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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Campbell, 'Highland' Mary (1763 — 86)

Burns's 'Highland' Mary was born to Archibald Campbell of Daling, a seaman, and Agnes Campbell of Auchamore, by Dunoon, who had married in 1762. She was the eldest of a family of four. She lived with her parents, first, near Dunoon, then at Campbeltown, and finally at Greenock. In her early 'teens, she went to Ayrshire and became a nursemaid in Gavin Hamilton's house in Mauchline. Hamilton's married daughter, Mrs Todd, remembered Mary Campbell coming to look after her brother Alexander in 1785, Mrs Todd described her as 'very pleasant and winning', though not a beauty. From there, she moved to Coilsfield (Burns's 'Castle o' Montgomery') where she was employed as a dairymaid. According to Grierson, who met Mary's sister, Mrs Anderson, in 1817, Mary was 'tall, fair haired with blue eyes'.

The firm facts of her early life are sketchy enough; but the facts of her relationship with Burns are even more sketchy. According to Burns's mother, and his sister, Isabella, Burns turned seriously to Mary Campbell after he had been 'deserted' by Jean Armour. She, of course, was despatched to Paisley in March 1786.

In the spring of 1786, Burns wrote a song, 'The Highland Lassie, O'. On a note in the interleaved Museum (once thought to be a forgery by Cromek, but shown by Ferguson in an article in the Philological Quarterly, July 1930, to be genuine), Burns wrote: 'This was a composition of mine in very early life, before I was known at all in the world. My Highland lassie was a warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love. After a pretty long tract of the most ardent reciprocal attachment we met by appointment, on the second Sunday of May, in a sequestered spot by the Banks of Ayr, where we spent the day in taking farewell, before she should embark for the West Highlands to arrange matters among her friends for our projected change of life. At the close of Autumn following she crossed the sea to meet me at Greenock, where she had scarce landed when she was seized with a malignant fever, which hurried my dear girl to the grave in a few days, before I could even hear of her illness.' Another song apparently inspired by Mary Campbell, begins:

"Will ye go to the Indies my Mary,
And leave auld Scotia's shore?
Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,
Across th' Atlantic roar?"

 

This suggests that Burns may have asked Mary to go with him to Jamaica; that she consented, but died at Greenock before the plan could be put into action. We also learn, however, that on that May Sunday Burns and Mary Campbell exchanged Bibles and possibly some sort of matrimonial vows. The Bible Mary gave Burns has never been seen; the little two volume Bible Burns gave Mary is in the Monument at Alloway (see Bibles)

The song of 'The Highland Lassie, O', on which the inserted comment, already quoted, was made, states quite specifically:

"She has my heart, she had my hand,
By secret troth and honor's band!
Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
I'm thine, my Highland Lassie, O."

When Mary Campbell died, possibly from a fever contracted when nursing her brother Robert, possibly as a result of premature childbirth, she was buried in the old West Highland Churchyard at Greenock, in a lair owned by her host and relation Peter Macpherson. On 23rd February 1803, Greenock Burns Club minuted their resolution to ask Mr Macpherson 'to allow the Club to add a tablet to the memory of Mary Campbell to his lairs', a resolution which took forty years to be translated into reality.

134 years after her death, the West Churchyard was needed for industrial expansion, and on 5th November 1920, Mary Campbell's grave was opened. Among the remains was found the bottom board of an infant's coffin. This aroused speculation, based on Burns's self-confessed belied in trying at once for intimacy where women were concerned, about the real cause of Mary's death, particularly in view of the already mentioned hints that he may have contracted a Scots marriage by declaration with her.

The facts are examined at length by Snyder in The Life of Robert Burns (1932); by Hilton Brown in There Was a Lad (1949); and by the present writer in Robert Burns: The Man; His Work; The Legend (1954; 3rd edition 1979)

What does seem beyond dispute is that Mary Campbell, long after she was dead, in some way troubled Burns's conscience.

Writing to Brice on 12th June 1786, while Mary was still alive, Burns had confessed to 'dissipation and riot... and other mischief.'

