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Highland Mary: Her Homes and Grave

From A Literary Pilgrimage among the Haunts of Famous British Authors by Theodore F. Wolfe

Birthplace--Personal Appearance--Relations to Burns--Abodes: Mauchline, Coilsfield etc.--Scenes of Courtship and Parting--Mementos--Tomb by the Clyde

There is no stronger proof of the transcending power of the genius of Burns than is found in the fact that, by a bare half dozen of his stanzas, an humble dairy servant--else unheard of outside her parish and forgotten at her death--is immortalized as a peeress of Petrarch's Laura and Dante's Beatrice, and has been for a century loved and mourned of all the world. We owe much of our tenderest poesy to the heroines whose charms have attuned the fancy and aroused the impassioned muse of enamoured bards; readers have always exhibited a natural avidity to realize the personality of the beings who inspired the tender lays,--prompted often by mere curiosity, but more often by a desire to appreciate the tastes and motives of the poets themselves. How little is known of Highland Mary, the most famous heroine of modern song, is shown by the brief, incoherent, and often contradictory allusions to her which the biographies of the ploughman-poet contain. This paper,--prepared during a sojourn in "The Land o' Burns,"--while it adds a little to our meagre knowledge of Mary Campbell, aims to present consecutively and congruously so much as may now be known of her brief life, her relations to the bard, and her sad, heroic death.

Birthplace--Early Home

She first saw the light in 1764, at Ardrossan, on the coast, fifteen miles northward from the "auld town of Ayr." Her parentage was of the humblest, her father being a sailor before the mast, and the poor dwelling which sheltered her was in no way superior to the meanest of those we find to-day on the narrow streets of her village. From her birthplace we see, across the Firth of Clyde, the beetling mountains of the Highlands, where she afterward dwelt, and southward the great mass of Ailsa Craig looming, a gigantic pyramid, out of the sea. Mary was named for her aunt, wife of Peter McPherson, a ship-carpenter of Greenock, in whose house Mary died. In her infancy her family removed to the vicinage of Dunoon, on the western shore of the Firth, eight miles below Greenock, leaving the oldest daughter at Ardrossan. Mary grew to young womanhood near Dunoon, then returned to Ayrshire, and found occupation at Coilsfield, near Tarbolton, where her acquaintance with Burns soon began. He told a lady that he first saw Mary while walking in the woods of Coilsfield, and first spoke with her at a rustic merry-making, and, "having the luck to win her regards from other suitors," they speedily became intimate. At this period of life Burns's "eternal propensity to fall into love" was unusually active, even for him, and his passion for Mary (at this time) was one of several which engaged his heart in the interval between the reign of Ellison Begbie--"the lass of the twa sparkling, roguish een"--and that of "Bonnie Jean." Mary subsequently became a servant in the house of Burns's landlord, Gavin Hamilton, a lawyer of Mauchline, who had early recognized the genius of the bard and admitted him to an intimate friendship, despite his inferior condition. When Hamilton was persecuted by the kirk, Burns, partly out of sympathy with him, wrote the satires, "Holy Willie's Prayer," "The Twa Herds," and "The Holy Fair," which served to unite the friends more closely, and brought the poet often to the house where Mary was an inmate. This house--a sombre structure of stone, little more pretentious than its neighbours--we found on the shabby street not far from Armour's cottage, the church of "The Holy Fair," and "Posie Nansie's" inn, where the "Jolly Beggars" used to congregate. Among the dingy rooms shown us in Hamilton's house was that in which he married Burns to "Bonnie Jean" Armour.

Personal Appearance--Betrothal and Parting

The bard's niece, Miss Begg, of Bridgeside, told the writer that she often heard Burns's mother describe Mary as she saw her at Hamilton's: she had a bonnie face, a complexion of unusual fairness, soft blue eyes, a profusion of shining hair which fell to her knees, a petite figure which made her seem younger than her twenty summers, a bright smile, and pleasing manners, which won the old lady's heart. This description is, in superlative phrase, corroborated by Lindsay in Hugh Miller's "Recollections:" she was "beautiful, sylph-like," her bust and neck were "exquisitely moulded," her arms and feet "had a statue-like symmetry and marble-like whiteness;" but it was in her lovely countenance that "nature seemed to have exhausted her utmost skill,"--"the loveliest creature I have ever seen," etc. All who have written of her have noticed her beauty, her good sense, her modesty and self-respect. But these qualities were now insufficient to hold the roving fancy of Burns, whose "susceptibility to immediate impressions" (so called by Byron, who had the same failing) passes belief. His first ephemeral fancy for Mary took little hold upon his heart, and the best that can be said of it is that it was more innocent than the loves which came before and after it. Within a stone's-throw of Mary dwelt Jean Armour, and when the former returned to Coilsfield, he promptly fell in love with Jean, and solaced himself with her more buxom and compliant charms. It was a year or so later, when his intercourse with Jean had burdened him with grief and shame, that the tender and romantic affection for Mary came into his life. She was yet at Coilsfield, and while he was in hiding--his heart tortured by the apparent perfidy of Jean and all the countryside condemning his misconduct--his intimacy with Mary was renewed; his quickened vision now discerned her endearing attributes, her trust and sympathy were precious in his distress, and awoke in him an affection such as he never felt for any other woman. During a few brief weeks the lovers spent their evenings and Sabbaths together, loitering amid the

