02/04/2015
Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Mary Campbell, Robert Burns's 'Highland lassie'

ad1e3f6d-0436-435b-9215-e21d1a699b46

Author Rosemary Gemmell tells the story of Mary Campbell, the Dunoon dairymaid who inspired some of Robert Burns's song 'The Highland Lassie, O'.

Most people have heard of Robert Burns, his poetry, songs, and shenanigans with the ladies. Yet while Jean Armour is remembered as the wife and mother of his children, it is his ‘highland lassie’, Mary Campbell, who inspired some of Burns’ most heartfelt verse.

Mary (or Margaret) was born to Archibald and Agnes Campbell in 1763 at Auchamore Farm, Dunoon, before moving to Campbeltown with her family. But it was her grave (pictured) in the old cemetery in my hometown Greenock that started my fascination for this 18th century maid when I was growing up.

Mary Campbell's grave in GreenockIn between her birth and death, Mary was sent to work in Ayrshire, first as a nursemaid to Burns’ friend, Gavin Hamilton, in the village of Mauchline then as a dairymaid to the Montgomerys at Coilsfield.

She soon caught the eye of the poet farmer and the song, The Highland Lassie, O’ was written by Burns in the spring of 1786. He 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.'

Burns and Mary planned to sail to Jamaica from Greenock, after plighting their troth across a stream on the banks of Ayr, but their romance was short-lived. Departing Ayrshire, Mary visited her family in Campbeltown before going on to Greenock, where her brother worked in the shipyards. Mary took lodgings with distant relatives while waiting for Burns to arrive. Meanwhile, Burns’ first book of poems, the Kilmarnock Edition, was published to great acclaim and they were destined never to meet again.

Giving a voice to Mary Campbell

After writing an article about their story for The Highlander Magazine in the USA some years ago, I wanted to write a novel that would give voice to Mary herself. One difficult aspect of writing about real historical figures is assimilating the amount of information already known. Years of studying literature and history to MA level through the Open University gave me a grounding in research and love of history.

Although much is known about Burns, the ‘facts’ about Highland Mary are more sketchy. I decided to write a contemporary novel about family secrets, inspired by the wonderful scenery around the Clyde and beyond, which would also trace the story of Burns and his Highland lass in short alternate historical chapters. These would be in Mary’s own fictionalised voice in 1785-6.

After researching Burns, from a book published in 1838, to more modern accounts and Burns’ own poems, songs and letters, I formed a real feeling for Highland Mary and her effect on the poet. Some of the research was carried out in the Watt Library in Greenock (pictured right), with its access to microfilm copies of the old Greenock Advertiser and the later Greenock Telegraph, where I found several interesting facts that I incorporated into the story and the epilogue. The Greenock Burns Club (the Mother Club) allowed me to sift through their archives for any relevant material. I also visited the Ayrshire villages which have hardly changed since the 18th century.

The modern part of The Highland Lass takes the reader on Eilidh’s journey from Greenock, to Dunoon and Ayrshire, when she returns to Scotland to seek the identity of her father and to research the story of Highland Mary, who may have been an ancestress. This was partly inspired by the time when the American Navy was based in the Holy Loch from the 1960s to early 80s. Dances were held on both sides of the Clyde and Eilidh thinks her father, a fan of Burns, may have been an American officer. Eilidh herself gradually falls in love along the way with Lewis Grant, with whom she feels a strong connection. Each modern chapter is headed with a couple of lines from relevant Burns poems to keep the connection with the snippets of Burns’ poetry in the historical chapters. In the end, Eilidh finds the answers to the past in Greenock.

The Highland Lass by Rosemary Gemmell is published by Crooked Cat Publishing and links to purchase or find out more are available from the author's website.

 

Back to "Burns Night" Category

02/04/2015 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

Songwriter Ewan MacColl died - On this day in Scottish history

Scottish singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl died on 22 October 1989. ...


The Burrell Collection was opened - On this day in Scottish history

The Burrell Collection was opened on 21 October 1983.


Colin Campbell 1st Baron of Clyde was born - On this day in Scottish history

Colin Campbell, 1st Baron Clyde was born on 20 October 1792.


The first public sedan chairs in Scotland became available - On this day in Scottish history

Scotland's first public hire sedan chairs became available on 19 October 1687.


Other Articles

Queen consort Margaret Tudor died on 18 October 1541

Queen consort Margaret Tudor died on 18 October 1541.


The best Scottish castles to visit – History Scotland’s ultimate castles guide

Which are the best Scottish castles to explore? Which castles in Scotland are open during the winter? Plan ...


History events in Scotland - November 2018

Discover things to do in Scotland in November with our round-up of history-inspired events. ...


Craigmillar Castle to stage Mary Queen of Scots light projection event - 1 to 4 November 2018

Experience Craigmillar Castle in a different light with a new after-dark event ‘Spotlight on Mary Queen of ...