One of the things that make it such intriguing fun being human is the traditions and rituals that evolve and how each generation and each community tweaks them to be ‘how we’ve always done it here’. Last night in this Reiver village we celebrated – and I do mean celebrated – the two hundred and fifty eighth birthday of Robert Burns. And, newcomer as I am, I had been asked to give the response to ‘The Toast to the Lassies.’ Various warmly-supporting friends and neighbours had made it clear that this is one of the highlights of the village year, with signed copies of the speeches changing hands for undisclosed sums. So, no pressure then.
My father in law was born and brought up only a couple of miles or so from Alloway, and my own great-grandparents were Highlanders. So I have enough Scots blood coursing through my veins to thrill to the skirl of the pipes and to really, really enjoy eating haggis. But you don’t have to be a Scottish lassie to have a sneaking suspicion that you, too, would have found Robert Burns irresistible. You have only to see the portraits to lose yourself in those melting chocolate eyes: but I do not think that was the secret of his success. Robert Burns, ladies, could do things in bed that most men then could only dream of: read. He could charm any one of us with his stories and his poems and his gift of the gab – and which one of us would say that isn’t still the best way to a woman’s heart?
Burns didn’t just love women, he did something much rarer: he liked us. In fact, he thought – and this might ring a few bells from the autumn – that we were ‘better together’. What comes through in so many stories about him, whether in Ayrshire, Dumfries or Edinburgh, was that he thought of women as his conversational, intellectual and political equals. In 1792 he wrote a poem called ‘The Rights of Women’. Unlike Mary Wollstonecraft’s book of the same year (and how I wish the two of them had met), Burns confines himself to arguing that women should be respected and taken seriously, but you have to admit that that in itself is a hell of a good start. He also let his male readers into the little secret that it is never a good plan to behave like a drunken slob in the company of women.
Every time he fell in love – and he made friends terribly easily – he wrote the lady in question a poem. There are more than eighty that we know of which tells you quite a bit about Burns. And best of all, he thanked us for inspiring him. He wrote, ‘I never had the least thought nor inclination of turning poet until I got heartily in love, then rhyme and song became the spontaneous language of my heart.’ So, ladies, I think I can see a little test for the man in your life coming up. I mean, yes, he may be solid and dependable and faithful – and let’s face it, those are none of them things we can say about Robert Burns – but when did your man last write a poem for you?
But don’t be too hard on him. After all, he’s working with inferior equipment. No, I don’t mean whatever in the world it could have been that Burns was talking about when he wrote a poem called ‘Nine Inch Will Please a Lady’, I mean the male brain, which as Burns knew was just an early prototype. As he wrote: ‘Mither Nature … Her ‘prentice hand she tried on Man, And then she made the lassies.’
So thank you, chaps, for raising a glass to us last night. I have to admit, it’s not that unusual – a man who raises a glass in our general direction, and then drinks it all himself – but it was gallantly meant, and greatly welcomed. Take your lead from the Bard in liking, respecting, talking with and listening to women, boys, and you won’t go far wrong. There are, of course, other aspects of Robert Burns’s behaviour that you should very definitely shun as a role model. Don’t ever treat anyone as badly as Burns treated the long-suffering Jean Armour – and lassies, maybe we should make a note never to be as long-suffering as Jean, and never to take up with someone else’s man.
And above all, chaps, don’t even think about trading us in for younger models – because remember it could happen to you. And then you’d miss out on all the years of love that Burns was sure a long marriage brings. It breaks my heart that he never got to test his theory out: he died, still rapscallion, still entangled in multiple love affairs, but still loving women – and maybe loving Jeannie best of all – when he was only 37. But his poet’s imagination had taken him there, into the depths of a long, long happy marriage, and he wrote about it. So, lassies, however exasperating you find the man you love, look across at him and think,
John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw,
but blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo!
John Anderson my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither,
And monie a cantie day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foo
John Anderson, my jo!
So whether you are holding a Burns Supper on January 25th, or whether you are simply sitting together in the peace of your own home, raise a glass to the great Romantic. The toast is: Love – till a’ the seas gang dry.