Wendy Chamberlain on making history, Burns and the lassies

A couple of weeks ago, we published Alistair Carmichael’s Immortal Memory for lockdown that he had delivered at the South Edinburgh Burns Supper. Then word reached our ears that Wendy Chamberlain had delivered the Reoly from the lasses at the Scotland in Union virtual event a few days later. As she points out, she’s the first MP for N E Fife who can do this. Enjoy her speech here:

Last year, one of the first invites I was delighted to accept as the MP for North East Fife was to give the Reply to the Lasses at one of the Kingdom’s numerous golf courses. Frankly, I was delighted to be in a golf club where there was a man on the door, waiting to take my coat as opposed to keeping me and other women off of the premises. If golf clubs can do it, so can Burns Clubs, and I’m very much hoping that the appearance of wives and partners on Zoom Burns Suppers of male only clubs produces a more inclusive approach next year as we look to being able to meet physically again to toast Rabbie Burns and his legacy.

I am the first MP for North East Fife to be in a position to give the reply to the lasses – given that I am the first ever lass to be elected to represent the constituency. The seat has a long Liberal and Unionist tradition – from Ming Campbell and even further back to the days of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith – we may have disagreed on our views on universal suffrage – the suffragettes caused him no manner of trouble in East Fife – usually interrupting him whilst he was playing golf, but I am sure he would be pleased to see it return into Liberal hands.

I’m delighted to give the reply to the lasses and follow on from such a toast – But I do love a challenge, as my shinty playing will pay testament to. I spoke with my colleague, Alex Cole Hamilton, prior to this evening to check if he had anything of note to fill me in on in relation to Daniel (Editor’s note: Daniel Johnson, MSP for Edinburgh Southern, who I’ve sadly not met before.

He doesn’t know this, but he has actually met my step daughter on a visit to the Scottish Police College where she was completing her probationary training – I believe he got a taste of Officer Safety Training! I also understand that the only uniform he would want to wear is a United Federation of Planets one on the USS Enterprise!

I understand that Daniel is always one to stand in allyship to the lassies when required – There are currently more statues of animals in Edinburgh than there are of women and Daniel is involved in campaign to erect a statue of Elsie Inglis, doctor, surgeon, teacher and campaigner in the city. Just over 2 years ago, I took part in the Pages of the Sea UK wide event to mark the centenary of the First World War and Elsie was the subject of the sand portrait drawn on St Andrews West Sands.

However, the main reason for my delight this evening, I have to confess is, not just Burns’s beautiful words, or the dedication (in many ways) to women but for the L word

Lassies

I feel a connection to Burns in part because I have Ayrshire roots. Back in the days when I had a modicum of spare time, and as we know, women can multitask incredibly well, I did do some online genealogy that took my grandmother’s Kilpatrick family back to Tarbolton in the early 1800s.

Last summer, during the lifting of restrictions, my family and I spent a week just outside Alloway and I attempted to do some in person detective work – uncovering ancestors including a publican in Monkton and a quarryman in St Quivox. But, I couldn’t make the Burns connection.

Burns wrote his first song, Handsome Nell, or I am man unmarried – that was a novelty for Burns – for a woman widely believed to be Helen Kilpatrick, the daughter of a miller in Dalrymple.

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

He wrote to Dr Hunter that ‘the tones of her voice made my heart strings thrill like an Aeolin harp and my pulse beat such a furious rantann’. The first of many to make him feel like that – it’s clear throughout Burns writing that he loved his lassies.

I have no concrete evidence for a Helen connection, but when has that ever stopped a politician, as I now must refer to myself (it’s still sinking in!). It’s not a lie as such, just a surmising! Another Ayrshire ancestor was discovered a foundling on the banks of the Dee and therefore surnamed Strathdee, so it’s quite clear that Burns was not alone in his promiscuous behaviour, and as has always been it was the woman who paid the price of this philandering.

His affair with Jenny Clow, servant to Clarinda, or Agnes McElhose, produced a child. She was described during their affair as having dragged her petticoats through the rye – little did they know a lassie in Downing Street would confess to something similar 200 years later!

My remaining Burns connection, other than being from Greenock, home of the Mother Club, was playing an Irish beggar/ prostitute in a one act play festival with the Greenock Players using the first act of Joe Corrie’s 4 act Robert Burns when I was 17. The adjudicator advised that my Northern Irish accent was very credible. Who knew I would end up as Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland (amongst a number of other things) spokesperson 20 years later for a short period of time…

Burns, for all his faults, clearly loved his lasses. We must acknowledge that women lusted after him and loved him as he did us. In fact if we are to believe half of what half of the historians tell us, he loved as many of us as often as he could – which even bra burning feminists couldn’t fail to be impressed by. Impossible therefore to argue that Burns did not scatter his seed the same way that Trump formerly scattered his tweets in the night.

It’s been hard over the last few years not to sometimes lose faith in the laddies. But Burns soothes this hurt. From but to see her was to love her and suffering a broken heart with such a horror breathing night from the lament – even the coldest feminist heart could not help but melt. And I think we could all agree it tends to be almost impossible to resist any suitor who turned us into poetry, or tried to at least. The first book my husband bought for me was a book of poetry – war poetry, but at least he tried! I bought him the Scotsman’s Guide to Scottish politics 2002 so I really can’t stake any claims in the romance stakes!

In his poem, the Rights of Woman (unsurprisingly for Burns written for an actress, Miss Louise Fontenelle that he had taken a fancy to) Burns suggests that the ruling classes (men obviously) would benefit from turning their attention to women and their humanity, as opposed to crippling civilisation with war.

But truce with kings, and truce with constitutions
With bloody armaments and revolutions
Let majesty your first attention summon
Ah! Ca ira! The majesty of woman!

So let’s thank Burns for allowing us to see the merits and faults of both sexes and to celebrate them all.

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One Comment

  • The typo/predictive misprint about “delivering the Reoly from the lasses” made me wonder if this was some incomprehensible piece of Caledonian direct action (tossing the caber for feminists, perhaps) but it turned out to be Wendy waxing lyrical about Scotland’s best literary ambassador!

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