ON Saturday I had the honour of giving the reply from the lassies at the South Lanarkshire Greens’ Burns Supper. Here it is in full….
Since I was asked to do the reply from the lassies, I’ve been thinking about what these two toasts are for.
Traditionally the man is supposed to say something like “och, women, you’re really annoying in the following ways but we love you anyway” and I’m supposed to say something like “och men, you’re really annoying and y’know, smash the patriarchy but we’ll put up with you because we have to.”
But I think actually the point of these toasts is not to try and slag each other off or to try and fit the opposite gender into a box of stereotypes but to do just as Burns wished when he made this plea…
“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!”
To see ourselves as others see us…
So I set to wondering. We know pretty well how Burns saw women. As fair and bonnie, as folk who’d capture his heart and soon enough break it. As bearers of a bosom on which he could rest a weary head. But I wondered, how did the women in his life see him?
For that matter, how did any woman at the time view any man?
Luckily for us, Burns, though brilliant as was, was far from the only poet in the late 1700s. And luckier still, a fair few of them were women.
Whilst rarely celebrated today, there’s an amazing number of Scottish women poets from the time. And their words speak of love and loss and a fair few tears to boot.
Like today, the women of Burns’s time got annoyed at their men; found faults to be lamented loudly or ignored broodingly.
I want to read you some of the poems from those women and to ponder how far or perhaps how little things have moved on since then.
Alison Cockburn hailed from the hills between Gala and Selkirk and was pals with Burns as well as David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Sir Walter Scott as a boy.
A famous matchmaker and giver of advice, she wrote this fantastic recipe for wooing which might still stand some men in good stead today…
“If your lass is coquettish and frisky
make up to her easy and briskly
if she frowns on ye, turn on your heel
make love to another, you heart to recover
You’ll quickly discover she would keep you her lover
though her heart be as hard as steel
she will try all her tricks to entice ye
sometimes sweet, sometimes sour sometimes spicy
affect all these humours yourself
see that ye vex her, be sure to perplex her
provoke her and coax her and roast her and toast her
she’s as sure in your pouch as your pelf”
Another brilliant woman from Burns’ time who wrote a fair few things about men was Joanna Baillie from Bothwell, just up the road from here. She was a fascinating woman, widely celebrated at the time though oft forgotten now, there’s a 16 foot memorial to her. These are her thoughts on how men change over the course of marriage from part of a poem called, simply, Love.
“Yes, Love has his changes, but be not too ready,
To number his faults or dishonour his sway;
Abuse him you may, as the billow unsteady,
But what are his changes? say, Moralist, say.
At first, I confess, full of whims and vagaries,
All wing and all fire, a wild boy and no more;
But pass a few years–then observe how he varies;
His freaks disappear, and his follies are o’er.
And who would now blame him? so alter’d a creature
More sweet is his smile, more contented his air;
More happy his mien, tho’ more sober each feature”
Now I don’t know how many women would find that their husbands become more sober with age but I rather like the idea of the wild boy with a contented air – and I think it’s something that many women today will sympathise with.
I have to say that I did find one big difference between how the women of Burns’ day saw men and how we women might see them today. This is a wee verse from Jean Adam – a song called There’s Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose. A song that Burns himself is said to have praised.
The last verse goes like this…
Sae sweet his voice, sae smooth his tongue
His breath’s like caller air;
His very tread has music in’t
As he comes up the stair.
And will I see his face again
And will I hear him speak?
I’m downright dizzy wi’ the joy
In troth I’m like to greet.
So I’m not sure many of us today can relate to the thought of getting dizzy with joy and crying at the thought of our men coming upstairs with music in their feet.
But like today, sometimes the women of the late 18th century got fed up of the patriarchy and had a good dig, like this wee gem from Alison Cockburn again.
As an old woman she wrote;
“What are the natural rights of man?
To oppress the weak, take all they can.
What are the natural rights of woman?
If she does not like her spouse, to take another man.”
So laddies, take heed. Like the women of Burns’ time, we like it when you play the courtship game, but also when you know when to back away. We may secretly hope you mature with age and we’ll not berate you for it. Of course, unlike Burns’ time, we’re not likely to get dizzy and start greeting at the thought of you coming up stairs but we will, if we don’t much like you, take another.
Laddies, this is how we see you. Lassies, a toast!