Writing to Aiken in October 1786, after her death, Burns burst out: 'I have been for some time pining under secret wretchedness, from causes which you pretty well know — the pang of disappointment, the sting of pride, with some wandering stabs of remorse, which never fail to settle on my vitals like vultures, when attention is not called away by the calls of society or the vagaries of the Muse. Even in the hour of social mirth, my gaiety is the madness of an intoxicated criminal under the hands of the executioner.'

Writing to Mrs Dunlop, after a quarrel, on 7th July 1789, Burns said: 'Yours has given me more pain than any letter, one excepted, that I ever received.'

Mrs Begg told Chambers that one afternoon at Mossgiel, during the autumn of 1786: 'a letter for Robert was handed in. He went to the window to open and read it, and she was struck by the look of agony which was the consequence. He went out without uttering a word.' Could this have been the 'one excepted' letter; the letter, written perhaps by one of her brothers, telling Burns of Mary's death?

Under cover of a letter dated 8th November 1789, Burns sent Mrs Dunlop the poem now called 'To Mary in Heaven', though it was never so called by Burns. On this poem, Scott Douglas commented: 'When we find Burns, after eighteen months' experience of loving wedlock with his own Jean, suddenly appealing to the shade of Mary in these words:

"See'st thou thy lover lowly laid?
Hear'st thou the groans that rend his breast?"
'We feel constrained to say, "If this is not the language of remorse, what is it?"'

There was again a reference to 'my ever dear Mary' to Mrs Dunlop in a letter of 13th December 1789, speculating on the prospects of 'another life'.

According to Wallace, Mary's father burned the poet's letters to his daughter, and forbade his name to be mentioned in the family circle.

This is not the place to speculate on whether Burns was bigamously married to Mary, or whether she died bearing his child. But the absurd 'official' view of her as an 'ideal maiden', an emblem of spiritual purity, is clearly nonsense, and part of the deliberate falsification begun by Currie and assiduously carried on throughout the 19th Century, until Snyder finally challenged the sentimental pseudo-scholarship of almost all Burns's earlier biographers.

The 2 songs and the poem 'To Mary in Heaven' do not represent Burns even at his second best. It is thus nonsense to claim, as Allan Bayne has done, that '"Highland Mary" for ever remains as the inspirer of Burns at his best... and whoever seeks to defile this ideal maiden deserves the reprobation of all pureminded men and women!' (One smiles, in passing, at the Victorian pretence that virginity is woman's 'pure' or 'ideal' state) Without seeking to belittle this girl whom sentimentality has elevated to the absurd role of Burns's 'Beatrice', the contemporary, or near contemporary comment of John Richmond for the Train manuscript may be quoted, with the caution that while gossip remains gossip it is often inspired by at least a small degree of basic truthfulness. Said Richmond:

'Her character was loose in the extreme. She was kept for some time by a brother of Lord Eglinton's, and even while a servant with Gavin Hamilton, and during the period of Burns' attachment it was well known that her meetings with Montgomery were open and frequent. The friends of Burns represented to him the impropriety of his devotedness to her, but without producing any change in his sentiments. Richmond told Mr Grierson that Montgomery and Highland Mary frequently met in a small ale house called the Elbow and having often in vain tried to convince Robert of her infidelity — upon this occasion they promised to give ocular proof of their assertions. The party retired to the Elbow. Richmond (Mr Grierson's informant) was one and they took their seats in the kitchen [sic] from which two rooms branched off to the right and left — being all the accommodation the house contained.... After waiting long, and when Burns was beginning to ridicule their suspicions Mary Campbell appeared from one of the rooms — was jeered by the party, in a general way — blushed and retired. Another long interval elapses and Burns began to rally his spirits, which were very much sunk. Montgomery walked out of the same room. Burns coloured deeply — compressed his lip — and muttered "damn it". After enduring considerable bantering from his friend, he soon gave way to the general hilarity of the evening, and his friends thought he had seen enough of Highland Mary, but in a few days after he returned 'like the dog to its vomit'.'

It must be observed in passing, however, that there was no pub in Mauchline called the Elbow, so far as is known.

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