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Scots Wha Hae

Published about 2 months ago • 6 min read

Hello friends. We are all familiar with Boise's Basque community and its heritage of immigrant sheepherders in the area. But did you know that Scottish immigrants were moving to Idaho around the same time? Today's story is about Boise's Scottish community, and the 119th annual Robert Burns Night happening next Saturday. Enjoy!


On August 26, 1891, a small snippet ran in the Idaho Daily Statesman, within the News of the City section. It read: “Scotchman and sons of Scotchman are invited to attend a meeting in room 5, Odd Fellows block, on Saturday, the 29th inst. At 7:30 p. m., for the purpose of organizing a Caledonian club.”

That meeting would mark the first of many gatherings amongst Scottish immigrants and families living in Boise. Three years later, in January 1894, the group organized a celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burns. About 75 Scotts gathered at the Bancroft Hotel in downtown Boise (which was on the NW corner of Idaho & 9th Street) for an evening of “toasts and songs and a banquet of toothsome delicacies”.

Next weekend, on Saturday, January 27, 2024, you have the opportunity to take part in an evening of Scottish toasts and songs and a banquet of toothsome delights at the 119th annual Robert Burns Night, hosted by the Boise Scottish Caledonian Society.

Scotts arrive in Boise

Scottish immigrants began arriving in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s, working as shepherds, ranchers, and miners.

"A lot of immigrants stopped on the East Coast or went to Nova Scotia or the Carolinas," said Julie Humphries, an active member within the Boise Scottish Caledonian Society and organizer of Robert Burns Night. "But our ancestors ended up coming all the way over to the West Coast and settling in Idaho."

Julie's grandfather immigrated from Scotland in 1920 when he was 17 years old. He became a sheepherder, helping his cousin ranch in Homedale and Jordan Valley.

“In those days, you had to have a sponsor in America. That meant you had to have somebody who would guarantee you a job and housing for a year. And you had to learn the language,” said Julie.

One of Idaho’s most famous Scottish immigrants was Andrew Little, the grandfather of Governor Brad Little.

Andrew Little came to Idaho in 1884 with two dogs and $25. He found work herding sheep for fellow Scottish immigrant and pioneer Robert Aikman, and accepted 1,200 ewes for compensation. Within a year, Little had doubled his band of sheep and bought 40 acres of land. By 1935, he was known as “The Idaho Sheep King,“ owning more than 100,000 head of sheep and marketing a million pounds of wool per year. Little owned more than 6,000 acres of land stretching from Emmett to Payette to McCall, and employed as many as 400 workers to keep his operations running year-round.

One of those workers was the grandfather of Carol Standley, a member of the Boise Scottish Caledonian Society and organizer of Robert Burns Night. Carol’s grandfather, who grew up in Moffat, Scotland, came over to Idaho with his brother. They had responded to a sign that Andrew Little had posted in the Moffat town square stating he was looking for workers on his ranch in America.

This was the way to America for many young Scotts. As more Scotts settled in Idaho, they formed a Caledonian club as a way of keeping together and keeping their culture alive in a new country.

The Boise Caledonian Society officially formed in 1903. Club records state that “a group of 21 men met and elected permanent officers according to the articles of the constitution and bylaws they had written.” The club organized a formal Burns’ Supper on Monday, January 26, 1903 at the Natatorium. There were about 200 people in attendance, including Governor Morrison, who gave the Address to the Haggis.

Who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns, also known as Rabbie or Bobbie, was a famous Scottish poet and lyricist. Known as the “poet of his people”, Robert Burns is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and celebrated as such. He wrote most of his poems in Scottish dialect, often about life, love, and politics.

Burns was born January 25, 1759 in Ayrshrine, Scotland. Born to a farmer, Burns grew up in poverty and worked years of hard manual labor. He was given irregular schooling, though his father taught him and his six siblings reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history. Burns was writing poetry and songs as early as age 15.

On July 31, 1786, a volume of works by Robert Burns titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, was published. It contained much of Burns' best writing, including "The Twa Dogs", "Address to the Deil", "Halloween", "The Cotter's Saturday Night", "To a Mouse", and "To a Mountain Daisy". The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.

Burns also collected folk songs and wrote his own poetic lyrics, often taking traditional Scottish folk songs and adding new lyrics or modified melodies. His song, "Scots Wha Hae", served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Burns poem and song "Auld Lang Syne" is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year).

Robert Burns died at the age of thirty seven in 1796. Every year, he is celebrated worldwide with great pride on or near his birth date.

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Burns Night

Robert Burns Night, also known as Burns Night or Burns Supper, traditionally involves a meal, reciting of Burns’ poems and songs, followed by an evening of shortbread, drinking, music, and dancing. The supper typically includes haggis (sheep's offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasoning and boiled in a bag, traditionally one made from the animal's stomach), served with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). During the meal, a member of the party is ceremoniously called upon to address the haggis by reciting the Robert Burns poem, Address Tae A Haggis.

Since Boise’s first official Burns Supper in 1903, the Caledonian Club has hosted Burns Night at many locations including the Columbian Club Hall, the El Korah Temple, and the Eagles Halls. In the 1950’s, the event was held in the basement of the Owyhee Hotel. In the 1960’s, the event was held at the YWCA – a time that holds fond memories for Carol and Julie.

“When we were kids growing up it was a huge event,” remembered Julie, noting that there was 300-400 people in attendance. “My best memory is when we had it down at the YWCA. Several of the families planned, cooked, and served the whole meal. Then, after dinner, everybody cleared out the hall and we'd all have to hurry up and change our clothes to get up on stage to do the performance. There was a big orchestra that played music and dancing. There was lots of dancing.”

Over the years, Boise’s Burns Night has changed a bit. There’s less dancing, and the haggis isn’t cooked in an actual sheep’s stomach. But much remains true to the old traditions.

It’s still quite a large event – there were about 450 people in attendance at the 2023 event. Many attendees don their clan’s tartan (in case you are not familiar, a clan is a family, and tartan is that specific family’s plaid colors and pattern). There is a traditional dinner served, but with haggis as a side dish instead of the main course. The haggis is handmade by Julie’s family and cooked in bags made by Julie. The bagpipers pipe in the haggis and the address is read aloud. There is also plenty of entertainment. This year’s event features live performances by The Boise Highlanders, The City of Trees Pipes and Drums, local fiddlers, and community singing.

There’s also poetry, of course. Several people read Robert Burns poems throughout the night.

“My mom is going to recite the Burns Grace again. She'll be 92 in February,” said Julie. “We used to have one lady who would do it for years and years, years and years and years, but she passed away. So, you know, you have to kind of cling on to the old traditions as much as you can.”

2024 Robert Burns Night

Scottish or not, you are invited to join the 2024 Robert Burns Night, happening next Saturday, January 27, 2024 at 6pm at the Riverside Hotel. Tickets can be purchased online or in-person at Need to Bead (5420 Franklin Road, Suite B, Boise, Idaho).

And if you’re interested in joining the Boise Scottish Caledonian Society, they are welcoming new members to keep the 120-year club going. Membership is only $5 per year. Learn more at tvscots.org.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

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From Boise

by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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