A History Maker
Here is Jo Clifford’s moving and funny Reply Of The Lassies from the SNP Govan Burns Supper. Theatre-maker Jo Clifford is the first trans woman to make one – and did so in the company of our female Makar and First Minister.
“It was an amazing privilege to speak at a Burns supper last night alongside Nicola Sturgeon, Liz Lochhead and so many amazing gifted performers and speakers.
What made it extra special was that I was asked to do the Reply of the Lassies. It’s the first time a trans woman has been asked to do this at a formal Burns Supper, as far as we know, and it was a great honour for me.
I should maybe say before I start that the very first Reply I ever did was many years ago at a Trout Supper. Trout Suppers were an amazing institution began by Jean McIntyre, a dear friend of mine who was a transwoman who wanted to create social events that would be safe and welcoming for everyone, whether cis or trans.
She loved trout fishing and we would gather in her house to eat delicious trout; one of these gatherings was an Impromptu Burns Supper at which, for the very first time, I gave the Reply.
But that was too complicated to explain to the newspapers…
The other thing I should say is that I never write down a speech before I give it. So what follows is a record of what I remembered I intended to say, and sometimes also whatI meant to but forgot to say on the night… The live stream of the whole event is online somewhere and I would heartily recommend it.
But what I said went something like this:
“What a pleasure to be here. What an honour.
Though I must admit I’m a wee bit nervous because I have a confession to make.
And no, it’s not that I was born in England. You’d have gathered that already.
All I can say is that it happened a very long time ago and it wasn’t my fault.
And no, it’s not that, to my great regret and artistic impoverishment, I have never mistressed the guid Scots tongue.
The thing is, ladies and gentlemen, that though I have lived in Scotland for most of my life, and my late wife was Scottish, and my daughters are Scottish, and my grandson too; and though I am incredibly proud to be a Scottish theatre maker, I have still never been to a formal Burns Supper before.
Yes, this is the very first time.
And what a place to start! I like it here. I think I might come back…
But this meant that when I was asked to do the Reply of the Lassies I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. So I had to do some research.
And what I discovered was, ladies, that my job is to defend us, the fairer and supposedly the weaker sex, from the stinging insults and the merciless attacks to our honour and integrity from the speaker who came before me.
That gorgeous man with the beard.
But he let us down, that Colin McCredie. Partly because he’s a thoroughly nice young man and partly because he just wouldn’t dare do otherwise.
He just said nice things about us! It’s true he did confuse things just a wee bit by talking about female frogs growing penises, and on the flimsiest of pretexts, and by getting into a terrible guddle about who was supposed to be talking to who, but men often get into a muddle and we’ve learnt to take no notice.
And besides, ladies, just look at us. What an amazing, formidable bunch we are.
Do we really need defending?
And just look who’s with us. The national Makar of Scotland and her First Minister.
(I’m just pointing this out for the benefit of the gentlemen who, as we also know, can be quite amazingly unobservant)
And does Nicola Sturgeon need defending? Does Liz Lochhead?
And that, sir was a rhetorical question. Just in case you missed it. the answer is no.
So what am I supposed to be doing?
Well it occurs to me that maybe the one who needs defending is myself. Because there will be those who will say that I have no business making this speech. Because my voice is too low, or my shoulders are too broad. Or because I have the wrong kind of vagina.
I know these people. There were the ones who used to shout abuse at me whenever I went out my front door. the ones who laughed in my face and called me “it” and said vile things about me as I wasn’t there.
And they’re close cousins to the ones in other countries who persecute us, deny us our right to education and gainful employment and force us into prostitution. They’re the ones who beat us and kill us and put us in the gravest danger whenever we show our face.
But I am fortunate to live in Scotland where I am protected by law and where the worst thing that happens to me is that gentlemen of a certain age – and I don’t know why I’m looking at you, Mr. Chairman, but I find I am – let’s say gentlemen of a certain distinction hold open doors for me. As if I couldn’t do it myself. Or carry my suitcase up or down stairs for me. And once one of these charming gentlemen even walked me across a busy road.
And of course this is lovely, but the strange thing about it is that whenever they speak to me – with certain honourable exceptions – they always do so in a condescending tone. As if I was half-witted.
The first time this happened I remember being quite angry. What is going on, I wondered, no one used to treat me like this when I lived as a man. Do I look stupid or something?
Well no. It wasn’t that I looked stupid. It was because I looked like a woman.
