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Issue 46 - Highland Mary

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009


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Highland Mary

Annie Harrower-Gray looks at the life behind Mary Campbell, one of the women that so inspired Robert Burns.

In a letter to his publisher George Thomson, Robert Burns described the subject of his song as ‘one of the most interesting passages of my youthful days.’ The subject of course was his romance with Mary Campbell, whom the poet immortalised as Highland Mary.

Burns first became aware of Mary Campbell at Tarbolton Church. Although a devout worshipper, she was slow to find chapter and verse in her small bible having to locate it with a forefinger, a habit Robert found love inspiring. After talking to her, he discovered that she was not an Ayrshire lass but came from the Cowal coast of the Firth of Clyde, and Gaelic was her first language.

Mary was in Mauchline working as a dairymaid, a job she later gave up to become a nursemaid. She was not conventionally pretty, her face being gentle and steadfast. Her description could also have fitted that of Lizzie Paton, the mother of Burns’ first illegitimate child. Robert favoured corn-coloured heads with the dark haired Jean Armour being the one exception.

While Burns was becoming acquainted with Mary, Jean Armour was staying with her uncle Purdie in Paisley to conceal her pregnancy. The poet had already appeared before the kirk-sessions regarding the matter. Dutifully he had stood in church for his three rebukes although he was still waiting ecclesiastical discharge from a promise to marry Jean.

Before leaving for Paisley Burns had given Jean a marriage paper declaring that under Scots Law she was his wife, and their child would be legitimate. Jean relinquished this paper to her parents who had no intention of accepting Burns as a son-in-law.

On the poet’s insistence that the paper was legal, Mrs Armour pointed out that in the past he had given a document of irregular marriage to a servant girl, which she had destroyed. What guarantee was there that he would not do the same with yet another girl?

The Armours’ fear was well founded.

His pride hurting from what he felt was Jean’s betrayal; Burns concluded that to avoid another scandal he would have to sail for Jamaica. To this end, he asked a Dr. Patrick Douglas, a medical doctor in Old Cumnock who owned an estate in Jamaica, to find him a post as a bookkeeper on the island.

However, the romance with Mary Campbell blossomed after Robert assured her he was indeed free, was driven by passion for her and wanted a wife. She agreed to marry him and to go with him to Jamaica. Before long Mary knew she was carrying his child and would have to leave her employment. The pair could not declare their marriage publicly as the church had not yet discharged him of his obligation to Jean.

Mary was a canny Highlander though and would not leave before she and Robert swore on the Holy Bible and repeated their vows they jumped over running water, as was the Highland custom. Bibles were exchanged on the banks of Mauchline Burn as they pledged their troth. The Bible that Burns gave her is in the Monument at Alloway, but the one that Mary gave him has never been found.

Mary Campbell returned to the West Highlands and, in the autumn of 1786, she again crossed the sea to meet Burns in Greenock. As she landed, she was overcome with a fever, possibly as a result of premature childbirth, and she died aged just 23. She was buried in the old West Highland Churchyard at Greenock. In 1920 the churchyard was needed for reconstruction of the Harland and Wolff shipyard and the graves were removed. On 5th November, Mary Campbell’s grave was opened and among the remains was found the bottom board of an infant’s coffin.

Burns admitted that instead of drawing on his imagination for a heroine, he turned to some living symbol for pictures of ideal beauty and loveliness. Unusually though, Mary Campbell was the subject of two of his songs, Highland Mary, My Mary Dear Departed Shade, and a poem now entitled To Mary in Heaven.

Out of all his conquests, Mary Campbell was, perhaps, indeed the one who lived “forever at his bosom’s core.”