The Art of the Toast: St Andrew’s Dinners in the Nineteenth Century

As appears in the St Andrew’s Society of Montreal Journal, October 2010

 By Gillian I Leitch, PhD

CDCI Research Inc

I was in the middle of researching St Andrew’s celebrations in the nineteenth-century when I had my first opportunity to attend the St Andrew’s Ball.  After spending long hours in the microfilm stacks reading accounts of the toasts made at these kinds of events between 1800 and 1850, I was mightily disappointed when I heard the toasts being made that evening.  After reading long lists of between fifteen and twenty toasts, the four I had heard were just not the same.

This article will discuss the art of the toast, as performed at nineteenth-century St Andrew’s dinners.  The traditions associated with toasting were not limited to the Scots in Montreal, but were a part of the shared social rituals of English-speaking society in Montreal.  The other national societies celebrated their patron saints at dinners in the same way, using the same rituals, and often the same toasts.  These events demonstrated the nature of attachment of Montrealers for their lives in Montreal, and for their countries of origin.

Public dinners in the nineteenth-century were very ritualized events.  Organisers and participants were sensitive to the meanings of different foods, decorations, order and placement. There were unwritten rules of conduct which guided those along during the evening. They could, by the changing of key elements, make political and social comments.  It was subtle, but clearly understood by those present. 

The public dinners held in the early nineteenth-century were the dominion of men.  Their comportment at these affairs would not have been the same had women been present.  The presence of women limited the type of behaviours they could exhibit, men had to present a more civilized demeanor in their company.  The male-only environment permitted the use of less than polite language, excessive eating and drinking, and loud laughter and singing.

The St Andrew’s dinners were very elaborate affairs.  The rooms were specially decorated with symbols of Scotia.  Transparencies, glass plates lit from behind, with images painted on them were popular types of decoration.  St Andrew was usually presented as a transparency at these events.  The rooms also boasted banners and pictures depicting such Scottish luminaries as Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.  An image of the reigning monarch was always a feature of these events.  Flags were also heavily used to decorated the rooms, and reinforce the attachment of those present to Scotland.

The Montreal Gazette described the decorations in the Albion Hotel in 1834:

The upper end of the room, immediately behind the chair of the President, was elegantly decorated by Mr. John Grant of this city, and represented a canopy, on the top of which was placed a Highland Chieftain’s bonnet and eagle plumes, and in front were arranged a claymore, target and dirks.  The drapery from the canopy consisted of ample folds of the Royal Stuart tartan.  Immediately in rear of the chair was an excellent transparency of Saint Andrew, painted by the gentleman just mentioned.[1]

The food was likewise symbolically linked to Scotland.  In 1844, “The Haggis was hot and matchless, the sheep’s head garnished with green kale, brought vividly to recollection of many present, the loved and honored land of their fathers.”[2]  One year there was as said in the description in the newspapers, a 250 lb haggis, although such a size seems unlikely.  However, it is fair to say that the food presented at the dinners was as lavish as the decoration, and in excess of normal dining.  Such volume in itself was important to the event, underscoring its importance to the participants.

But the highlight of the evening, and the part which dominated its coverage in the newspapers, was the toasts.  “The cloth being removed,” the toasts were begun.[3]  The toasts rarely deviated from a set pattern. Even when the differences in time or in the national groups celebrating were taken into account, the toasts remained fairly standard.

The first toast of the evening was to the reigning monarch.  This was followed by the day being celebrated.  The land of their forefathers often came next, although it could also be to the members of the royal family, starting with the royal spouse.  The Governor General was next, then the army and the navy, the sister societies (St Patrick’s Society, St George’s Society, etc.), the land we live in, selected national symbols and the guests.  The toasts always ended with a toast to the ladies, referred to as the “Canadian fair.”  The official toasts at most events numbered between twelve and fifteen, with several volunteer toasts made afterwards by enthusiastic guests.

Toasts were further enhanced by the addition of music.  Many years the St Andrew’s dinners included the talents of a military band and pipers.  In 1844, for example, the band of the 89th Regiment was present, along with two pipers from the 93rd Regiment.[4]  The Queen’s toast was finished off with the playing of God Save the Queen in 1847; the day with In the Garb of the Old Gael; Prince Albert and the Royal Family with Prince Albert’s March; the St George’s Society with The Roast Beef of England; the Land O’Cakes with Auld Lang Syne, etc.[5]

Toasts often necessitated speeches.  Peter McGill’s remarks to the first toast of the night took up three paragraphs in the Gazette, the second a further paragraph.[6]  A lot was said.  Replies to the evening’s toasts were likewise long winded.  This was all a part of the toasting, which served to foster good will and a sense of community.  They never said anything that the assembled would not agree with. 

This sense of conviviality and community was greased by alcohol.  Every toast was followed by the drinking of wine.  To drink water or not to drink at all, after a toast was proposed was considered an insult. To take the glass and turn it upside down was the ultimate insult.  Drinking then was an integral part of the ritual.  After twelve to fifteen toasts and the wine consumed with the meal, it can be gathered that many present were inebriated. 

John Greenshields wrote about his experience at the St Andrew’s dinner in 1845 to his wife Eliza:

I proposed the health of the “ladies,” and made a speech in their praise, but it was the last toast of the night, and some people were pretty far gone and there was such a noise that I could hardly hear the sound of my own voice.[7]

The newspaper accounts gloss over such drunken behaviour.  And while it can be viewed negatively, as uncontrolled or even dangerous, it should not be seen solely in that light.  As noted by Margaret Visser, alcohol lowers inhibitions, relaxes the participants, allowing them to “meld better into a group.”[8]  Greenshields finished off his description saying that “the dinner went off very well.”[9]  This was all a part of the tradition of toasting, and the participants would not have wanted it any other way.

This year, as we celebrate the society’s 175th Anniversary lift up a glass to the St Andrew’s members of old, who loved a good toast, or fifteen. 

[1]  Montreal Gazette, 4 December 1834.

[2]  Montreal Gazette, 10 December 1844.

[3] Montreal Gazette, 10 December 1844.

[4]   Montreal Gazette, 10 December 1844.

[5]   Montreal Courier, 2 December 1847.

[6]   Montreal Gazette, 3 December 1836.

[7]   John Greenshields to Eliza Greenshields, 9 December 1845, McCord Museum of Canadian History, Greenshields Family Fonds P011]

[8]   Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner, Toronto, Harper Perrenial, 1991, 274.

[9]   John Greenshields to Eliza Greenshields, 9 December 1845, McCord Museum of Canadian History, Greenshields Family Fonds P011]