Chairman, gentlemen, fellow Burnsians, good evening all.
It is time to turn our attention to the aspect of Robert Burns’ life we invariably regard with admiration – not his despising of hypocrisy; nor his being a voice for the disadvantaged; but that he dearly loved the lassies O.
We are attentive when told he fathered anywhere between 12 to 16 children with at least four women, in his regrettably-short 37 years. How could any red-blooded man take fault with that, you say, but in Burns’ own words his passion proved to be a bitter sweet:
Therefore, let us look at the women whose influence contributed to Burns’ stature as one of the world’s greatest romantic poets of all time.
As it is with all of us, the first woman to ever make an impression on Burns was his mother, Agnes Brown Burns, who, although illiterate, was a wonderful singer in the oral, folk tradition. And so, it is his mother, who is credited with influencing his love of song and poetry:
At age 15, we are told that the first poem Burns ever composed, Handsome Nell, was composed for Helen Kirkpatrick. It reveals the young Burn’s respect for women that would be a constant through his work:
Burns would later state:
It is not hard to understand that the passion Burns carried for all things would also extend to the lassies. In turn, the lassies were undoubtedly drawn to him. However, it did not take long before he was introduced to heartache, when Elizabeth Gebbie, rejected his proposal of marriage:
Next up, Elizabeth Paton, his parent’s servant girl who introduced Burns to the pleasures of the flesh, at a time when contraception was not an option:
The result of this liaison was a daughter, who would be raised by Burns’ mother. Many lassies followed, until Burns met Jean Armour, his Bonnie Jean and future wife:
But when Jean fell pregnant, her father forbid her from seeing Burns, who in turn became angered by Jean’s willingness to readily concede to her father’s demands.
Distraught at the departure of Agnes, Burns became acquainted with Margaret Cameron, who in turn bore him a child.
Later that year, Agnes would return to Scotland after discovering that her husband had a Jamaican mistress and new daughter. But by this time, Burns had reunited with Jean, who in turn had just given birth to the first of their two sets of twins. As a result, Jean’s father put her out of the house, following which, Burns and she married. Yet throughout all the tribulations, Burns was a resolute champion of women:
As far as we know, Margaret Jenny Clow was next to give the married Burns a child.
His final fling was with Anna Park, who gave birth to a daughter, just nine days before his wife Jean delivered a son. Showing forbearance for her husband’s wandering ways, Jean brought up Anna’s child as her own.
In fact Jean lived until age 69, 38 years after her husband’s death. She gave birth to nine of his children, three of whom survived. Years later she was overheard to cryptically remark:
Burns’ own words reveal his sense of regret:
Gentlemen, the Halifax Burns Club invites each of you and your wife, girlfriend, mistress, or all of the aforementioned, to celebrate Jean Armour Night with us, here on April 27.
So, in closing, with masterpieces such as Ae Fond Kiss and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose and many others, it is easy to see that it was the lassies more than anything who ignited the genius in Burns, resulting in him being regarded universally as one of the greatest romantic poets ever to live.
His devotion to the fairer sex can be best summed up in the last lines of Green Grow the Rashes O:
So tonight, gentlemen, please charge your glasses and join me in toasting, in the spirit of Robert Burns, the lassies in our past, the lassies in our present, and who knows, the lassies in our future.
To the Lassies!
This speech was written and delivered by Dale Kidd at the Burns Supper in January 2013.