The young man leaned down to tie his black Reebok as he waited in the church vestry. He adjusted his dark-green hose, then moved the sgian dubh (red ribbons) tucked just below his kneecaps so that they smartly adorned his outer calf and hung directly above his ankle.
He gently patted the pleats in his orange-and-green plaid kilt, the ancient hunting garb of the MacIntosh clan. Then he pulled down his snow-white tunic to straighten it, and quickly opened and closed the sporran, a small purse, that hung from his wide, black belt.
From a nearby table he retrieved his pipe and tucked it under his arm, waiting for the command. “Band ready,” the pipe major ordered. He took the blowpipe in his mouth and inflated the bag as the drummers stood straight, their sticks raised in anticipation.
“By the rolls,” came the command. Twice the sound of the drums rolled across the crowd. “Quick. March.” Then the wail of the pipes joined the pounding beat of many drums and marching feet. Together they blended and filled St. Andrews Church in Ellsworth as they fill the ancient Scottish hills. As the music reverberated on the ears and the colorful kilts delighted the eyes, scents of roast beef and lamb mingled with baking onions and potatoes invaded the nostrils.
On Sunday, Jan. 18, the West Eden Highlanders held their second annual Burns Supper to honor Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns. Rebecca Edmondson of Mount Desert, the group’s pipe major, organized the event to celebrate Burns’ birthday, Jan. 25, 1759. In deference to the Super Bowl, also scheduled for the 25th, the celebration was held a week early. Nearly 150 dined at the sold-out event, which is the Highlanders’ major fund-raiser.
Besides performances of music and dance, the evening featured the history of Scotland, as well as the songs and poetry of Robert Burns. Each course of the meal was presented with a flourish. The ancient delicacy haggis was piped into the dining chamber and marched under crossed swords before being presented to the revelers.
This haggis, however, was an “Amish version” of the traditional dish, which is made of a sheep’s stomach, heart, liver, lungs, onions, spices and oatmeal. The traditional toast of Scotch whisky also was set aside for the evening.
Edmondson, 41, whose mother is a MacDowell, and so of the clan MacDougal, began playing the pipes when she was 14 years old. She saved her allowance for almost a year, then traveled to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, to purchase her bagpipes. They are the same set she still plays today.
“Before forming the band, about five of us who played the pipes got together at my house and played,” she said as she ate her own Burns feast after the guests had left. “More and more people heard about us and wanted to join in. We enjoyed the music so much, we decided to share it, and we felt there was a need for a local pipe band.”
A music teacher at the Conners and Emerson schools in Bar Harbor, Edmondson formed the group two years ago next month. During the summer they practice at the West Eden Common in Town Hill on Mount Desert Island, often drawing a crowd. They march in parades, appear at local benefits, perform events for a fee and, according to the group’s founder, will be ready to take part in competitions next year.
Gretchen King, 18, has been dancing with the group since its beginning. For Burns’ birthday celebration, she wore a dress MacGregor dancing kilt, which is a wee bit shorter than regular kilts, and has more and deeper pleats. Her ghillies, or dancing shoes, resemble ballet slippers with long laces that wrap around her kilt hose.
She wore a black velveteen vest over a short-sleeved white peasant blouse, the vest’s silver buttons bouncing as she performed the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, dating to 60 B.C., and the Seann Truibhas, or Old Trousers Dance. Her feet seemed to fly as she performed the complicated steps.
“Most of the dances were originally performed by men as war dance,” she said. “It takes precision, coordination, good thighs and good ankles to do these dances. … I started doing this because of my Scottish heritage — my clan is MacGregor, basically — and because of a friend.”
Matt Stewart of Seal Harbor has been playing the bagpipes for almost a year.
“Playing has always been a dream of mine,” he said. “I liked the connection to my Scottish heritage. That was something I wanted to explore. Last spring I went to Scotland. It was wonderful to see the country from whence my ancestors came … to feel that sense of connection.”
The pipes are only one of several instruments Grey Maxim of Ellsworth played with the group for the dinner. He also played the church organs and the Celtic harp. When he got married in October 1996, he and his bride honeymooned in the Highlands.
“I like the music because it’s loud,” he said with a slight smile. “I like loud music, and the fact that you can take it on the road and march, or perform in a setting like this one tonight. … Scottish culture is extremely different from others. Most cultures were heavily influenced by one another. However, this one developed independently. That’s one of the reasons it stands out.”
At the end of the evening, Edmondson led the group in traditional Scottish folk songs, several of which were penned by Burns. A wide grin spread across guest Stan MacDonald’s face as he began to sing “The Skye Boat Song,” which includes a reference to his ancestor Flora.
“Flora helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from the English Army to the Isle of Skye in a small boat,” the Somesville resident said as the chorus ended. “He fled to France. She was captured and went to jail. … We saw a monument to her on Skye when we visited there this summer.”
Just as their ancestors braved rough and rugged land formed by great glaciers to gather and make musical merriment, so too did these Down Easters, venturing from Cherryfield, Sullivan, Great Cranberry Island and Mount Desert Island across ice- and snow-covered rocks and hills to pay tribute to the greatest poet of their people.
As the pipes played, the feasters raised their voices to sing Burns’ most famous verse before they headed out into the dark, cold night: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of Auld Lang Syne?”