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 servantelse unheard of out-side her parish and forgotten at her deathis 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 laysprompted 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, coherent, and often contradictory allusions to her which the biographies of the plowman-poet contain. This paperprepared during a sojourn in “The Land of Burns”while it adds a little to our meager knowledge of Mary Campbell, aims to present consecutively and congruously so much as may be known of her brief life, her relation to the bard, and her sad, heroic death.
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 birth-place we see, across the Firth of Clyde, the beet-ling mountains of the Highlands, where she after-ward 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 Mc-Pherson, a ship-carpenter of Greenock, in whose house Mary died. In her infancy her family re-moved 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 re-turned to Ayrshire, and found occupation at Coils-field, near Tarbolton, where her acquaintance with Burns soon began. He told a lady that he first saw Mary while walking in the woods of Coils-field, 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 Mauchlin, who had early recognized the genius of the bard and admitted him to an intimate friendship, despite his inferior condition.
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 him-self 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 hidinghis heart tortured by the apparent perfidy of Jean and all the country-side condemning his misconducthis 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 Campbelltowna 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 bethrothal: 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 Allowaybetween the “auld haunted kirk” and the bridge where Maggie lost her tailwe 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. .
A visit to the scenes of the brief passion of the pair is a pleasing incident of our Burns pilgrim-age. Coilsfield House is somewhat changed since Mary dwelt beneath its roof-a great rambling edifice of gray weather-worn stone with a row of white pillars aligned along its facade, 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 de-rived 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 brook-let 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.
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 convalescense 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 Moss Giel, where tidings of Mary’s death reached him. His brother relates that when the letter was handed to him he went to the window and 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 dropt 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.
Poor Mary is laid in the burial-plot of her uncle in the west kirk-yard of Greenock, near Craw-ford Street; our pilgrimage in Burns-land 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 lifethe heather-clad slopes of her High-land 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 en-closure; 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 medal-lion 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!”