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Mary Campbell (Highland Mary)
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Mary Campbell (Highland Mary)

Mary Campbell also known as Highland Mary,[1] was christened 'Margaret'[2], she was the daughter of a sailor in a revenue cutter[3] named Archibald Campbell of Daling, who's wife was Agnes Campbell of Achnamore, 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.[2]


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.[2] 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 "sweet, sprightly, blue-eyed creature."[3] In her early 'teens, she went to Ayrshire and became a nursemaid in Gavin Hamilton's house in Mauchline.[1][4]

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. According to Grierson, who met Mary's sister, Mrs Anderson, in 1817, Mary was 'tall, fair haired with blue eyes'.[1]

Mary Campbell died at the age of 23, around October 20th 1786, probably from typhoid fever contracted when nursing her brother Robert, or possibly following or during premature childbirth. She was buried in the old West Highland Churchyard at Greenock, in a lair owned by her host and relation Peter Macpherson.[1] 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.[5] 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.[5]

Association with Robert Burns

Full view of the Naysmith portrait of 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery 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[1] on the banks of the River Ayr, either at where the Mauchline Burn has it's confluence or near Coilsfield.[6]

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."[1] She was staying in Greenock with relatives whilst waiting to take up employment with the family of Colonel McIvor at Glasgow.[7]

Burns's sister, Isabella Begg, recollected that he had once remarked to John Blane, the 'gaudsman', 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.[8]

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".[1]

Pregnancy controversy

On 5th November 1920, 134 years after Mary's death, supposedly from typhus, her grave was opened due to the graveyard being taken over for an indistrial development. Apart from her the corpse the remains was found the bottom board of an infant's coffin. This naturally resulted in speculation, based on Burns's well known extra-marital intimacy, on the real cause of Mary's death.[1] The Greenock burial records have not survived and various bids to have the remains exhumed for DNA testing have been opposed in recent years. Typhoid is not fatal in a young person, but for a pregnang woman it would have been a serious complication. Burns certainly felt guilt and remorse over Mary's death, pointing to some factor other than typhoid.[2]

Mary's grave is now located in Greenock cemetery and carries a plaque to her memory. It is situated in a memorial garden withe the romantic couple depicted on the stone, remembering Robert Burns lost love.

Captain James Montgomerie

Mary Campbell had probably been the mistress of the Earl of Eglinton's brother, Captain James Montgomerie of Coilsfield.[9][10]

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)[11]: -

"Ye banks and braes and streams around
The castle of Montgomerie,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
Your waters never drumlie!
There simmer first unfauld her robes,
And there the longest tarry!
For there I took the last fareweel
O' my Sweet Highland Mary."

The song 'Montgomerie's Peggy' alludes to her association with Captain James Montgomerie :

Montgomerie's Peggy "Were I a Baron proud and high,
And horse and servants waiting ready,
Then a' 'twad gie o'joy to me –
The shairin't wi' Montgomerie's Peggy."

See also




  • Annandale, Charles (Editor) (1890). The Works of Robert Burns. London : Blackie & Son.
  • Hecht, Hans (1936). Robert Burns. The Man and His Work. London : William Hodge.
  • Hunter, Douglas & McQueen, Colin Hunter. (2009). Hunter's Illustrated History of the Family, Friends, and Contemporaries of Robert Burns. Published by the authors. ISBN 978-0-9559732 -0-8.
  • Mackay, James (2004). Burns. A Biography of Robert Burns. Darvel : Alloway Publishing. ISBN 0907526-85-3.

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