"Banks and braes and streams around
The castle of Montgomery,"

talking of the golden days that were to be theirs when present troubles were past; then came the parting which the world will never forget, and Mary relinquished her service and went to her parents at Campbeltown,--a port of Cantyre behind "Arran's mountain isle." Of this parting Burns says, in a letter to Thomson, "We met by appointment on the second Sunday of May, in a sequestered spot on the Ayr, where we spent the day in taking farewell before she should embark for the West Highlands to prepare for our projected change of life." Lovers of Burns linger over this final parting, and detail the impressive ceremonials with which the pair solemnized their betrothal: they stood on either side of a brook, they laved their hands in the water and scattered it in the air to symbolize the purity of their intentions; clasping hands above an open Bible, they swore to be true to each other forever, then exchanged Bibles, and parted never to meet more. It is not strange that when death had left him nothing of her but her poor little Bible, a tress of her golden hair, and a tender memory of her love, the recollection of this farewell remained in his soul forever. He has pictured it in the exquisite lines of "Highland Mary" and "To Mary in Heaven."


In the monument at Alloway--between the "auld haunted kirk" and the bridge where Maggie lost her tail--we are shown a memento of the parting; it is the Bible which Burns gave to Mary and above which their vows were said. At Mary's death it passed to her sister, at Ardrossan, who bequeathed it to her son William Anderson; subsequently it was carried to America by one of the family, whence it has been recovered to be treasured here. It is a pocket edition in two volumes, to one of which is attached a lock of poor Mary's shining hair. Within the cover of the first volume the hand of Burns has written, "And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, I am the Lord;" within the second, "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths." Upon a blank leaf of each volume is Burns's Masonic signet, with the signature, "Robert Burns, Mossgiel," written beneath. Mary's spinning-wheel is preserved in the adjoining cottage. A few of her bright hairs, severed in her fatal fever, are among the treasures of the writer and lie before him as he pens these lines.

Coilsfield--Plans of the Lovers

A visit to the scenes of the brief passion of the pair is a pleasing incident of our Burns-pilgrimage. Coilsfield House is somewhat changed since Mary dwelt beneath its roof,--a great rambling edifice of grey weather-worn stone with a row of white pillars aligned along its façade, its massive walls embowered in foliage and environed by the grand woods which Burns and Mary knew so well. It was then a seat of Colonel Hugh Montgomerie, a patron of Burns. The name Coilsfield is derived from Coila, the traditional appellation of the district. The grounds comprise a billowy expanse of wood and sward; great reaches of turf, dotted with trees already venerable when the lovers here had their tryst a hundred years ago, slope away from the mansion to the Faile and border its murmuring course to the Ayr. Here we trace with romantic interest the wanderings of the pair during the swift hours of that last day of parting love, their lingering way 'neath the "wild wood's thickening green," by the pebbled shore of Ayr to the brooklet where their vows were made, and thence along the Faile to the woodland shades of Coilsfield, where, at the close of that winged day, "pledging oft to meet again, they tore themselves asunder." Howitt found at Coilsfield a thorn-tree, called by all the country "Highland Mary's thorn," and believed to be the place of final parting; years ago the tree was notched and broken by souvenir seekers; if it be still in existence the present occupant of Coilsfield is unaware.

