Celebrating Robert Burns and Nebraska’s Scottish Heritage

Engraving from 1787 portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth.

The anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns on January 25, 1759, was once widely celebrated by Americans of Scottish descent in memory not only of Burns, but of their Scottish heritage. An 1876 celebration in Council Bluffs, Iowa, cosponsored by the Burns Club of Omaha, included bagpipe music by pipers in Scottish costumes, a meal of Scottish dishes, toasts, and dancing. The singing, dancing, and piping became standard entertainments at succeeding celebrations of Burns’s birthday, sometimes with recitations of his poetry.

Norfolk hosted a memorable Burns celebration in January of 1910 when Scottish descendants from Norfolk and Sioux City sponsored a parade, banquet, concert, and dance. “German Norfolk Goes Scotch,” reported the Norfolk Weekly News-Journal on February 4. Despite the winter weather, costumed Scottish dancers from Sioux City paraded up and down Norfolk Avenue. “A long line of spectators with admiring eyes watched the Scots who trudged through the snow, with the wind whistling around their kilted limbs.”

Undated photograph of Angus Street in Gretna, Sarpy County. The town’s name is probably derived from that of Gretna Green in Scotland. NSHS RG2499-5-1

A banquet of traditional Scottish foods was followed at 8 o’clock that evening by entertainment for the community. The city’s Marquardt Hall was packed with an enthusiastic audience, including “probably every Norfolk man with a drop of Scotch blood in his veins,” reported the newspaper. Scottish dances and songs were followed by Dr. J. H. Mackay’s reading in Gaelic. After the program ended, chairs were cleared from the hall and performers and the audience danced.  However, Scottish dance steps were unfamiliar to some of the Norfolk dancers, “compeling them to take a back seat, and the hall was soon filled with Scotch lassies dancing by themselves in their Highland Costumes.”

For more information on Nebraska’s Scottish celebrations in 1876 and in 1909, the 150th anniversary of Burns’s birth, see the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website. Become a member of the NSHS and receive Nebraska History magazine, four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications




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