A Toast To the Lassies From a Highland Poetess

I have the rare and unexpected privilege to be in Memphis this weekend to present traditional Highland literature in Scottish Gaelic to the Memphis Scottish Society during their annual Burns Nicht Gala, so as to span the Highland-Lowland divide in the representation of Scottish heritage. (See a previous article I wrote about this issue at this link.)

I’ll leave the question aside for now as to whether or not Elvis had Scottish ancestry (there are some amusing mashups, such as the picture below), and share with you one of my contributions to the evening, my Toast To The Lassies lifting the Gaelic female voice in the proceedings. …

Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Melhuish/Shutterstock (135034c) PHOTOMONTAGE OF ELVIS PRESLEY IN A KILT REPRESENTING HIS SCOTTISH ANCESTRY ELVIS PRESLEY

As I said in my presentation about Highland poets last night, although Robert Burns was certainly an exceptional poet, the Burns ritual has often had the effect of monopolizing the spotlight and drawing attention away from the many other bards worthy of our attention, especially when he is claimed as “Scotland’s National Poet.” There are several distinctive literary traditions in the multi-ethnic nation that is Scotland, and Burns belongs to just one of them.

And then there is the issue of gender. The Toast to the Lassies first evolved as a tradition at Burns’ Suppers to thank the women who had prepared the meal, and later increasingly as a self-conscious attempt to make a space for the female voice in a ritual that is heavy on masculinity, machismo, and the male gaze – despite being dependent on the work of women.

So, my toast to the lassies begins with an affirmation of the Highland female voice in Scottish tradition, one that has been marginalized because of both the patriarchal focus of mainstream Scottish heritage and the dominance of the various dialects of the English language. For those who care enough to find them, there are scores of song-poems from the last 600 years in which women express themselves clearly and forcibly. These voices from the past tell us clearly the burdens that women bore in Highland clan society: tending the livestock, milking the cows, churning butter, preparing food, creating clothing, cleaning up the messes made by others, healing the wounded, delivering babies, raising children, searching the battleground for corpses and preparing them for burial, keening the dead … and everything in between.

Given the disproportionate burden placed on Highland women, we can hardly blame them for being skeptical about the men who flatter and court them, only to abandon or overload or marginalize them when they wish.

I’ll let a Highland poetess express these sentiments and concerns in her own words. The poetess is Sìleas na Ceapaich, a Catholic MacDonald woman born in the 1660s who lived in Banffshire after marrying the factor to the Duke of Gordon in about 1685. So, she likely composed this song-poem in the late 1600s as she was having her own daughters.

An toiseach m’ aimsir is mo dhòigh ri bargan,
Gun robh mi ’g earbsa nach cealgte orm;
Cha chòmhradh cearbach air ro bheag leanmhainn
Bho aois mo leanabaidh chaidh fheuchainn dhòmhs’;
Ach nis bho chì mi cor nan daoine,
An comunn gaolach gur faoin a ghlòr,
Cha dèan mi m’ aontadh ri neach fon t-saoghal;
Chan eil gach aon diubh air aon chainnt beòil
. …

When I was a young girl, and hoping for a bargain,
I had confidence that I wouldn’t be deceived;
improper overtures, lacking in candour,
never in my childhood were tried on me;
but now I’m acquainted with men’s behaviour,
and know that the voice of love is weak,
I won’t unite myself with anyone in the wide world,
they are not all sincere in what they speak. …

Oh prudent maiden, do not trust them,
or that dissemblance in their wiles;
everyone on earth believes their protest,
but I am able to say otherwise.
Trust the intellect as it is certain,
and go careful in giving your plight,
despite his words and encouraging prattle,
don’t harm yourself with some silly intrigue. …

Sìleas na Ceapaich

So, let me appeal to the better angels of men, to treat women with respect, kindness, and equality – and to extend those considerations to all people. Burns has been quoted often for his lines: “Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!” His words decrying the effects of cruelty and oppression have been echoed by Christian leaders from Ellen G. White to Martin Luther King.

There is a nauseating wave of bigotry and inhumanity washing over the world, transmitted over social media and exploited by political leaders, manifested as misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Let us therefore inoculate ourselves with the high-minded altruism of Robert Burns, who wrote: “But kindness, sweet kindness, in the fond-sparkling e’e / Has lustre outshining the diamond to me.”

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