Vindication of Highland Mary
On or around the 20th October, is the 225th anniversary of Highland Mary's death, and Norrie Paton, of Campbeltown, thought it would be fitting to have an updated article on her made available. We have reproduced his article here.
A young woman who died in a Greenock tenement on (or around) 20 October 1786, became immortalised in world literature as Burns’s Highland Mary. Robert Burns, to whom she was then betrothed, explained the circumstances of the location and cause of her death: “... 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.” Mary had arrived from her parents’ home in Campbeltown to stay with relatives for a short spell until she took up employment with the family of Colonel McIvor at Glasgow. She was buried in a lair owned by these relatives, the McPhersons, in the Old West Kirkyard that stood on the site now occupied by the Gala bingo hall.
In 1920, however, the shipyard adjacent to the church was permitted the legal right to expand, and Mary’s lair was among the first to be excavated with the remains being transferred to the South Street cemetery. Several people had been buried in the lair and, when the board of an infant’s coffin was discovered, it roused no great interest among those present at the exhumation of the remains. They included W. Hillhouse Carmichael, J.P., chairman of the Parks & Cemetery committee, and Archibald McPhail, of the Greenock Burns Club, who informed the Telegraph of the proceedings.
Ten years later, however, Catherine Carswell brought a storm of abuse upon herself when, in a novel based on the life of Burns, she described the scene at Mary Campbell’s funeral stating that, as Mary and her dead child were being lowered into the grave, the Campbells and McPhersons cursed the very name of Robert Burns, as not even the Armours had done. Mrs Carswell had overlooked the fact that mother and child would have been buried in the same coffin. She dismissed Mary’s intention of taking work in Glasgow as a ruse; her real plan in coming to Greenock was to sail with Burns for Jamaica, where he had already laid plans for his future. Mrs Carswell’s version was fanciful rather than factual!
In 1932, just two years after the Carswell book, Franklyn Bliss Snyder, an American academic, in a highly acclaimed scholarly biography of Burns, suggested that his “lawless love” of a young woman had cost her and her child their lives. It was a preposterous charge against Burns, on flimsy evidence, and left a sad blemish on an otherwise excellent volume. In more recent times James Mackay, the best known of Burns’s biographers, wrote: “There is no proof whatsoever that (Mary) was pregnant, far less that she died in childbirth.” Jim, however, couldn’t resist adding that, “given Robert’s previous track-record”, suspicion that Mary may well have been pregnant, could not be ruled out.
It is true that five women bore illegitimate children to Burns, however, with the exception of Jean Armour, none of the others were involved with him in a serious affair. They were hapless souls he had taken advantage of when the opportunity presented itself. The women Burns had courted with romantic vigour, such as, Ellison Begbie, Elizabeth Miller, Margaret Chalmers, Agnes McLehose (Clarinda), and to an extent, the platonic Jean Lorimer, for whom he had written more love songs than for any other woman, were not part of the “track-record” criterion implied by James Mackay. The name of Mary Campbell should be added to this list. If she had been pregnant Burns would surely have married her; according to her mother, when Mary returned from Ayrshire, Burns frequently wrote to her, and had even suggested that he would come to the West Highlands and marry her.
At the height of the furore caused by the Carswell book, a Miss J Hendry, of 2 Margaret Street, Greenock, testified that the coffin board found in the lair was that of Agnes Hendry, her father’s sister, who had died aged eight weeks in 1827. The family had obtained permission from the McPhersons, their friends and neighbours, to have the child buried in the same lair as Highland Mary. Despite James Mackay’s rebuttal of this claim on the grounds that, Peter McPherson the owner of the lair was, by then, dead, and that burials in the kirkyard had ceased prior to1827, Miss Hendry need not be doubted. She had inferred that, the McPhersons, not specifically Peter, had granted permission, presumably his heirs could have allowed the use of their lair, and it was not until 1845 that plots became unavailable in the kirkyard, whilst existing plots remained in use for some time after that.
Two further alleged incidents in Mary’s brief life identified her as a woman of “loose character”. It was said that she was Mary Campbell who resided at Dundonald, an unmarried mother who was compelled to face the Mauchline Kirk Session in 1784 for her sin. The other was a tale given out by Burns’s one time friend, John Richmond, who said Mary was the kept mistress of Lord Eglinton’s brother, at the very time Burns was courting her. Both stories were a tissue of absurd lies, gratefully seized upon by sensational-seeking writers, instead of being dismissed as utter stupidity!
In conclusion, where is Mary’s place in the legend of our National Bard’s amours? The opinion given by Professor Snyder is probably not too far removed from the truth: “And he loved her (Clarinda); loved her so it seems, as he never loved any other woman, unless possibly it were Mary Campbell.”
The final word, however, must rest with Robert Burns himself, who, on reflecting about the possibility of a life beyond the grave declared:
There should I, with speechless agony of rapture, again recognise my lost, my ever dear MARY,
whose bosom was fraught with Truth, Honor, Constancy & Love.-
My Mary, dear, departed Shade!
Where is thy place of heavenly rest?
Seest thou thy Lover lowly laid?
Hear’st thou the groans that rend his breast!
Letter to Mrs Dunlop, December 1789.