Robert Burns


Highland Mary’s Bibles at Alloway

On the 16th January, 1850, Scott Douglas read a Paper detailing the affair between Robert Burns and Mary Campbell, at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Five days later Robert Chambers was favoured with a letter from Agnes Begg (Burns’s niece) informing him that:

Mr Douglas is perfectly right with regard to Burns and his Highland Mary’s short love passage. It was in 1786, just as he supposes; at least so my mother (Burns’s sister, Isobel) has all along thought, from a
revulsion of feeling attendant on the heartless desertion of him by Jean Armour.... He must have known her previous to that time, though his love-fit had only begun then. My mother has no doubt that he meant to marry her.

There is no reason to question the veracity of Isobel Burns’s version of her brother’s affair with Mary Campbell. She would have witnessed at firsthand what was taking place, and heard her mother, Gilbert and her older sisters discussing within the family unit what the likely outcome of Robert’s latest amour would mean for the rest of them. He was, after all, now the head of the family unit, and if his plans were to marry Mary and emigrate to the West Indies, it would have a considerable impact on their own future, bearing in mind that, among other matters, they were responsible for the well being of his illegitimate daughter.    

The final parting between Burns and Highland Mary took place at Faiford on 14th May, 1786, and a remarkable statement by Robert Cromek, in his book, Reliques of Robert Burns, has fashioned the belief that, they exchanged vows of fidelity whilst holding a bible over the running waters of a nearby stream. Some have accepted Cromek’s story as possible truth, others, notably James Mackay, have dismissed it as utter twaddle. Cromek, it should be noted, made no mention of the couple exchanging bibles, though that aspect was soon added by other writers who elaborated on Cromek’s version. No authority was given by Cromek, and those who suggest that he received the information of the ceremony from Gilbert Burns are doing so purely by assumption. He neither confirmed nor denied Cromek’s description.

Although James Mackay was most emphatic that Cromek’s imagination was responsible for the ‘twaddle’, he rather surprisingly commented that Cromek, in 1807, had examined a two-volume bible set, known to have been given to Highland Mary by Burns. He even added that Cromek had carelessly copied the biblical quotations subscribed by Burns in both volumes. He also referred to Cromek having to hold the bibles up to the light in order to read the inscriptions as paper had been pasted over them. Mackay offered no reference source as to where he had obtained this information.

It does, of course, raise several obvious questions: Why did Cromek not mention his examination of the bibles in The Reliques, published in 1808? Where would he have obtained access to the bibles? They were at that particular time in the possession of the Campbell family at Greenock and, since Capt. Campbell, (Mary’s father) was known to have a complete aversion to the very name of Robert Burns, it would seem reasonable to assume that he would have denied Cromek the means of making use of them. No other mention has ever been made of Cromek examining the bibles, and most writers have accepted that the two-volume set only came to light in 1817, when James Grierson discovered that Highland Mary’s sister, Anne Campbell, had them in her possession in her home at Ardrossan. Anne died at Renton on 23rd January, 1824, and the bibles may well have been returned to her mother, by her husband, who survived Anne by four more years. There appears to have been some agreement that Anne Campbell’s daughters, Mary and Ann, should each obtain a volume of the bible when they married – both did so in 1828. Their grandmother had died the previous year, her death being reported in the Greenock Advertiser (3rd October, 1827), and it also appeared later among the entries in the Bills of Mortality, printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for October:

Scotland, Sept. 27, at Greenock, aged 85, the mother of Burns’s ‘Highland Mary’. Among the little stores of the deceased there was nothing to be found as mementoes of the gifted bard, but the Bible which he gave to his beloved Mary on the day when they met by the by the banks of Ayr.

According to James Mackay, Mrs Campbell, in 1823, had attempted to sell the two-volume set of bibles to Sir Walter Scott, by means of an intermediary, J. Archibald of Largs, but an offer of five pounds from Scott, “was rejected as far too small.” An eminent Burns scholar of bygone years, James Hempstead, had spotted a note in the Burns Chronicle of 1892, that, a Mr John Kerr, a Glasgow Writer, had an article published in the Scots Times of 7th November, 1829, stating that a memorial was presented to the Kirk Session of Greenock Old Parish Church by Mr Joseph Archibald, a schoolmaster in Largs, for the effects of Mary’s mother. The Session agreed to this, but there is only an assumption that these effects included the bibles. The note in the Burns Chronicle stated that an inscription, in the handwriting of John Kerr, dated 1876, was found in an early edition of Burns’s works:

In the summer of 1823 or 1824 when my family were at Largs, Mr J. Archibald had several conversations with me respecting Mrs. Campbell, the mother of Burns’s Highland Mary, then residing in Greenock. He told me that she possessed the Bible given by Burns to her daughter, and proposed that I should write to Sir Walter Scott to ascertain whether he would be disposed to buy this relic of the Poet. I wrote accordingly, and was immediately answered by an offer to purchase, and to pay £5 for the two tiny vols. Archibald declined the offer and talked of £20 as their value.

The subsequent history of the two volume set of bibles has been well enough documented. Anne Campbell’s daughters duly received their bible which their brother William persuaded them to sell to him for the sum of five pounds each. He decided to emigrate to Canada, in 1832, where he finally settled, after some wandering, at Caledon, some fifty miles north-west of Toronto. He fell upon hard times and decided that selling the bibles was now a necessity. Fortunately, in 1840 a group of Scottish emigrants came to hear of William Anderson’s financial troubles and duly raised the asking price, reputed to be one hundred dollars. They arranged to return the bibles to Scotland, and forwarded them to the Provost of Ayr, where they were, in turn, handed over to the safe keeping of the Burns Monument at Alloway. They are now on public display at the Burns Birthplace Museum, close-by the Monument.          

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