The Mother Lode Scots’ big evening of sword-crossed kilts and marching light is upon us again, ushering Christmas in with a luminous pipe precession that warms Volcano with Celtic spirit against blue winter breezes.
The Mother Lode Scots plan to be more active than ever in the New Year. The group will not only host its Robert Burns Dinner on Jan. 16 (6 p.m. at the Imperial Hotel in Amador City, $50), but also Amador County’s first ever Highland Games on June 18 and 19 at the fairgrounds in Plymouth.
There is little doubt that a strange psychic stamina possessed the Scottish people in 18th and 19th centuries that drove Adam Smith to invent modern economic theory, James Watt to build the first steam engine, Sir Walter Scot to create the historic novel, Sir Henry Livingstone to chart the Nile River and Andrew Carnegie to brand the concept of a steel empire. Contemporary medicine was born in the university labs of Edinburgh. Modern engineering grew up in the factories of Glasgow.
The Mother Lode Scots has done a magnificent job of honoring that legacy in Amador County, a place we know enjoyed a steady influx of Scottish immigrants between the Gold Rush and the 1920s.
I did recently learn about one Scottish holiday that I hope the Mother Lode Scots will consider bringing to our region officially at some point. Similar to a Robert Burns Dinner, which honors Scotland’s greatest poet, it’s called a William McGonagall Dinner, and it lovingly remembers the nation’s worst poet. I heard about McGonagall for the first time a few months ago when chatting with locals in front of the Captain’s Bar in Edinburgh. This cozy “wee pub” was one of the venues during the 1890s that McGonagall often recited his poetry for jeering and ironically bemused crowds. As a would-be man of verses, McGonagall’s failure to connect with social attitudes and energy, his inability to comprehend metaphor and the weirdly tone-deaf nature of his approach to poetic rhythm, made him famous from Dundee to the Firth of Forth as an unparalleled failure in the realm of artistic creation.
The only financial success McGonagall ever briefly enjoyed arrived when he agreed to recite his poetry at a traveling Scottish circus that allowed audience members to hurl rotten fruit and vegetables at him for a fee. McGonagall took the money, blocked the projectiles best he could with an umbrella and continued to read lines like, “Little Fido’s master had to go on a long journey, / So Fido followed her master, and ran cheerfully, / And often the master would speak kindly to the dog, / As along the road together they did jog.”
Though 18th and 19th century British literature was my concentration at the University of California, Davis, I never once heard of McGonagall – and now you probably see why. Yet after McGonagall died a pauper in Edinburgh in 1902, the Scots apparently developed a certain admiration for his dogged determination to keep reading poems in the face constant mockery, hostility and dismissal. The present-day narrative in Scotland is that McGonagall’s poetic work is so uniquely bad that it’s almost good. Today, every Sept. 29 (McGonagall’s death date) Scots host McGonagall dinners, in which every element of the festivities are held in reverse order. For example, the night begins with dessert, followed by a big main course capped with appetizers. Usually the host kicks off the evening by welcoming the guest with the phrase, “I hope you all had a great night. Enjoy a safe trip home.” Some of the rowdier McGonagall dinners, especially in the poet’s hometown of Dundee, have been known to include burlesque dancers who start their performances nearly naked and end with all of their clothes on, bundled up to the extreme.
Until the Mother Lode Scots begin staging William McGonagall dinners, I can happily settle for the very cool events that the group hosts. The Scots’ Candlelight Christmas Walk is at 5 p.m. Saturday at Armory Hall in Volcano. It starts with a river of handheld candlelight following along to bagpipe music, moving down Consolation Street toward the steps of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church. After the recitation of a traditional Gaelic blessing, the evening becomes a celebration highlighted by Scottish music, dancing and food. The Cape Breton Step Dancers perform and the night finishes with a soup and stew potluck.
It’s a night of pure winter charm, and there’s nothing backward about it.