Neighbors: Reaching across the isles

Even though he grew up surrounded by Scottish stories, art and music, Hamish Burgess says it wasn’t until years later, when he was living on the other side of the world, that his passion for Celtic culture was sparked.

“It’s a very North American thing to celebrate your heritage,” he says. “I think when you’re in the old countries you’re surrounded by it, so you don’t necessarily feel that need. But folks in the Americas are so enthusiastic. It kind of got me excited.”

Today, Burgess acts as an ambassador for all things Celtic: performing around the state as a professional bagpiper, playing Celtic music as a disc jockey on Mana’o Radio, and creating Celtic art and designs.

While many associate Celtic traditions with Ireland, fewer realize that the Celts were originally a tribal people whose ancient culture extended across Great Britain and throughout Europe as far as Turkey, Burgess notes. The expanding Roman Empire eventually swallowed up most of the Celtic tribes on the European continent and marched across much of England before the invading armies were finally stopped by the wild lands and wild peoples of the northern British Isles.

Today, Celtic culture can be found not only in Ireland, Scotland and Wales but also in places like the Isle of Man and Cornwall, England; Brittany, France; and Galicia and Asturias in Spain.

Burgess says he makes a point of playing music from all those places on his weekly radio program, which airs Sundays from 8 to 10 a.m. on Mana’o Radio.

“The whole feeling I get is being part of that Celtic diaspora,” he says.

Born in Scotland and raised in Cornwall, England, Burgess grew up in “a very Scottish household,” immersed in the history of the British Isles, and entertained with traditional songs sung by his “Gram.” Less than half an hour’s drive from his home was the site where legend says King Arthur was born.

“I was living in Cornwall, surrounded by myths and legends,” he says. “But then I forgot about a lot of that in my teenaged years, when I was out with the boys drinking and riding British motorbikes and causing trouble.”

A love of travel and surfing, and a carefree career as a diving instructor, brought him first to the Caribbean and later to the Mainland U.S. and Hawaii, where Americans’ fascination with his Scottish heritage “kind of rubbed off.”

Burgess started joining in local festivals perpetuating the Scottish Highland Games, then got more and more interested in Celtic music and art. He was a founding member of The Maui Celtic Pipes and Drums, since renamed the Isle of Maui Pipe Band, although he now performs solo as a bagpiper for weddings, funerals and cultural events across the state, in addition to a regular gig at Fleetwood’s on Front St. restaurant three nights a week. He’s also worked with his partner, Jennifer MacKay Fahrni, on The Princess Kaiulani Project, which seeks to bring the story of Hawaii’s young princess, who was half Scottish, to an audience outside of the islands. And Burgess was involved in lobbying the Legislature to recognize a locally designed pattern as the official Hawaii state tartan several years ago.

But Burgess’ latest passion is Celtic art. His designs have been used on album covers for musical groups like the Irish Rovers, as well as commissioned pieces, book illustrations, tattoos and even to decorate cars. He also sells some of his work online at

Celtic art can often be identified by its swirling, circling patterns of interlacing woven knots, as well as a distinctive symbolism. Burgess is inspired by ninth- and 10th-century masterpieces of the style, like the intricately detailed Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts.

“I’ve reproduced some traditional stuff like that – I’m in awe of what those guys used to do,” he says. “But I also do modern Celtic stuff. I’ve done Hawaii marine life, inspired by my days scuba diving, but I do it in a Celtic style.”

While he acknowledges that his work has been slow to catch on in Maui’s fine-arts scene – he thinks because local artists aren’t familiar with traditional Celtic forms – Burgess says he feels more at home with practitioners of Native American art in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he spends time, or in the presence of Hawaiian and Polynesian designs.

Burgess says his passion for his own heritage has broadened into an affinity for many forms of tribal culture. But, he says, he’ll continue to focus his own work on Celtic traditions.

“That’s what’s inside me,” he says. “And that’s what I have to share.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.