Mary Campbell (Highland Mary)
Memorial to the parting of Robert Burns and Highland Mary
|Occupation||Nursemaid and dairymaid|
Mary Campbell also known as Highland Mary, (was christened Margaret, March 1763 – 1786) she was the daughter of a sailor in a revenue cutter named Archibald Campbell of Daling, whose wife was Agnes Campbell of Achnamore or Auchamore, by Dunoon, in 1762. Mary was the eldest of a family of four. Robert Burns had an affair with her after he felt that he had been 'deserted' by Jean Armour following her move to Paisley in March 1786. The brief affair started in April 1786, the parting took place on 14 May. Her pronunciation of English was heavily accented with Gaelic and this led to her becoming known as 'Highland Mary.'
Life and character
Mary lived with her parents, first, near Dunoon, in 1768 the family moved to Campbeltown, and finally at Greenock. Her three siblings, Robert, Annie and Archibald, were born at Campbeltown. She is said to have spent some time at Lochranza on Arran, living with the Rev. David Campbell, minister of that parish and a relative of her mother's. She was described as a "...sweet, sprightly, blue-eyed creature." In her early 'teens, she went to Ayrshire and became a nursemaid in Gavin Hamilton's house in Mauchline. She is said to have worked as a young servant girl in Irvine.
Gavin Hamilton's married daughter, Mrs Todd, recalled Mary Campbell coming to look after her brother Alexander as a nursemaid in 1785, describing Mary as 'very pleasant and winning', though not a beauty. From Mauchline, she moved to Coilsfield House, later Montgomery castle, where she was employed as a dairy-maid or byres-woman. She gained this position through the offices of Miss Arbukle of Campbeltown who married into the Eglinton family.
According to Grierson, who met Mary's sister, Mrs Anderson, in 1817, Mary was 'tall, fair haired with blue eyes'. She was also described by Miss McNeill to have been "a great favourite with everyone who knew her, due to her pleasant manners, sweet temper and obliging disposition. her figure was graceful; the cast of her face was singularly delicate and of fair complexion, and her eyes were bluish and lustrous had a remarkably winning expression."
Mary Campbell died at the age of 23, around 20 October 1786, probably from typhoid fever contracted when nursing her brother Robert. She was buried in the old West Kirk churchyard at Greenock, in a lair owned by her host and relation Peter Macpherson. A story is told that some superstitious friends believed that her illness was as a result of someone casting the evil eye upon her. Her father was urged to go to a place where two streams meet, select seven smooth stones, boil them in milk, and treat her with the potion. It was asserted by some older inhabitants of Greenock that the 1842 monument, designed by John Mossman, was not erected in the right spot and that her body had been interred closer to the kirk. A statue of her was also erected at Dunoon on the Castle Hill.
Association with Robert Burns
Burns had first seen Mary Campbell in church while he was living near Tarbolton. He dedicated the poems "The Highland Lassie O", Highland Mary and To Mary in Heaven to her. His song "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia's shore?" suggests that they planned to emigrate to Jamaica together, however after a brief illness she died at Greenock. Burns and Mary Campbell apparently exchanged Bibles over a water course and possibly some sort of traditional Scottish matrimonial vows on the banks of the River Ayr, either at where the Mauchline Burn has its confluence or near Coilsfield. Burns had written biblical verses in his bible (two volumes). signed them and impressed his masonic sign.
He is said to have met Mary at the "Burn's Thorn" or "Mary's Tryst" that grew close a path close to the western side of the house. The tree was later a victim of relic-hunters.
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." She was staying in Greenock with relatives whilst waiting to take up employment with the family of Colonel McIvor at Glasgow.
Burns's sister, Isabella Begg, recollected that he had once remarked to John Blane, the 'gaudman', that Mary had refused to meet with him in the old castle, the dismantled tower of the priory at Mauchline. Additionally Burns is said to have received one evening a letter that caused him great sadness, almost certainly the letter that informed him of Mary's death at Greenock.
Years after her death Burns would think of her fondly and with great sadness. As stated, the heartfelt poem "To Mary in Heaven" was written at Ellisland Farm on the third anniversary of her death. Jean Armour recalled that towards evening, the night before, Robert grew sad, and wandered in solitary contemplation along the banks of the River Nith and about the farmyard in extreme agitation. Even though he was repeatedly asked to come into the house, he would not. Burns entered the house at daybreak, sat down and wrote his address to "Mary in Heaven".
- Captain James Montgomerie
Poetry and song
Mary inspired some of Burns's finest and most famous poems. The following lines refer to his separation from her at Coilsfield (Montgomery Castle):
Ye banks and braes and streams around
The song 'Montgomerie's Peggy' alludes to her association with Captain James Montgomerie :
Were I a Baron proud and high,
Move of grave to Greenock Cemetery
With the intention of enlarging their Greenock shipyard to take over the site, Harland and Wolff requested that the West Kirk and its cemetery be demolished. The whole church was taken apart and re-erected at a site further west, on the corner of Greenock's Esplanade. The remains of the churchyard burials were re-interred in a mass grave in Greenock Cemetery, with an exception being made for Mary's grave. On 5 November 1920, 134 years after Mary's death, her grave was opened and the three lairs removed, with the skulls and bones of three adults. Adjacent to one lair, the remains of the bottom board of an infant's coffin was found. This naturally resulted in speculation, based on Burns's well known extra-marital intimacy, on the real cause of Mary's death, but evidence was subsequently given that the child had died in 1827, and had also been buried in the Macpherson's plot. In a solemn ceremony on 13 November 1920 Mary's remains were re-interred in Greenock Cemetery under the 1842 monument designed by John Mossman, moved from the old West Kirkyard, which depicts the romantic couple, in memory of Robert Burns' lost love.
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- Highland Mary and Captain Montgomerie
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- Strawhorn, John (1985). The History of Irvine. Royal Burgh and Town. Edinburgh : John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-140-1.
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