Piper Pays Tribute to Poet Robert Burns

An audience at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling was transported vicariously to the Highlands of Scotland Tuesday, Jan. 22, with a musical tribute to poet Robert Burns.

Presenting a Lunch With Books program, Betsy Bethel-McFarland of Martins Ferry played the bagpipes, shared poems by Burns and talked of the 18th-century bard’s life and work.

Bethel-McFarland, a member of the Macdonald Pipe Band of Pittsburgh and recording secretary of the Eastern U.S. Pipe Band Association, explained the inner workings of the bagpipes to the appreciative audience of 73 people who gathered for the noontime session. She also is the Life Associate Editor of the Sunday News-Register and editor of OVParent magazine.

The piper opened the program by playing two marches, “Bonie Dundee,” a song by Burns, and “A Hundred Pipers.” She also performed “Scotland the Brave,” “Massacre of Glencoe” and three Burns’ songs, “Ye Jacobites By Name,””Highland Laddie” and “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn.” She closed with Burns’ most famous piece, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Burns, born Jan. 25, 1759, was known as the Ploughman Poet because, early in his life, he farmed with his parents, who were tenant farmers, Bethel-McFarland said. “He was also a romantic at heart,” possessing “a natural sensitivity to the natural world and the opposite sex,” she added.

Burns, who went on to have a passionate, complicated love life as well as poetic success, penned his first verse at age 15. By 27, he was famous across the country for his first published book of poetry, “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.” He moved to Edinburgh, toured the Borders and Highlands regions and made more money.

As a writer, “Burns was well loved because his poetry was accessible to everyone – the lowest in society and the highest,” the speaker said. Defying high-minded critics, Burns refused to stop writing in the Scots dialect.

In testament to Burns’ wide appeal and enduring popularity, “his work has been translated more than any Scottish writing,” Bethel-McFarland related.

Despite his literary fame, Burns spent all of his fortune in about 18 months. He worked as an excise officer, became a farmer again and returned to his long-suffering wife. He died at age 37, and was buried on the same day that his youngest son was born, Bethel-McFarland said.

Regarding Burns’ connection to the bagpipes, Bethel-McFarland said, “Many of his songs were made into pipe tunes.” He mentioned the pipes in his poem, “Tam O’Shanter,” in which “the devil himself played pipes for an unsightly, unseemly party of ghouls, thieves and murderers at the old Alloway Kirk, or church.”

Burns wrote words for songs, music for pieces and composed both the verse and the tune for others. In some instances, he resurrected old folk tunes, Bethel-McFarland said.

Bethel-McFarland learned to play the bagpipes at age 12 in the public schools of Dunedin, Fla., a city with a well-preserved Scottish heritage. She resumed playing in 2000 and joined the Macdonald Pipe Band, serving as pipe major for a number of years. Now ranked at the second highest grade level for amateur pipers, she has won several awards in solo competitions and has been honored with the band in group events.

She and the Macdonald Pipe Band will perform again for the Wheeling Celtic Celebration at the Wheeling Artisan Center at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2.

Other upcoming Celtic events in the region include:

– Pittsburgh Tartan Day at Bethel Presbyterian Church, Bethel Park, Pa., April 6;

– Bridgeport (W.Va.) Scottish Festival and Celtic Gathering at Bridgeport City Park, May 3-5;

– McHenry Highland Festival, Garrett County Fairgrounds, McHenry, Md., June 1;

– Ohio Scottish Games, Lorain County Fairgrounds, Wellington, June 22;

– Pittsburgh Irish Festival, Riverplex, Homestead, Pa., Sept. 6-8;

– Edinboro Highland Games and Scottish Festival, Edinboro ( Pa.) University, Sept. 7;

– Ligonier Highland Games, Idlewild Park, Ligonier, Pa., Sept. 21.