Toast to the Lassies


Good evening ladies and gentlemen !


Although we are here tonite as a result of the life and times and works of Robbie Burns, this is a night to celebrate the women in Burns and our lives. It is my pleasure to present a “Toast to the Lassies”.


In closing, I would ask the men to stand and toast the lassies………no, no, no…………


Relax, I have more to say…


I would like to take some time to tell you of some of the special “Lassies” in Burns life. These women were remarkable, proud descendents of Celtic womanhood. In his short life, Burns would father no fewer than 13 children though relationships with 5 women. He was in love with and admired countless more.  Many of these loves became the basis of his songs and poetry. For sure, Burns would not have attained the status he has enjoyed were he not surrounded by remarkable women.


The first female influence on Burns life was undoubtedly his mother, Agnes. His mother sang to him the songs she had learned from working in the fields, when ‘he was nocht but a bairn or her knee”.  During these early years of Burns life another woman by the name of Betty Davidson, often stayed with the family and told stories of old legends and dastardly deeds…………….no wonder for the source of ‘Tam o’Shanter’ !


At the age of 15, Burns first ‘young love’ was the young 14 year old girl Nellie Blair, who we know of her today as Nelly Kilpatrick. This relationship resulted in Burns first song “Handsome Nell”.
Burns later wrote of this song “I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love……………………..”

In a verse from that song, Handsome Nell, Burns writes:


                           “O once I lov’d a bonnie lass,
                            Aye, and I love her still:
                            And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
                            I’ll love my handsome Nell.”


Burns a year later met Peggy Thompson, a housekeeper he met while in school in Kirksowald. They contracted an intimacy even though she was engaged and Burns later said “Peggy was my deity for six or eight months” !


Another lassie, Alison Begbie became a friend of Burns for sometime but Miss Begbie refused the poet’s suit. In the song “The Lass of Cessnock Banks and Bonie Peggy Alison”, Burns couldn’t find anything to rhyme with “Begbie” so he referred to her as “Peggy Alison”.


The beautiful song “Mary Morrison” has caused much speculation about whom it was written. Some say that Mary Morrison, Peggy Thompson and Alison Begbie were the same person. However, in the Mauchline Kirkyard, there is a tombstone marked “In Memory of Adjutant John Morrison and also his daughter, the poet’s bonnie Mary Morrison”.  


“My Highland Lassie O” was inspired by Mary Campbell. Burns indeed had discussed marriage with her but she suddenly died of a fever. Burns remained full of despair for many years. Later, while married to Jean Armour, on the third anniversary of Mary’s death he wrote the immortal address to “Mary in Heaven”.


Burns wrote “The Lass o’ Ballochmyle” in 1786 about a Miss Wilhelmina Alexander, sister of the proprietor of Ballyochmyle.  Oddly enough, she is one of the few lassies in Burns life who ignored Burns’s song and letter to her and died unmarried in 1843.


One of my favourite stories, happens in May of 1787. Burns, while touring the Borders,  visited the farm of Berryhill, the home of his friends, the Ainslies. On Sunday, he accompanied them to church where the minister gave a heavy denunciation of obstinate sinners.  Seeing Miss Ainslie searching for a passage, he asked her for her Bible and wrote these lines on the inner cover”


                        “Fair maid, you need not take the hint,
                          Nor idle texts pursue:
                          Twas guilty sinners that he meant’
                          Not Angles such as you.


During Burns sojurn to Edinburgh in 1787, he met Mrs. Agnes Craig. She was the same age as Burns, living with her two surviving children, having been deserted by her husband.  They corresponded as “Sylvander and Clarinda” and could fill a volume of their letters.  Some of Burns finest songs were written with her in mind; the best known being


                          “Ae fond kiss, and then we sever:
                          Ae farewell, and then for ever!
                          Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
                          Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee,
                          Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
                          While the star of hope she leaves him?
                          Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me:
                          Dark despair around benights me.”


There are many other lassies of note and Burns’ work including:


Miss Jeanie Jaffrey for whom he wrote two songs – ‘The Blue Eyed Lasssie’ and ‘When I first saw fair Jeanie’s face’.


Miss Elizabeth Burnet, with whom he shared many letters.


Miss Jessie Staig, Burns wrote the song “Lovely Young Jessie”.


Miss Jean Lorimer, referred often is his works as “Chloris” and the “Lassie wi the lint-white locks”.


Anna Park, was the niece of the proprietor of the Globe Tavern in Dumfries and bore a daughter to Burns in 1791.  Jean Armour Burns, being pregnant for Burns herself, took the infant girl into her own home and then nursed the two children together.  For Anna, Burns wrote the song “The gowden locks of Anna”…………….of which he said it was the best love song he ever wrote. The last verse, a Postscript:


                          "She is the sunshine o’ my e’e,
                          To live but her I canna;
                          Had I on earth but wishes three,
                          The first should be my Anna."


Jessie Lewars was the last of the fair sex to be immortalized by Burns. During Burns brief and fatal illness, she was often at Burns home, assisting with the household. Burns last song in his dying days was “O wert thou in the cauld blast”. The last four lines of this song may be the finest words of any song ever written:

                          "Or were I Monarch o’the globe,
                           Wi’ thee to reign, wi’ thee to reign,
                           The brightest jewel in my crown
                           Wad be my Queen, wad be my Queen."


Of course all of these stories of Burn’s lassies would not be complete without mention of Burns beloved wife, Jean Armour.  They met in Mauchline, where he attended the Kirk, the ale house and the Masonic Lodge.  While pregnant with their first child, Burns attempt to marry Jean Armour was thwarted by her father who would not allow marriage to a “worthless rhymer”. Burns was shattered by this and abandoned by Jean. However two years later, when Burns had made a name for himself and became accepted in the high society of the day, Jean and Robbie were married.


They first lived in Ellisland near Dumfires, then later the Wee Vennel in Dumfries until Burns died in 1796.  Jean lived in the home until her death in 1834.  Jean is buried beside Robbie in St. Michael’s Kirkyard.


As we have heard, Burns life was full of romantic fantasy to the point that he did not  speak to some of the lassies he wrote, but wrote of their beauty which filled him with passion.  From Burns’s poem “ Green Grow the Rashes”:


                            "Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
                            Her noblest work she classes, O:
                            Her prentice han’ she try’d on man,
                            An’ then she made the lasses, O."


Please gentlemen, be up on your feet and join me in a Toast to the Lassies.!










This speech was written and delivered by Dave Graham at Jean Armour Night on April 29, 2006.