Celtic culture a feast for senses

Lawrence Scottish Fest continues tradition of Robert Burns Supper

First, there were the kilts, and the men and women in them.

Then, there was the food – the Auld Reekie, the haggis and the drunken crumbles – offered at the Lawrence Arts Center on Sunday, and all in the name of Robert Burns.

The Scottish poet would have been right at home at the 10th annual Lawrence Scottish Fest, which began here as the Robert Burns Supper.

“We’ve been given the chance to celebrate Celtic culture,” event producer Larry Carter said.

The event celebrates the life and work of Burns, arguably Scotland’s most famous and, posthumously, most influential poet.

Shortly after his death in 1796 at age 37, fans of the poet began celebrating his birthday, Jan. 25, with a supper, capturing the things Burns praised in his writing.

A crowd framed by Tom Averill's legs watches Bill Read, right, and Averill tune up before the Lawrence Scottish Fest. The 10th annual event celebrating Celtic culture was Sunday at the Lawrence Arts Center.

The first thing, of course, was the haggis, the collection of lamb’s liver, oatmeal and other goodies stuffed in stomach lining, and served up plump like a sausage. The whiskey and the songs typically follow.

Over the past 200-or-so years, the celebration has spread around the world, with Scottish communities – and communities in general – coming together on or around the poet’s birthday to eat, drink and sing his songs.

Burns’ words, Douglas Phenix said Sunday night, speak out to many, tugging on a thread that runs through all cultures.

“He was very much on the side of the ordinary person,” the St. Andrew Society member and Glasgow native told the crowd through his thick Scottish accent.

As he stood on stage in his traditional Scottish garb and read from Burns’ letters, a picture of the poet began to form: The son of a farmer, never rich or remarkably famous during his life, writing about a world that even 200 years later can still be familiar.

“He was not in the least impressed by pomp, circumstance, wealth or anything else,” Phenix said.

After Phenix spoke, Maria Anthony and Megan Hurt performed a set of traditional Celtic songs, a mix of old and new, many of which drew from songs Burns himself wrote.

The songs captured the essence of both the life of Burns, and the heritage associated with Celtic lore. A tune about love and loss led into another about drinking and celebration.

Then, just before an intermission, three pipers bellowed down the aisle of the auditorium, as another kilted fellow held a plate up in reverence.

Here it was. Haggis! – great chieftain of the pudding race, warm, reekin’, rich – the meat of the night, to be sure, and now on stage and in front of Anthony, who read Burns’ famous ode to the dish.

And, as tradition holds, midway through the poem, she gutted the offering, diggin a knife way into it as she proclaimed its majesty of smell, sight and taste.

Then, the next of Burns’ loves: whiskey, one shooter for each of the pipers. The bearded men took it down in stride; apparently, they had had it before.

These were Burns’ pleasures – simple to be sure, but something generations since his time could relate to.

The headliner, Connie Dover, eventually took the stage and delivered her folk-laden mix of acclaimed poet-songs. Her voice has been heard, and revered, around the world, and has led to a series of successful appearances on National Public Radio and international poetry awards.

Before she began, standing near the stage, Lawrence musician Megan Hurt reflected on Burns and what the man stood for. Burns was an everyman, she agreed, a state of being that everyone the world over can understand.

“I think that he translates well into the 21st century,” she said.