Burns's Regard for Mary--Her Death

At the time of his parting with Mary, Burns had already resolved to emigrate to Jamaica, and it has been supposed, from his own statements and those of his biographers, that the pair planned to emigrate together; but Burns soon abandoned this project and, perhaps, all thought of marrying Mary. The song commencing "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary?" has been quoted to show he expected her to accompany him, but he says, in an epistle to Thomson, that this was his farewell to her, and in another song, written while preparing to embark, he declares that it is leaving Mary that makes him wish to tarry. Further, we find that with the first nine pounds received from the sale of his poems he purchased a single passage to Jamaica,--manifestly having no intention of taking her with him. Her being at Greenock in October, en route to a new place of service at Glasgow, indicates she had no hope that he would marry her then, or soon. True, he afterward said she came to Greenock to meet him, but it is certain that he knew nothing of her being there until after her death. During the summer of 1786, while she was preparing to wed him, he indited two love-songs to her, but they are not more glowing than those of the same time to several inamoratas,--less impassioned than the "Farewell to Eliza" and allusions to Jean in "Farewell, old Scotia's bleak domains,"--and barely four weeks after his ardent and solemn parting with Mary we find him writing to Brice, "I do still love Jean to distraction." Poor Mary! Possibly the fever mercifully saved her from dying of a broken heart. The bard's anomalous affectional condition and conduct may perhaps be explained by assuming that he loved Mary with a refined and spiritual passion so different from his love for others--and especially from his conjugal love for Jean--that the passions could coexist in his heart. The alternative explanation is that his love for Mary, while she lived, was by no means the absorbing passion which he afterward believed it to have been. When death had hallowed his memories of her love and of all their sweet intercourse,--beneficent death! that beautifies, ennobles, irradiates, in the remembrance of survivors, the loved ones its touch has taken,--then his soul, swelling with the passion that throbs in the strains of "To Mary in Heaven," would not own to itself that its love had ever been less.

Mary remained at Campbeltown during the summer of 1786. Coming to Greenock in the autumn, she found her brother sick of a malignant fever at the house of her aunt; bravely disregarding danger of contagion, she devoted herself to nursing him, and brought him to a safe convalescence only to be herself stricken by his malady and to rapidly sink and die, a sacrifice to her sisterly affection. By this time the success of his poems had determined Burns to remain in Scotland, and he returned to Mossgiel, where tidings of Mary's death reached him. His brother relates that when the letter was handed to him he went to the window to read it, then his face was observed to change suddenly, and he quickly went out without speaking. In June of the next year he made a solitary journey to the Highlands, apparently drawn by memory of Mary. If, indeed, he dropped a tear upon her neglected grave and visited her humble Highland home, we may almost forgive him the excesses of that tour, if not the renewed liaison with Jean which immediately preceded, and the amorous correspondence with "Clarinda" (Mrs. M'Lehose) which followed it.

Whatever the quality or degree of his passion for Mary living, his grief for her dead was deep and tender, and expired only with his life. Cherished in his heart, it manifested itself now in some passage of a letter, now in some pathetic burst of song,--like "The Lament" and "Highland Mary,"--and again in some emotional act. Of many such acts narrated to the writer by Burns's niece, the following is, perhaps, most striking. The poet attended the wedding of Kirstie Kirkpatrick, a favourite of his, who often sang his songs for him, and, after the wedded pair had retired, a lass of the company, being asked to sing, began "Highland Mary." Its effect upon Burns "was painful to witness; he started to his feet, prayed her in God's name to forbear, then hastened to the door of the marriage-chamber and entreated the bride to come and quiet his mind with a verse or two of 'Bonnie Doon.'" The lines "To Mary in Heaven" and the pathetic incidents of their composition show most touchingly how he mourned his fair-haired lassie years after she ceased to be. It was at Ellisland, October 20, 1789, the anniversary of Mary's death, an occasion which brought afresh to his heart memories of the tender past. Jean has told us of his increasing silence and unrest as the day declined, of his aimless wandering by Nithside at nightfall, of his rapt abstraction as he lay pillowed by the sheaves of his stack-yard, gazing entranced at the "lingering star" above him till the immortal song was born.

Her Grave

Poor Mary is laid in the burial-plot of her uncle in the west kirk-yard of Greenock, near Crawford Street; our pilgrimage in Burnsland may fitly end at her grave. A pathway, beaten by the feet of many reverent visitors, leads us to the spot. It is so pathetically different from the scenes she loved in life,--the heather-clad slopes of her Highland home, the seclusion of the wooded braes where she loitered with her poet-lover. Scant foliage is about her; few birds sing above her here. She lies by the wall; narrow streets hem in the enclosure; the air is sullied by smoke from factories and from steamers passing within a stone's-throw on the busy Clyde; the clanging of many hammers and the discordant din of machinery and traffic invade the place and sound in our ears as we muse above the ashes of the gentle lassie.

For half a century her grave was unmarked and neglected; then, by subscription, a monument of marble, twelve feet in height, and of graceful proportions, was raised. It bears a sculptured medallion representing Burns and Mary, with clasped hands, plighting their troth. Beneath is the simple inscription, read oft by eyes dim with tears:

Erected Over the Grave of Highland Mary 1842

"My Mary, dear departed shade,
  Where is thy place of blissful rest?"

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