Burns concerts stand test of time on P.E.I.

Sally Cole scole@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 17, 2014

Eleanor Boswell, president of the Caledonian Club of P.E.I., and Cecil MacPhail, chief of the Caledonian Club of P.E.I., are looking forward to the 125th annual Robbie Burns Scottish Concert at the Carrefour Theatre in Charlottetown on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. Tom MacDonald will be the featured soloist. It’s an exciting year for the club which is also celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2014.


The date was Jan. 25, 1889.

The location was Charlottetown.

The performers were Scottish singers, dancers and pipers, and the occasion was the first Robbie Burns concert in P.E.I.

And al-though it happened 125 years ago and has been held every year since, in different places, with different performers and different sponsorships, one thing hasn’t changed about the Robbie Burns concert — the writing that it celebrates.

“It has stood the test of time. His music touches the heart. So does his poetry. It’s very deep. I also love his character, all that I read about him,” says Eleanor Boswell, president of the Caledonian Club of P.E.I. that is putting on the 125th annual Robbie Burns Scottish Concert at the Carrefour Theatre in Charlottetown on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m.

That night, performances of Burns’ music will be given by tenor Tom MacDonald of Arisaig, N.S., and his accompanist, Rob Wolfe. Blair MacPhail will read selections of Burns poetry, Jim Hornby will provide fiddle tunes, accompanied by Duncan Matheson, Sarrah Wood will be the piper and the Dunvegan Dancers, under the direction of Barbara Brown-Yorke, will perform highland dancing numbers.

Attending the concert each year is always a highlight for Douglas MacKenzie.

“What’s my favourite part? Hearing the old Scottish songs. When you hear someone like Tom MacDonald singing with the bagpipes in the background, it sends shivers up your spine,” says the Belfast resident.

He took up the tradition of going to the concert 20 years ago after listening to his parents talk about these special evenings.

“For them to make that long trip from Belfast in the middle of winter into the concert made it quite an event . . . . It was a big time break in mid-winter, the Burns concert.

“It was also well known that when you landed in Charlottetown, you picked up a toddy. You also had a toddy on the way going home and, in some cases, the celebration of the concert might go on for two or three days,” says MacDonald, with a laugh.

Gordon MacKenzie, who grew up in Rose Valley, also remembers the various modes of transportation that his parents used to get to the concert in the early 1940s.

“Living out in Rose Valley, my parents would go by horse and sleigh to Breadalbane. Then they’d catch a special train that would go to Charlottetown, returning some time through the night.

“It was a break from the farm to go into town for the night,” says the Winsloe resident.

Lawson Drake has recollections of an early program.

“I remember attending a Burns concert in 1944-45, in the auditorium of Prince of Wales College. I don’t know under what (sponsorship) it was held, but I remember the format,” says the Meadow Bank resident.

On stage, a couple was sitting in their kitchen.

“The wife was occupied at the table, knitting, and the man was reading the newspaper. He was making political jokes and comments, things that people would pick up on and laugh at.

“Every once in a while there would be a knock at the door and someone would come in. And, of course, that would be a performer. And that person would sing or play an instrument. Then they would excuse themselves, leave the room and someone else would come in. So it was like a ceilidh,” says Drake, who

always went to the concerts to hear the music.

“I’m very fond of the bagpipes and there was always a chance that there would be a tune or two on the pipes,” he says.

In the more recent past, one of Boswell’s fondest memories took place in 2006 when the committee added the Haggis ceremony to the program and provided subsequent samples of the Scottish delicacy during intermission.

“It seemed to be of great interest because a lot of people came out,” she says.

But, her all-time favourite memory took place in 2009 when the club took part in a worldwide toast to Burns.

“That was my highlight. We had to put extra chairs on both sides of the stage to accommodate the crowd,” says Boswell, adding new memories will continue to be made at this year’s concert.

That night, Wood will pipe the haggis in, Douglas MacNevin will carry it and Philip Macdonald will address the haggis.

Then, at intermission, samples will be distributed.

“For anyone leery of haggis, it’s made by the Culinary Institute of Canada. They do a wonderful job,” says Macdonald.

A second ceremony will also take place that night to mark the 150th anniversary of the club, says Cecil MacPhail, chief of the Caledonian Club of P.E.I.

There will be an unveiling of a Burns portrait, donated by the MacLaine family of Rice Point.

“The family will attend to help with the unveiling. There will be a special moment after the unveiling,” says MacPhail, adding the club covered the cost of restoration and framing.

“It’s wonderful for a club to have a portrait like this. We really appreciate the gift.”


Fast facts

Robbie Burns Scottish concerts have a rich history on P.E.I.

u In January 1889, the members of the Caledonian Club held the first Burns concert and “began a tradition of a tribute to the Scottish poet and fundraising for the poor that was to continue under the auspices of the society for a number of years,” states Susan Hornby in her book, Celts and Ceildhs: A History of Scottish Societies on Prince Edward Island.

By 1910, the event had turned into two evenings of Scottish music, songs, poetry and dances around Jan. 25, Burns birthday, Hornby states.

On Jan. 25, 1910, The Guardian reported that a Burns concert took place in the Opera House in Charlottetown, under the auspices of the Caledonian Club of P.E.I.

Over the years, the tradition continued under various sponsorships. The concerts were run by the Y’s Men’s Club and the Burke family. Tom Burke recalls: “We used anyone who had any Scottish abilities at all. The shows were at the Confederation Centre. There were performances by the Ho Hum Drum and Pipe Band and Shirley’s Celtic Studio Dancers. We ran it for five years before it was picked up by the Caledonian Club of P.E.I.”

Chief Cecil MacPhail is credited for reviving the Caledonian Club sponsorship of the concert about 20 years ago.

Although they have run for 125 years on P.E.I., the concert tradition is much older. 2014 is the 255th anniversary of the birth of Burns.

Admission to the concert is $12 for adults and free for children under 12. Tickets will be available at the door and by calling club members: Cecil MacPhail, 892-2181; John Bryanton, 566-2082; Bill Acorn, 892-1666; Douglas MacKenzie, 394-0669, or Eleanor Boswell, 368-7378.

Club memberships will also be on sale that night.

Sources: The Caledonian Club of P.E.I. Lawson Drake, Susan Hornby, Shirley and Tom Burke.