Earlier this week I spent some time researching Robbie Burns for a toast to the lassies I was asked to give at a dinner to celebrate his birthday. The material is extensive - Burns was a well-educated tenant farmer from the Scottish lowlands. He wrote poetry while plowing fields, published five hundred and fifty poems and sired many children. He loved the lassies, and his legacy lives on. I had to cut my toast down to a simple theme: how does this celebration connect to a fifth generation Canadian lassie? One whose week was made up of deeply domestic moments like these?
I put a hot water bottle deep under the covers so my cold toes had a nice place to land when I crawled into bed.
My son fried eggs and left a perfect semi-circle of splattered oil over the counter.
I pulled the runner in the hallway a few inches up the bottom of the front door so it blocks the icy air that slithers through the crack.
I made egg yolk chocolate chip cookies with the yolks leftover from last Sunday’s shrimp dumplings.
I drove boys to basketball practice.
I scraped the car windows.
Am I bonnie enough?
On the night of the event, I put on a white blouse, my husband's Prince Charlie jacket and black trousers. I looked like a waiter. The printer spat out what I planned to say and I stuffed the paper into my Clare V. clutch. I can’t add lib. My mother once told me she could see my hair ribbon shake from her seat in the auditorium during a piano recital. I still get nervous in front of a crowd.
The crowd was intimate and kind. The organizer made proper haggis - seasoned liver, heart and lungs of a sheep cooked with oatmeal then simmered in a sheep’s stomach - and served it with neeps and tatties. It was piped in ceremoniously, then sliced open and addressed. Braised lamb shanks and roasted vegetables followed along with whiskies from the Lowlands, Speyside and Islay. And there was sticky toffee with a spoonful of cream that slipped down the pudding like a tartan sash across the shoulder. Then came the toasts.
I breathed deeply and slowly, like Yoga with Adriene has taught me every January for the past several years. And then I stood up and went for it.
“Lassies, laddies,” I said. “I’m honoured to have the opportunity to give this toast, ever since my father gave a similar toast at a Robbie Burns night for the North British Society, when I was just a wee lassie. And speaking of wee, just as he was addressing the room, I had to wee so badly that I scooted in front of the lectern and crossed the Hotel Nova Scotian ballroom, mid-toast.”
It was starting to flow.
“Finally a chance to vindicate myself!” I shouted, arms outstretched. “I’ve just peed, so not to worry.
“This toast was traditionally meant as an obligatory nod to the lassies who were in the kitchen simmering haggis while the men celebrated the immortal bard over drams of scotch.
“Now, 227 years since Burns’s passing, we’ve evolved. Chef Dennis Johnston is in the kitchen, and the Johnston clan motto is, thankfully for us tonight, NEVER UNPREPARED.
“I am a Cameron from the west highlands. Our clan motto is: Unite! But our name means Crooked Nose. We immigrated to Canada five generations ago, like most of the lassies here tonight, because we Scots were more expensive to keep on the land than sheep. It’s debatable whether we were pushed or pulled to Nova Scotia, but either way, here we are fellow lassies - uniting, under this thing we have in common- a link to the past, a sisterhood, an appreciation for men who can cook, and especially for those who write poetry, while cooking. We love a multitasker in the kitchen.
“Robbie Burns was the ultimate multitasker. As the son of a young tenant farmer, poetry and love sprang early in his heart. He composed as he ploughed the fields, and was said to have impregnated his first love, Jean Armour, before they were married, probably while reciting a romantic sonnet in a haystack. Burns went on to father eleven more children before his early death at age 37.
“But I digress.
“I say I am a crooked nose, a uniter, but really I’m a cocktail of Swedish, English and Scottish heritage from the wrong side of Quinpool Road. But I was raised by a Cameron who celebrated his heritage, who named me after Clan Lindsay, who played the bagpipes, wore a kilt, and made not a bad haggis every year on this very day. I remember he baked it in a Corningware casserole dish instead of the traditional stomach lining because of his high cholesterol. My mom served it with a nice mustard pickle.
“So here we are, my dear lassies, coming together over a love of Scottish food and drink, of men in the kitchen who are never unprepared, and the knowledge that even if we possess only a sprinkle of Scotland in our blood, Robbie Burns adored, above all, a Highland Lassie. In his words -
“She has my heart, she has my hand,
“By sacred troth and honour's band!
“Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
“I'm thine, my highland Lassie, O.
“To the lassies!”
Brilliant toast, Lindsay!
My ancestors (dads side) go all the way back to Scotland, clan Mackay, although somewhere down the line it changed to McKay.
Irish/ Scottish..German.. a fire keg my great aunt told me long ago😅
Also puts rugs against exterior doors at night!