And it is amazing, isn’t it ladies, that so many men still need to think that they are superior beings. That they are the lords of creation.
And so they tend to get quite indignant at me because they don’t understand why I, having been born a male, and therefore a lord of creation, should so “demean” myself by choosing to live as a woman.
But the fact is I didn’t choose it. This did not happen as the result of a whim. I live as a woman because it means I am now happy in my own skin.
And for all of us to seek to become who we truly are is a fundamental human right.
And those who deny me the title of woman are also denying me the title of human being.
And beside, ladies, our toilets are so much nicer.
I don’t know if many of you have ever been in a gents toilet. I don’t recommend it.
And I am uniquely well qualified to talk of such matters.
The thing that about men’s toilets is that they invariably smell. The thing is, ladies, and this is undeniably odd, that one wall of a gents toilet is occupied by a kind of trough. And what men do is walk up to it and unzip their trousers – I am tempted to ask this gentleman to demonstrate but I shall not – and take out that particular part of their anatomy that apparently qualifies them to be masters of the universe. And then they point it at the trough. Now it is a very big target. And it is not that far away. So you would imagine it was difficult to miss. But yet I regret to say that miss it they almost invariably do. And so there is a most unpleasant damp patch just in front of the trough.
And that is why gents toilets invariably smell so unpleasant.
But as for ladies toilets… gentlemen you have no idea what you’re missing. Ladies toilets always smell delightful. And they are pleasantly decorated, They have nice mirrors and some of them even have a pretty chair. And lots of elegant little cubicles.
I must confess I am somewhat at a loss as to the purpose of the chair. But I imagine it is so you can wait for your friend if she is taking a little bit of extra time in her cubicle.
Because that is something else about ladies’ toilets. Gents toilets are very furtive kind of places and everyone tries to pretend there is no-one else there. They keep their eyes down and scurry out as quick as they can.
But in the ladies toilet we look each other in the eye and we smile. As you and I madam are doing now. And that is so lovely.
And it tells us something, I think, about what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman in this world.
And there’s another very significant thing. Of course there have always been women in Burns suppers. But invariably in the kitchens. There is a record of one lady being present at the very first Burns supper and, all alone among those drunken men, the poor love must have had a wretched time. In fact she obviously did because there’s no record of her ever coming back.
But when I tried to discover who the first lady was that did the first Reply of the Ladies, I kept drawing a blank.
Mr Google couldn’t tell me. Nor could Wikipedia. Nor could all the people I asked.
So I asked the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. And they didn’t know.
But its kind curator, Sean McGlashan, asked the Centre for Robert Burns Studies in Glasgow University. And they didn’t know.
But they asked dear Clark McGinn, who did post-graduate research on the history of Burns Suppers. And, bless him, he knew.
According to him, men spoke on behalf of women for most of the 19th century. Which strikes me as an astonishing act of presumption. And I bet they were rubbish at it.
It wasn’t until 1876 that the very first woman gave a Reply of the Lassies. It was in the New York Caledonian Club. And she didn’t speak it. She sang!
And ladies I am somewhat tempted. But I won’t.
And then there’s a long silence until 1920 when there is the first recorded Reply that was spoken. By an unnamed woman in London.
And then another long silence until 1946 when women students of Ayr Academy first began the custom that we are honouring tonight.
And we should honour those feisty young women who decided enough was enough and decided that we women should speak to the men on equal terms.
Because besides being such a lover of women, Burns was a thinker way ahead of his time and I am sure he would be dismayed to discover that so many of the societies founded in his honour should still be so backward and so reactionary in their thinking.
He would be happy to be here tonight. Happy to discover contraception is so freely available. Dear love, how much suffering that would have spared him and the women he went with.
Perhaps happier still to discover that our National poet, our Makar, is a woman. And such a magnificent poet too.
And that we have a First Minister. And that our First Minister is a woman. And one so cannily, so courageously, so fiercely and so fundamentally dedicated to the cause of equality and justice for women. Not just here but throughout the whole world.
Burns and his friends who admired the ideals of the French revolution spoke of the Tree o’ Liberty.
A tall and noble tree whose outspread branches offered shelter to all the oppressed. All of every gender and of every race who were despised, downtrodden, mocked, disparaged and silenced. A refuge in which every one was free to be themselves. And develop their talents and abilities to the benefit of the whole of humanity.
So, everyone, please stand. And ladies and gentlemen, those of every gender and those of none, here and throughout the world, let’s raise our glasses to the Tree O’ Liberty.”