I was asked / told to give the toast to the lassies at my rugby club Burns night. I looked quite extensively online for tips and example toasts but nothing was that good so, in the hope that it might help someone else out here’s the toast that I gave, or at least the toast that I wrote beforehand.
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. For those who don’t know me my name is Rob Mitchell and I play second row for the 1st XV. I also compile the statistics for the 1st XV, noting how many appearances players have made and so because I love statistics I note that this is the third Burns night I can remember attending here and since my first appearance I’ve learnt not to wear a kilt to these occasions and John Hines has learnt not to ask me in front of assembled dignitaries to prove whether I am a true Scotsman in my wearing of said kilt…
So when David Dick asked me to give the Toast to the Lassies, I said I’d think about it but wasn’t sure if I could do it… he then thanked me for agreeing to do it and here we are. I have to confess that despite being born in Glasgow and with parents living in Aberdeen I had to go and look up what was expected from the Toast to the Lassies. My hopes were immediately dashed when I realised it had nothing to do with those incredible dogs who save so many children from abandoned mine shafts every year, or the Guildford RFC backline.
Scotland still being just part of Britain I went to the BBC site which describes the Toast to the Lassies as “the humorous highlight of any Burns Night”. I’m not sure who wrote that but no pressure I suppose… at least not if you’ve spent the rest of this evening sitting on Rory Andrews’s table.
The BBC goes on to say that this toast “is designed to praise the role of women in the world today. This should be done by selective quotation from Burns’s work and should build towards a positive note.” I don’t know if that means I should start on a negative note or something. However one important point that the BBC does not mention is that in preparation the speaker should spend 80min running round a muddy field getting his head kicked in, followed by 4 hours of aggressive drinking, but we can all read between the lines here.
Here at Guildford we are lucky to be able to count on the involvement of many women, from the players in the mighty Gazelles, to coaches, physios, administrators, volunteers, bar and catering staff and supporters. Not to mention those partners of players who put up with weekend disruption as Saturdays (or Sundays) are spent playing and then the rest of the weekend involves their partner lying around in pain and asking for back rubs. I’m glad and proud to be part of a club which has such an active involvement from the other 50% of the population.
So on to Robert Burns. He was a big fan of women but however not such a big fan of responsibility, commitment or the withdrawal method and is thought to have fathered somewhere between 12 and 16 children with at least 4 women before he died at the age of 37. For a fan of statistics such as myself the implications of that are pretty mind-boggling. Assuming that there were no twins, that’s 1 child every year since the age of 20.
I’ve never really read much Robert Burns but I started looking through his work to prepare some of those selective quotations that the BBC recommends and was struck by how alive a lot of those poems and songs felt. You can really get a sense of the person behind the writing and the 16 children by 4 women in 20 years seems less outlandish. I am no Burns scholar but reading some of this stuff and picturing the man behind it, it seemed like there were three types of writing that Burns did.
First up are those poems where Burns is delighting in his conquests and showing what a lad he is. This one is thought to be inspired by Elisabeth Paton, a servant girl who worked in the Burns household:
My girl she’s airy, she’s buxom and gay,
Her breath is as sweet as the blossoms in May;
A touch of her lips it ravishes quite.
She’s always good natur’d, good humor’d, and free;
She dances, she glances, she smiles with a glee;
Her eyes are the lightenings of joy and delight:
Her slender neck, her handsome waist,
Her hair well buckl’d, her stays well lac’d,
Her taper white leg with an et, and a, c,
For her a, b, e, d, and her c, u, n, t,
And Oh! For the joys of a long winter night!!!
The second type of verse has a long lineage and was all too easy for a rugby player to recognise. No doubt many here are familiar with the story of the man who used to have a retail job in Chicago but lost it due to many misunderstandings with female customers and the items they came into the store looking for. Or the joys of being a Rifle Ranger, or the bear that I know that you don’t know, and so on and so on. If you were in the vicinity of the A3 between Gosport and here this evening it’s possible you may have heard some of these stories set to music…
It’s impossible to read something like Coming through the Rye (chorus:
O gin a body meet a body,
Comin’ throu the rye:
Gin a body fuck a body,
Need a body cry.)
Or the fantastically crude “Nine Inch will please a lady”:
`Come rede me, dame, come tell me, dame,
`My dame come tell me truly,
`What length o’ graith, when weel ca’d hame,
`Will sair a woman duly?’
The carlin clew her wanton tail,
Her wanton tail sae ready
I learn’d a sang in Annandale,
Nine inch will please a lady.
and not imagine Robert Burns and his mates getting pretty severely boozed before launching into drunken renditions of these and several others.
Now the BBC says that this toast should build towards a positive note so after reciting some of Burns’s cruder work (John Hines might be wishing that he’d asked me to prove my Scots heritage instead now…) I’d like to look at the final category of Burns’s work, those poems which go furthest to explain the multitude of women he was involved with. It is easy to imagine the average standard of wooing from farmers in 18th Century Ayrshire and then the success that someone would have with verses like these from “O Saw ye Bonie Lesley”.
To see her is to love her,
And love but her for ever;
For Nature made her what she is
And never made anither.
Thou art a queen, fair Lesley,
Thy subjects we, before thee:
Thou art divine, fair Lesley,
The hearts o’ men adore thee.
So to conclude, would you please be upstanding and I’d like to finish with some final words from Burns as we toast to the lassies:
Old Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice hand she tried on man,
And then she made the lassies, O.