Toast to the Lassies


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:

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, it’s bloom is shed;
Or, like the snow-fall in the river,
A moment white, then melts forever.

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:

But though you are estranged almost,
And often lost to view,
How you will see a little ghost
Who ran to cling to you!
Yet maybe children’s children will
Caress you with a smile . . .
Grandmother love will bless you still,-
Well, just a little while.

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:

Once I loved a bonnie lass,
Ay, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I'll love my handsome Nell.

A bonnie lass, I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e’e;
But, without some better qualities,
She’s no a lass for me.

Burns would later state:


“I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.”


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:

Farewell, farewell, Eliza dear,
The maid that I adore!
A boding voice is in mine ear,
We part to meet no more!

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:

Her breath is as sweet
as the blossoms in May.
The touch of her lips,
ravishes quite!
Oh for the joys of a long winter’s night.

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:

There was a lass, and she was fair,
At kirk and market to be seen,
When all the fairest maids were met,
The fairest maid was bonnie Jean.

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.

O Jeanie fair, I love you dear;
O can you think to fancy me!
Or will you leave your mammy’s cot,
And learn to tend the farms with me?
Now what could artless Jeanie do?
She had no will to say him na:
At length she blushed a sweet consent,
And love was aye between them twa.

Burns’ sad separation from Jean led him rebounding into the arms of Highland Margaret Campbell with whom he planned to emigrate to Jamaica. Unfortunately, Margaret, or Mary as he called her, died of a fever while carrying his child:

She has my heart, she has my hand,
By secret troth and honour’s band!
’Til the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
I’m thine, my Highland lassie, O.

Will you go to the Indies, my Mary,
And leave old Scotia’s shore?
Will you go to the Indies, my Mary,
Across the Atlantic roar?

Afterwards, while in Edinburgh for the publication of his book, Burns experienced the enigma that can be women, when he took up with Agnes McLehose. Known as Nancy, she was a married woman of principles with four children, though still in her 20s. It was she, however, who inspired one of Burns’ most famous of all love poems, which he gave her as she departed Scotland for the West Indies to reunite with her estranged, abusive husband:


Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae farewell, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!


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:


Then gently scan your brother man,
still gentler sister woman, though they may gang
a kennin wrang, to step aside is human.
(though they may knowingly slip up, to err is human)

And putting everything in clear perspective, he also wrote:

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.


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:


“Oor Rab needed twa wives.”


Burns’ own words reveal his sense of regret:


Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee.


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:


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.


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.