BY ELIZABETH DUNLOP RICHTER
The piercing, unmistakable sound of bagpipes let the tartan-clad crowd know it was time to move from cocktails in the library to dinner in the University Club’s 9th-floor dining room. Although the walls bear the crests of American universities rather than Scottish clans, the high-ceilinged Cathedral Hall felt most appropriate for the 19th annual Robert Burns Supper, presented by the Chicago Scots on February 4.
Organized in 1845, Chicago Scots is the oldest nonprofit charity in Illinois. According to The Scots of Chicago, George McClellan, later to distinguish himself as a general in the Civil War, held a dinner for 17 homesick Scotsmen in November 1845 to celebrate the birthday of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. The following January, the group’s first official meeting was held, choosing the motto: “Relieve the Distressed.”
In 1853, the Illinois legislature officially incorporated the Illinois Saint Andrew Society of the City of Chicago, inspired by St. Andrew Societies in New York and Charleston. It maintains its philanthropic mission to this day with its purpose “to nourish Scottish identity through service, fellowship, and celebration of Scottish culture.” And celebrate it does!
This year’s Robert Burns festivities were among many held around the region (and the country) that honored the great 18th century Romantic Scottish poet, Robert Burns, known for his ballads, songs, poems, and . . . numerous romantic liaisons. Few Americans have missed singing his famous “Auld Land Syne” at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Called the Bard of Ayrshire and the Ploughman Poet, Burns was voted the “Greatest Scot” in a 2009 Scottish television poll.
Chicago has a rich Scottish heritage, including some 1000 native-born Scots who helped establish the suburb of Lake Forest, went on to found Carson Pirie Scott, and to run such iconic Chicago companies as Quaker Oats and Zenith Corporation. Lake Forest Scots also brought the first herd of Black Angus cattle to the US.
Today, the Chicago Scots attracts a membership of over 1300 from Chicago and the suburbs, including many Scottish ex-pats and Americans of Scottish descent, as well as, so the website states, those who like Scotland “simply by inclination.”
Guests Karen and Tom Howell have become regulars at the Robert Burns dinner. Karen’s ancestor was one of several Wallace brothers who served in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution. “My family has always honored our Scottish heritage. My middle name is Wallace, and one of our grandchildren is named Wallace. The Chicago Scots dinners are a terrific way to remember my roots and enjoy haggis.” Her husband, Tom, a Welshman by heritage, gamely indulges Karen’s Scottish loyalty but apparently enjoys the festivities—and the haggis—as much as his wife does.
The presentation of the haggis, the famed Scottish culinary treat, is always a highlight of the Burns dinner. Haggis is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach,” to which Robert Burns wrote a famous laudatory ode. As guests were served a first course of haggis, neeps, and tatties (spiced lamb, mashed potatoes and rutabagas), Dundee-born Jack Moncrieff Crombie gave an energetic reading of Burns’s poem, accompanied by a toast with “ a wee dram” of 12-year-old Glenlivet Scotch, enjoyed by all attending.
ADDRESS TO A HAGGIS (verse one)
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.
Crombie’s dedication to Chicago Scots goes beyond kilts and haggis. “To me it’s a way to funnel some of the things I feel passionately about: the Scottish Enlightenment and Robert Burns’ writings and their impact on the American constitution,” says Crombie, owner of the Duke of Perth restaurant and bar.
Dinner guests were enthusiastic about donning Scottish garb. Gentlemen showed no shyness in showing off their knees in dashing kilts, and women wore their tartans on skirts, shawls, and scarves, held in place by handsome Celtic pins. Of special note was the antique Victorian brooch, technically a Scottish Cairngorm brooch that Whitney Templeton had found in an Edinburgh antique shop. Her mother Joan’s brooch is a contemporary design with smoky quartz that her own mother had purchased in Inverness.
Of the dinner Whitney says, “I just think it’s a lot of fun—I love the bagpipes, of course. You don’t get many chances to wear the tartan and sample haggis. My favorite was haggis that Charlie Trotter created a number of years ago. I usually wash it down with scotch.“
The Bard’s birthday is always celebrated with a special toast to his memory. This year, Joseph Jefferson Award-winning actor Brad Armacost did the honors, giving a spirited history of Robert Burns’s life, including a dramatic reading of Burns’s poetry.
The toast, shared by all, was of course made once again with a wee dram of Scotch whisky.
Scottish music and dancing punctuated the entire evening. Soprano Alexandria Rust sang three Robert Burns songs: “Red, Red Rose,” “Ye Banks O’Doon,” and “A Man’s Man.” Dancers from Cas Dannsa and the Thistle & Heather Highland Dancers demonstrated the energetic, high stepping traditional moves.
The Midlothian Pipe Band returned to play such crowd favorites as “Amazing Grace” and “Scotland the Brave.”
A native of Duns in the Scottish Borders, Gus Noble has run Chicago Scots for 13 years, following a career with the British Consulate-General in Chicago. “We like to say the Society occupies the place where tradition meets the future,” notes Noble. “By bringing something of Scotland to Chicago, we offer the opportunity to reconnect with one’s identity, while focused on service and charity.”
Chicago Scots has dedicated its fundraising efforts since 1910 to support the Scottish Home, a nursing and assisted-living facility in North Riverside, Illinois. Most recently, they completed the adjacent Caledonian House, a state-of-the art home for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Chicago Scots will embrace Scottish traditions again this spring at the Highland Games held June 16 and 17 in Itasca, Illinois. Bagpipe competitions, the hammer throw and caber toss, Scottish foods, and textiles provide ample opportunity to indulge in all things Scottish. Don your kilt and join the fun!
Photo credit: James Richards