Revelers celebrate Robert Burns with Scottish meal, whisky toasts

Published 9:35 am Tuesday, January 27, 2015

HE0127 Burns Night Dinner C

The sound of bagpipes and the smell of haggis and whisky filled the air as tartan-clad revelers gathered to celebrate the life and works of Robert Burns during the Burns Night Dinner Saturday at the Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City.
The dinner was the first for the East Tennessee State University Appalachian, Scottish and Irish Studies Program and was used as a fundraiser for the Thomas G. Burton Scholarship for students studying abroad in Scotland and Ireland.
The event was a first for the department. The dinner was just one of many held over the weekend around the world to celebrate the life and work of Burns, Scotland’s national poet, or bard.
“People all around the world celebrate Burns Night,” Program Director Jane MacMorran said. “We are excited to be a part of that.”
Burns was born Jan. 25, 1759, and he went on to become a poet, lyricist and farmer in Scotland. Burns tackled many social issues through his work and is most well-known for writing the poem “Auld Lang Syne,” MacMorran said.
“Burns spoke for the common people, and that is represented in his work,” she said. “His work ranged from poignant love poetry to protests and rallies against the establishment.”
While the night was a celebration of Burns, it was a toast to Celtic heritage as well.
The dinner officially got its start with the “Piping in the Haggis.” Haggis is a dish made of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal and spices and encased in the sheep’s stomach. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland. Burns’ wrote about it in his poem “Address to the Haggis” in 1787.
The Piping in the Haggis ceremony is led by a bagpiper who plays while the chef who prepared the haggis carries it through the dining hall on a platter to a place of honor at the front of the room.
Heather Ricker, executive chef of Wellington’s Restaurant, carried in the haggis while Will MacMorran played the bagpipes for the procession.
“It is exciting,” Ricker said. “I have never been a part of something like this before.”
After the procession reached the front of the room, Gordon Anderson, dean of ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, recited “Address to the Haggis,” then ceremonially sliced it as diners toasted the dish.
“To the Haggis,” everyone exclaimed before taking a shot of Irish whisky.
Following the haggis presentation, the official meal was served, treating attendees to traditional Scottish fare like cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leek soup), smoked haddock, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes), thistle shortbread (molded cookies with a thistle imprint) and of course, the haggis.
During the meal, Jane MacMorran played the fiddle and Will MacMorran played the bagpipes.
“Many biographers of Robert Burns have overlooked the evidence that Burns played the fiddle,” Jane MacMorran said. “But we know from his letters that he did play and that he was proud of being a fiddler.”
Jane MacMorran then played some songs on the fiddle that Burns would have been familiar with and possibly played himself. The first was “Farewell to Whisky” by Niel Gow, written in 1799 to lament the prohibition of whisky making. The others were slow reels meant to correspond with a country dance.
The ETSU Celtic Pride Band, with members Aynsley Porchak on fiddle, Avery Welter on guitar and bass, Kristy Wilkins on vocals and Will MacMorran on guitar and bagpipes, played after diners had enjoyed their dessert and drink and carried out the Toast to the Lassies and the reply to the Toast of the Lassies.
Jane MacMorran provided some information on the study abroad program for which the dinner helped provide scholarships.
This summer, students will spend three weeks in Scotland and Ireland. They will stop in Derry at the University of Ulster, the Titanic Museum in Belfast, the Royal Conservatoire and Glascow School of Art in Glascow, the Orkney Islands and then a final stop in Edinburg.
The evening ended with a group singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”

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