Saturday 24th. January 2015


Ladies & Gentlemen,

I remember sitting down after making a long speech to a Tory dinner and this extremely drunk man said to me it was the worst speech he'd ever heard. The Chairman quickly said: "Don't pay any attention to him, Struan, he only repeats what everyone else is saying."

But seriously, it is a great honour to have been asked to propose a toast to the lassies at such an august gathering as this, although I must say it is rather unusual, if not unique, to have my wife replying on behalf of the lassies. I better not say too much on that score as she is my carer and driver right now since my knee operation a couple of weeks’ ago! But she usually gets the last word in any case, so I suppose tonight is no different!

Burns Suppers tend to do strange things to you. Some years ago, when our kids were wee, I was getting dressed before leaving for a local Burns Supper in Ballantrae and my eldest son Ryan who was five years old at the time said to me "Daddy, I wish you wouldn't wear that dinner jacket, you know it always makes you sick!"

I also suffer from a strange affliction....every time I wake up in bed with my shoes on I have a terrible headache!

For the past 15 years I’ve had to chair the annual Burns Supper in the European Parliament. It’s a charitable affair, raising around £5000 every year for Mercy Corps – the Edinburgh-based international charity.

The evening always ends with a charity auction, with me as the auctioneer, selling stuff that has been donated by sponsors like DIAGEO and items gifted by MEPs. I actually managed to sell a £4 packet of Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers for £70 two years’ ago to Mike Russell’s brother…which perhaps tells you how much everyone has had to drink by the time the auction begins!

Diageo always provide classic malt whiskies for each of the tables and they give me a couple of bottles for the auction. One is always quite valuable and the other is a total collectors’ bottle worth a lot of money. A couple of years ago I got them mixed up and told everyone that a bottle of 15 year old Dalwhinnie was a rare collectors’ item, eventually selling it to an English MEP for £450. He was outraged when he saw it on sale at Brussels airport the next day for £45!

I remember one year when Annabel Goldie replied for the lassies and she told us what qualities would make the ideal European Lassie:

           The ability to cook like the English.

           The sobriety of the Irish.

           The modesty of the French.

           The broad horizons of the Luxembourger.

           The prudishness of the Danes.

           The humour of the Germans.

           The generosity of the Belgians.

           The common sense of the Italians.

           The patience of the Greeks.

           In other words..... A Scot !

The last time I attended the Carrick Burns Supper was way back in 1990. It was in the King’s Arms Hotel in Girvan. Pat was the speaker that evening and I was simply a guest.

But I found myself seated next to the star turn for the evening, Baron Von Richtoven, a great grand-nephew of the famous Red Baron, and at that time the German Ambassador to the U.K.

Apparently the Baron had been a lifelong admirer of Rabbie Burns' poetry and had always harboured an ambition to attend a Burns Supper. Clearly, this very cultured man thought that such an occasion would be an annual opportunity for the Scots to celebrate the life and work of their greatest poet, rather than a lame excuse for a jolly good pissup. In any event, he refused all offers of strong drink and sat studying his notes throughout the meal.

By the time he rose to speak, most of the 150 guests were well oiled and were scarcely prepared for his 45 minute clinical analysis of Rabbie's epic poems, with lengthy readings from the German poets Goethe and Schiller, some delivered in their native tongue, which were marginally more acceptable than his attempts at translation.

The speaker who followed the Red Baron was Malky, the cartoonist from the Daily Record. He pointed to the large rotating fan in the centre of the hotel dining-room ceiling and said "I see you crashed your plane on the way here tonight" which rather set the tone for the rest of the evening.

He followed that by asking the assembled company "What's the difference between Baron Von Richtoven and a whoopee cushion?  At least you can get a laugh out of a whoopee cushion!" This last remark almost caused World War III. The Red Baron was muttering under his breath; “Vot did he zay?”

Anyway, fear not. I don't intend to deliver an erudite evocation of Rabbie's work.

Indeed, when I was reading up about his extra curricular activities with the lassies, it amazed me that he ever found the time to write any poems at all!

Not only was he kept busy ploughing the fields, he was intent on scattering his seed around the four corners of Scotland as well. Meanwhile, Bonnie Jean Armour, once he got around to marrying her and several children later, was left to mind the bairns at home, while Rabbie cavorted with Highland Mary, Clarinda and a variety of other Celtic damsels.

