The undertone that at first seemed misplaced began to fit together. As steady as stone it became a foundation beneath the flittering wind-tossed butterfly that was the overtone. The combination became a fascinating tune. It translated well from the air into toes tapping against the firm floor. There was a sole player in an empty room, warming up before the main event. Even alone he stood tall: his bagpipes nestled in his arms, his fingers fluttering across the chanter and his foot tapping out a steady beat.
The three drones towered over and beside his head, their cord taunt and the tassels hanging still. He played in the corner, far from my shy perch at the door but the sound filled the room. Fellow curious by-passers peered into the room from time to time slipping by my mesmerized form with a whispered, “excuse me”. This was the first time I had ever heard a bagpipe live. And let me tell you, it was as different from recordings as a house of straw is to a home of wood.
Certainly the music produced by the 15 bagpipe players later that night blew away all recording-induced expectation. Without microphone assistance (they only brought one out for a solo portion) the players created sounds that soared into the rafters and had enough strength to bound back down. It was so loud it likely leaked into the festivities down the hall and felt as though it could lift the ceiling clear off the building.
I remember walking away from the ballroom at the Kamloops Convention Centre because I was early and spinning around when the hum of a single bagpipe player sounded down the hall.
I had turned at least three corners.
At this event the man of the hour Robert Burns, fondly nicknamed Rabbie Burns, famous and beloved bard of Scotland is being remembered. Born on January 25th 1759 Rabbie’s birthday is a day of celebration and Scottish national pride.
Burns Suppers, as these parties are called, often share a few common traits.
The supper is not complete without eating Haggis and drinking whiskey. The haggis I might add, though sounding rather unappetizing with its signature ingredients of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs and looking unsettling simmering in an animals stomach, was delicious.
Once I got over my apprehension and dug in I found it pretty good. I’ve never been good at describing food so I’ll let you try it yourself.
Should you attend a Burns Supper the haggis is a must. And if you can’t get over how it’s made and what it’s made of, the whiskey can solve that.
The other thing that was fascinating about the haggis was its stature at the Burns Suppers. It is actually escorted into the room with an accompaniment of a piper, the worshipped whiskey, and two men with swords–one to guard the haggis and one to guard the whiskey. (Sounds like a great job.)
Of course Rabbie’s poem about the beloved haggis is not to be left out. It was an epic display complete with deep appreciation and knife swashing.
These evenings include a reading of some of Burns’ work and a toast to his immortal memory. A known poet and songwriter Burns created many great works to choose from. Some of his most famous are Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae and A Red, Red Rose.
At the dinner I attended, hosted by the Kamloops Highland Games Society, there was an amusing address to the lassies and then another in reply to the lads. A couple was given the privilege and they playfully complimented and mocked the other sex.
It seems these two toasts were introduced to honour women and the equalization of the sexes because in the beginning women did not get to participate; they only served the food to the men who attended.
But we cannot forget the dancers!
Watching their seemingly effortless weightlessness was amazing. Their arms were more rigid than the flowing wrists of the Indian and Japanese dancers I’d witnessed before—with a firm snap their hands would move from their waists to the sky and back down—but it was the strength in their step that was inspiring.
Bouncing smartly from foot to foot they stepped as lightly as fawns. Even the younger members of the two highland dancing schools, Lorena Harrison’s School of Highland Dance and Shalni Prowse School of Highland Dance, had a lively stride.
The various dances performed each exuded a different sensation. One was an exercise meant to keep sailors in shape.
Another was a sword dance where a kicked sword is considered a bad omen in the coming battle.
This one was about parishioners keeping warm outside of church waiting for their late priest.
Another was about the Scots happily removing trousers and celebrating the recovery of the kilt: the Dress Act of 1746 implemented by King George II had outlawed all highland dress, including the kilt, except for those in the army during the 35 years prior!
On the topic of kilts, Charles Hays, a professor in my program and escort of the beloved whiskey, showed me that the kilts can be pleated either to the stripe or to the sett. Pleating to the stripe is considered a military style while pleating to the sett is the civilian style, but people today use either method depending on taste. The most common type of pleating is called knife pleating. For all you kilt lovers: Hays informed me that there is a website dedicated to kilt wearers called X Marks the Scot. Go see!
Another song called Blue Bonnets was about young women trying to attract the attention of young soldiers.
My favourite dance came later in the night.
The final event was of course the biggest. Called the Grand March, all participants of the festival were invited to grab a partner and walk around the dance floor to the tune of the bagpipes. A time-honoured tradition for clan gatherings, the march started with couples going round in a figure eight shape.
Two grinning members of the pipe band enthusiastically directed people either right or left, throwing their arms around like air traffic controllers. After circling out, the couples met with another pair and marched up the middle in groups of four. After a few minutes the keen individuals directing the march began to send groups of four outward so that they merged into groups of eight in the middle.
It was fantastic to watch though it must have been amazing travelling within. Alas, attending alone I didn’t have a partner to drag onto the floor with me. I should have snapped up a bystander.
The Grand March really brought home the kindred spirit of the supper.