Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Poetry & Pipes: Annual “Burns Supper” celebrates all things Scottish.

Scotland is known for many bold things: The Loch Ness Monster, Scotch whisky, “Braveheart.”

The Scottish culture was once even the subject of a rousing “Saturday Night Live” skit in which cast member Mike Myers coined the catchphrase, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!”

The Scottish are also known for an 18th-century Romantic poet named Robert Burns, hailed as the “Scots’ Bard.” The majority of Burns’ poems and songs celebrate Scottish culture, farm life, religion, politics and equality for all. In the United States, his most popular and recognizable work is “Auld Lang Syne.”

In 1801, five years after Burns died, his friends gathered together for the first “Burns Supper” to celebrate his birthday. Though he lived only 37 years, Burns inspired a Scottish tradition that has lasted more than two centuries.

Here in central PA, the Scottish Society of Central PA has held a Burns Supper every January since 1955.

“The whole evening is a night of tradition and ceremony,” said President Ken Millage. “It’s a celebration of Burns’ life. We always try to make it fun.”

The itinerary follows a standard order.

To start, the officers and board of directors enter the room accompanied by bagpipers from their society. The host then gives opening remarks, during which all of the guests recite Burns’ poem “Selkirk Grace” to bless the food. Given that it’s a January event, the local host recites a poem on winter weather in Scotland.

Next comes the food, which begins with the soup course—cock-a-leekie soup—consisting of chicken and leeks, plus rice and julienned prunes. The pinnacle of the evening is next: the presentation of the haggis by the hotel chef. The celebrated haggis is organ meat from sheep ground up with suet and boiled in a sheep’s stomach.

“This is a processional ceremony with crossed swords and one of the members giving the ‘Address to a Haggis’ poem from memory,” Millage said. “It’s a long poem.”

For those who find the idea of haggis and julienned prunes in soup less than appetizing, there are many other culinary offerings, such as pecan-encrusted salmon, braised beef, grilled vegetables and trifle for dessert. Armed with their favorite beverages, everyone at the party gives a series of toasts to national leaders of the United States and Scotland, followed by humorous, roast-type toasts to lads and lassies.

“The toasts poke good-natured fun at how men and women see each other,” Millage said.

Next, one of the members gives an oration of all things Burns, whether serious or funny. This is followed by a short toast to the “Immortal Memory of Robert Burns,” then more poetry and music.

“Burns wrote in a dialect unique to him,” Millage said. “Some in the society can recite all evening long. They have great knowledge of the poetry. I have to look for an English translation to make sure I understand what he is saying.”

This year’s music itinerary holds a fresh lineup of bagpipers, Scottish country dancers, Celtic musicians and Jacobite reenactors. (Jacobite uprisings were a series of rebellions and wars between 1688 and 1746.)

Entertainer Charlie Zahm will present “a new story on the history of the Jacobite uprisings in history and song,” Millage said. “Some people come [to the event] just to hear the music.”

Singing “Auld Lang Syne” means the evening has come to an end, with attendees forming a big circle around the room.

Although the event may stand on ceremony, unabashed dancing is encouraged as a form of music appreciation.

“One great way to meet new friends is to dance in the aisles,” Millage said. “We have people who remind us of [our daughter] Mary dancing in the aisles when she was younger.”

To pull the event together, the Scottish Society relies on a core group of volunteers. Then there are the helpers who “bake shortbread and tie bouquets of heather,” Millage said of the Scottish party favors.

The Burns Supper is open to the community, attracting people who have an interest in Scottish things, people who come to hear the music, and people wondering if they are Scottish. Each year, more than 100 people attend.

“We could hold even more,” Millage said, dropping a sly hint.

The Burns Supper takes place Jan. 26 at the Radisson Penn Harris, 1150 Camp Hill Bypass, Camp Hill. For more information about the Scottish Society of Central PA and to make reservations for the event, visit

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