By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
What better place to celebrate 176 years of giving back to the community than the Chicago History Museum! That was the site of the December 3rd “Feast of the Haggis,” the annual gala, of the Illinois Saint Andrews Society, commonly known as Chicago Scots, the oldest charity in Illinois. Although the fascinating Chicago Fire exhibition and the popular Chicago historical dioramas were open for partygoers, all focus was on things Scottish, from single malt Scotch to authentic formal dress to the Old Baillee-the rams head/humidor presented to the society in 1871, now its mascot.
The museum was turned over to enthusiastic supporters of Chicago Scots and its Caledonia Senior Living & Memory Care (formerly the Scottish Home). One didn’t need to be of Scottish descent to participate; all are welcome at Chicago Scots events. Most attendees, however, displayed Scottish tartans in many ways, from kilts to trousers (known as trews), skirts, shawls, and sashes.
The traditional kilt worn with ghillie brogues,
Gracefully draped shawl in the Sinclair tartan
The festive evening featured awards for community service. The Distinguished Citizen Award went to noted philanthropist James “Jim” L. Alexander, whose father, William H. Alexander, had been given the award in 1995. Descended from abolitionists and suffragettes, they formed the law firm of Alexander & Alexander in 1982 to focus on estate planning and nonprofit law. The firm established The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust and the Elizabeth Morse Genius Trust in 1992. In collaboration with co-trustees JP Morgan and Bank of America, Jim’s philanthropic efforts have included the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, the LGBT Community Fund at the Chicago Community Trust, and the Chicago History Museum.
Kinsman of the Year was Scott McCawley, who first played the bagpipes as a West Point cadet. Playing the traditional Scottish instrument became a major part of his life as he joined many pipe bands, taking on leadership roles with the Midwest Pipe Band Association. Also a Roman Catholic priest, McCawley undertook a special mission during the Covid lockdown. He and the Thistle and Heather Highland Dancers went weekly to Caledonia Senior Living to play and dance on the grounds where the residents could see and hear them through the windows.
Aisha Noble, the wife of Chicago Scots President Gus Noble, was honored as Kinswoman of the Year for her dedicated service as co-president of the board of Families Together Cooperative Nursery School and chair of the local school council at Helen C. International School in Chicago. A Chicago native, Aisha recently discovered she has Scottish heritage. She has embraced Scottish traditions, volunteered at Caledonia Senior Living, and traveled extensively throughout Scotland.
She told VisitScotland,“ My experience of Scotland as an African-American woman is that I have always been welcomed with open arms. I love the people, the land, the humor, the poetry and the food.” Gus Noble himself had been honored earlier in the year by no less than Queen Elizabeth II who bestowed upon him the OBE, meaning he was named an Officer of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Noble was recognized for his 17 years of support for Scottish culture in the U.S. and his exemplary leadership of Caledonia Senior Living and Memory Care during the Covi19 pandemic.
Now it was time for the star of the evening: The Haggis! According to Britannica, haggis is “the national dish of Scotland, a type of pudding composed of the liver, heart, and lungs of a sheep (or other animal), minced and mixed with beef or mutton suet and oatmeal and seasoned with onion, cayenne pepper, and other spices. The mixture is packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled.”
The haggis is not just served but celebrated with the famous “Address to the Haggis” by 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns, fondly remembered as the author of “Auld Lang Syne.” John M. Crombie recited the original poem while dramatically presenting the shiny brown loaf and releasing its rich aroma with the plunge of a knife.
Here is the English translation of just one verse of “Address to the Haggis” (courtesy of the Alexandria Burns Club)
His knife see rustic Labour wipe,
And cut you up with ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm steaming, rich!
On hand to supervise the Scottish menu and our taste of the haggis – in the form of very tasty haggis sliders – was the first National Chef of Scotland, Gary Maclean. When he’s not travelling to promote Scottish cuisine and support families with food insecurity, Maclean is Executive Chef of the City of Glasgow College. He explained that the American version of haggis has at least one difference. “In the U.S. you’re not allowed to use lungs. The caterers ([tonight] have knocked it out of the park. You could serve this menu in Glasgow, and no one would say a word.” Roasted Scottish salmon and beef sirloin were also served with traditional “neeps and tatties” or pureed rutabagas and potatoes. Sweets included cranachan (oats, raspberries, cream, malt whisky, and honey) and clootie dumplings (fruit and spice-laden suet pudding).
Guests were entertained by the Thistle and Heather Highland dancers who delighted guests with traditional footwork during cocktails and later in the auditorium.
Young Thistle and Heather Highland dancers ready to perform…and play off duty.
The evening was rich with tradition, tartans and taste sensations. At the end of the evening, those with energy and calories to burn gathered in the museum lobby for Scottish dancing. In the midst of the fun, there was serious work to pursue, completing the match for a million-dollar gift to continue the work of Caledonia Senior Living & Memory Care. No doubt these thrifty Scots will make their goal.
NOTE: Photos not otherwise credited are by Elizabeth Dunlop Richter