Rabbie once told Tam O'Shanter that he had an angel for a wife. "You're lucky," said Tam, "Mine's still alive." He claimed that, like many women, his wife had a slight speech impediment....”Every now and again she has to stop to take a breath!"

But seriously, women are of course the mainstay of family life in Scotland as they have been since the time of Burns and for centuries before. I remember when I was a student in Glasgow I witnessed a heart-warming example of Scottish motherhood.  It was one Saturday afternoon when I saw a wee boy shouting up at a tenement window..."Mammy, throw me doon a peace!"  The Mammy shouted back..."Ye canny have a peace...yer faither's awa tae the fitba match and he's taken the breid knife"!!

On another celebrated occasion, the Lord Provost of Glasgow returned home late one Saturday night after spending all day at a football match. "Do you know," his wife shouted at him…."You love Rangers more than you love me!" "I love bloody Celtic more than I love you," he replied!

That reminds me of the story of the Sunday School teacher who asks her class: “Who went to Mount Olive?” and the children all shout “Popeye!”

Burns’ motto seemed to be that the best way to get rid of a temptation was to yield to it. But as he knew, if it wasn’t for marriage, husbands and wives would have to fight with complete strangers. They say marriage is a lottery, but I don’t believe that. In a lottery you can win!

Rabbie never tried to hide his own lustful appetite... As he wrote in the poem "The Bonniest Lass":

           King Solomon, prince o' divines,

           Wha proverbs made, an' a' that,

           Baith mistresses an' concubines

           In hundreds had, for a' that.

Rabbie's problem was that his pursuit of the opposite sex often got him into trouble with the Scottish clergy. Many a Sunday he spent sitting on the penance stool in Alloway and other Kirks, in front of an outraged congregation.

Needless to say, he developed a healthy dislike for anyone who wore his collar the wrong way round. Mary Morrison, one of his many loves, once told him that if he wore his trousers the same way round that a Minister wears his collar, he wouldn't get into so much hot water.

Had Rabbie been alive today he may have learned the age-old lesson why bachelors are skinny and married men are fat. The bachelor comes home, sees what's in the fridge and goes to bed. The married man comes home, sees what's in the bed and goes to the fridge!!

I remember the day Pat & got married in Ayr. We were driving down to Turnberry for the reception and the Police stopped me and said, “Do you know you were doing 80 miles an hour?” I said, “That’s impossible, I’ve only been driving for ten minutes.”

A wee bit later I pulled into a lay-by just after Culroy. It was wonderfully romantic. The sun going down over the Arran hills. I put my hand on Pat’s knee. She said ‘Now that we’re married you can go a bit further”…so I drove on to Maidens!

When we got to our honeymoon suite in our hotel, I took my trousers off and told Pat to put them on. Then I told her to take them off again. “What was that for,” she said. ‘That’s the last time you’ll wear the trousers in this family” I told her. She took off this lovely pair of silk knickers and told me to put them on. ‘I’ll never get into these” I said. You won’t if you don’t change your attitude,” she said.

A year later our first baby was born. I said to my Pat “My God, look at the size of his willie…it’s enormous.” She said, “Never mind dear, he’s got your eyes.”

Ladies and gentlemen, almost two hundred years after his death, Burns' songs are still sung and his poetry quoted...not only in Scotland...but right across the world, in China, Russia, Japan, North America and countries further afield. A host of phrases from his poems and songs have become proverbial: "A man's a man for a' that", "Facts are chiels that winna ding", "To see oursels as ithers see us"- and so forth.

You will not hear much Shakespeare or Milton quoted in an English pub or much Walt Whitman in an American bar, but in pubs right across Scotland he is still part of the furniture. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is still part of the family…..for his fame has a markedly affectionate tinge about it in this, his own country.

As we all know, Rabbie Burns died of a rheumatic heart in Dumfries on the 21st. of July 1796 at the age of 37. While his funeral was taking place on the 25th. of July, his loyal and devoted wife Jean Armour, that most indomitable Lassie, was giving birth to another son...Maxwell Burns. A rather touching and most Burnsian coincidence: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."  But the Lassies bear the next generation.

I ask all the Laddies to be upstanding and join with me in toasting the Lassies.

Struan Stevenson