turn anyone into a Scot-for-a-day. But for those with true Scottish connections, it is a day unlike any other.

Rabbie Burns (as he is affectionately called by true believers) is considered the poet laureate of Scotland and is one of Scotland's most famous sons. But he is more than that, said Dodd Greer, president of the Utah Scottish Association. Burns was the poet of the people, and he represents the heart, the soul, the spirit of Scotland, said Greer. For more than 250 years, his friends and compatriots have been celebrating his life.

"He was hugely popular in his own time. He wrote his first poem at age 15 and discovered he had an ability for rhyme," said Greer. Over the course of his career, Burns wrote hundreds of poems and songs in English and in Gaelic and Scots dialect. "He would take popular melodies and write new words, and everyone would sing them," he said. "To Scots, singing and language are one and the same. Music is very important, and his songs were hugely popular."

In time Burns left the farm where he grew up and took a job as a tax collector, which enabled him to go from town to town and increased his popularity. He was well-known as a ladies' man, said Greer.

His first volume of poetry was published in 1786, and Burns became "the darling of the people in Edinburgh," frequently called upon to write and recite. But he was never healthy, and he died in 1796 at age 37.

"Shortly after his death, his friends began gathering on his birthday, and that custom has continued all over the world," said Greer. In America, in Canada, in Australia — everywhere large numbers of Scots have ended up — celebrations of Burns have sprung up. "There are tens of thousands of gatherings held every year. People celebrate Burns and Scotland by singing, dancing, having treats."

Utah's own Burns celebration will be held Saturday at Thanksgiving Point. The evening will feature poetry, tributes, pipers, music and more, said Caol Ritchie, director of entertainment for the Utah Scottish Association. The dinner will feature cock-a-leekie soup, neeps and tatties, baked salmon, shortbread and trifle. And, of course, the haggis.

Burns wrote an "Ode to Haggis," which was tongue-in-cheek, said Greer, although some people take it seriously. "Haggis is a cross between meatloaf and sausage, made with sweetmeats and cooked in a sheep's stomach. Every Burns Night includes haggis pomp and ceremony."

There's a ritual called "piping in the haggis," said Ritchie, where the haggis is brought in and ceremoniously tasted and declared fit for eating.

The evening always ends with the singing of Auld Lang Syne, another of Burns' songs.

Burns Night is traditionally held near his birthday, which is Jan. 25. "It's Scotland's way of saying, even though his poetry is popular with everyone, he belongs to us," said Ritchie.

But it is only one of several activities throughout the year sponsored by the association. A Tartan Ball is held in April. And the Highland Games take place in June.

"That's where we get together and toss the telephone pole," laughed Greer. Actually, the caber toss is just one of the events. But Utah boasts of several world champions in the events, he said. "At last year's games, three world records were set. We have a great tradition of Scottish games here."

The association also sponsors cultural outreach programs in the schools, supply pipers for events such as weddings and funerals and sponsor ceilidhs — musical gatherings.

The Utah Scottish Association was formed in 1976 — 100 years after the first Scottish festival was held in Utah, said Ritchie. "A lot of Utah's early settlers has Scottish and Irish roots. There's a huge percentage of the population even now that can trace a Scottish connection. And it's nice to see so many people discovering their roots, taking pride in their ancestry."

Ritchie herself was born in Scotland and moved with her family to Canada when she was 2 and then later on to California, so she has a closer connection than most with the country. But she said, if you have any Scottish blood in you at all, you'll hear the bagpipes and feel something. "I love the pipes. I love the fact that men are not afraid to wear kilts. Scotland has had a lot of exciting history. I also love the fact that the clan is the most important thing. Clan means family in Scottish Gaelic."

Recent movies such as "Braveheart" have increased interest in Scottish history, she says. "Even though it was not historically accurate, there was a huge swell of people who got interested in their backgrounds because of it. It made Scotland cool again."

Greer also relates to Scottish history. "Greer comes from Gregor, a clan that was outlawed for 200 years. No church marriages, no funerals were allowed for anyone named MacGregor. Women were branded on their faces. Heads were turned in for bounty and lands confiscated."

Celtic races extend back 2,000 years into history, said Greer, and their oft-turbulent history has had an impact. "We have a fierce, deep, abiding sense of who we are that is as old as time. I went to a worldwide MacGregor gathering two years ago, and there were people living all over the world who shared the same feelings. They run deep. And when you hear the pipes, they pull on you; you feel a deep sense of belonging."

And that's as much reason as any, he says, to celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns: "We'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne!"

If you go

What: Robert Burns Night

Where: Thanksgiving Point, Lehi

When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $15 per person or $28 per couple

Phone: 871-6796 or 278-6798

Web site:www.utahscots.org

E-mail: carma@desnews.com