The evening was presided over by Professor Ian Cross and piped in by Gary Kernaghan. The traditional toast to the lassies was given by Emeritus Fellow Dr Don MacDonald, to which student Rachel McNally gave a fine response:
"Good evening everyone, I will do my best to project as this hall is large and filled with many people and I am but small. On that note, I will also endeavour to keep this short and sweet, much like myself.
Thank you to Don for a very lovely toast to the lassies. As he described it, I had my arm twisted in to giving this toast but a few days ago, much to the delight of my Director of Studies I imagine. But as I’ve been told, if I want to go into the Law I should be good at making things up on the spot.
I’m excited and pleased to be here this evening, not just to participate in the College’s celebrations and to contribute a genuine Scottish lady to the proceedings, but also because this is further exposure for my boyfriend to the world of Burns. My boyfriend did not learn who Burns was until he met me, until I clarified who the little man with the Bieber-style haircut was on our green five-pound note – which is legal tender.
We were at a family wedding and as the quaich was passed around and the preparations for the ceilidh began, my boyfriend leaned over to my dad and said in hushed tones ‘I think that I’m the only Englishman here’. My dad, on a slight intake of breath said, ‘I’ve never thought of you as English before’. Worth noting though, he is from near Newcastle, which is more of a border town, really.
He did ask me not to make fun of him this evening, in my toast to the laddies, but in all fairness other than my Dad and Billy Connolly, he is my main reference for a ‘laddie’. So, I’ll allow you to make of that what you will for my ‘toast to the laddies’
Donald gave us a lovely idea of what it would be like if Burns were to join us here this evening in our egalitarian college of Wolfson. I’m sure that he would be equal and generous in his attention to each and every single one of the women here tonight. Much like my youthful friend, desperately seeking a girlfriend here at this college of 70% men. Lucy Cavendish won’t let him visit anymore.
I have to say on that note, it is wonderful for me and the other ladies of Wolfson College to be surrounded by such gentlemen. My supervisions are making for excellent practice for what it might feel like to be interrupted and undermined in the board room! I’m joking, of course, I mean the break room.
Truth be told, Burns, a man with a section on his Wikipedia page titled ‘Love Affairs’ is often revered for his views and celebrations of women or deplored for his love of the ladies, also known as, philandering. Such a pretty sounding word for such base behaviour. But by today’s standards, a person who picks up a pencil or a lute to celebrate women is really quite gentle and respectful and frankly we should probably be actively encouraging that behaviour.
If only more men could express their feelings – of love and lust and humour and friendship – without being told to ‘haud yer wheesht’! An alum of this very university, Robert Webb, recently wrote a book, How Not to be a Boy and although not written in Scots, it is still an excellent read. I bought it for my boyfriend so that I may eventually read it and to see if I could better understand the male experience and to find out how to get a man through his 20s and how to get through dating a man in his 20s. The two Roberts had plenty of the same themes – the aforementioned philandering, the drinking, the working-class heroes, and the angry, often hypocritical, men. But Robert Webb digs deeper and went beyond his experience to his deepest, darkest feelings. A reductive summary of his book would be – boys can be ballerinas too! Or quiet, or creative, or cry!
We can scrutinise the life and works of Robert Burns for another three centuries, or any Rabbie or Robert for that matter, but Burns’ most pressing legacy today should be encouraging young men, and old(er) men, to express themselves. Encourage everyone to express themselves - laddies, lassies, and everyone in between.
To my young loveless friend, pick up a pen and follow Burns’ lead – poetry in the pursuit of love! Leave the philandering to the history books though. To the laddies!"
Photos by Kevin Low