Local Pipers Salute Robert Burns

Photo Provided The Rev. David Van Buskirk, pastor of First Christian Church in Chester, prepares to perform on the Highland pipes during the Edinboro Highland Games in Edinboro, Pa., in September. He is a member of the Macdonald Pipe Band of Pittsburgh and will recite Robert Burns’ famous blessing, “Selkirk Grace,” at the band’s Robert Burns Supper on Jan. 27 in Pittsburgh.

As a military kid in England, David Van Buskirk of Chester remembers his father, Greg, taking Highland bagpipe lessons, but David had no interest at the time.

“All I wanted to do was play basketball,” he said.

Greg gave up the pipes because he felt he didn’t have the knack, but many years later, after his father developed a pituitary tumor, David decided to try his hand at it.

“That’s really what moved me to start,” David said of his dad’s cancer scare, “so he could live vicariously through me.”

Now 36 with three young kids of his own, David will be performing in his first Robert Burns Supper with the Macdonald Pipe Band of Pittsburgh on Jan. 27. He joined the tri-state region’s oldest pipe band two years ago after moving to the Ohio Valley from Virginia to become pastor of First Christian Church in Chester.

Photo Provided Franciscan University of Steubenville freshman Brendan Gormley, second from right, and Martins Ferry resident Betsy Bethel-McFarland, far right, march with the Macdonald Pipe Band of Pittsburgh during a past Robert Burns Supper.

As an adult beginner with a full schedule, progress isn’t easy, but with private lessons David had advanced enough on the tricky instrument by last summer to compete against other beginners at a Highland games in Edinboro, Pa. His dad (who is fully recovered) traveled from his home near Norfolk, Va., to catch his son’s debut performance.

“He ate it up,” David said.

Although Greg won’t be able to make it, David is looking forward to the Burns Supper, which will take place at the Holy Trinity Center in McCandless in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. He and his wife, Jennifer, will be honored guests, and he will recite Burns’ famous blessing known as the “Selkirk Grace.”

“I’m looking forward, outside of the piping, to seeing the other entertainers,” David added, in particular the Celtic Spirit Highland Dance troupe and international award-winning piper Palmer Shonk, who is the Macdonald band’s instructor as well as co-founder of the Pittsburgh Piping Society and director of piping at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

The Robert Burns Supper is an annual tradition in Scotland and particularly among Scottish expatriates and lovers of the Scottish arts around the globe. It takes place on or near the 18th century farmer-turned-poet’s birthday of Jan. 25. The events range from intimate fireside readings from the prolific poet’s works to grander affairs that include Scotch whisky tasting and folks in fancy Highland dress.

Robert Burns

In addition to Highland dancers and solo performers, the Macdonald Pipe Band event includes a Scottish menu of steak pie and haggis, a rousing recitation of Burns’ “To a Haggis” poem, a short informative and entertaining talk about Burns, a Celtic marketplace and a raffle that includes a Scotch whisky basket, professional sports team swag, gift certificates, handmade Celtic jewelry and more. The event is a fundraiser for the band to help finance travel to competitions and purchase uniform and instrument parts.

Band member Brendan Gormley, a 19-year-old freshman at Franciscan University of Steubenville who has played the pipes since he was 8, said the Burns Supper connects the Scottish community.

“What I like about the Burns Supper is just the connection that it has especially with the Scottish community in America. … It’s one of the things that helps define the Scottish-American community; it connects them with their origins,” said Brendan, who is from Wexford, Pa.

Brendan isn’t of Scottish descent himself, but his father enjoys listening to Celtic music, which “got me hooked on the whole genre,” he said. He also got turned on to Irish dance from watching “Riverdance” and danced for many years until his size (i.e., size 15 feet) and busy schedule no longer permitted it.

Brendan, who is a double major in theology and economics, also is a fan of Burns, especially his humor. He enjoyed being one of the few in his high school literature class who could understand Burns’ Scots dialect, owing to his involvement in piping.

Macdonald Pipe Band is known locally for its performances at the Wheeling Celtic Celebration, the Follansbee Community Days parade and the CHANGE Inc. St. Paddy’s Fest, which will take place at the Mountaineer Racetrack Hotel Casino in Chester on March 16. Local piper Betsy Bethel-McFarland of Martins Ferry is the pipe major, or leader, of the pipe band.

The Holy Trinity Center is located at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 985 Providence Blvd., in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. Bethel-McFarland said she has sought in recent years to host a Burns Supper closer to home but is in need of sponsors to help with the costs. Hotel packages are available at the Fairfield Inn next to the Holy Trinity Center, she said.

To purchase tickets, visit www.macdonaldpipeband.net/burns-dinner. Ticket deadline is Jan. 20. For information, call Bethel-McFarland, 304-280-6212.