Mary Campbell, Robert Burns's 'Highland lassie'

02 April 2015
imports_CESC_highland-mary-20189_08117.jpg Mary Campbell, Robert Burns's 'Highland lassie'
Author Rosemary Gemmell tells the story of Mary Campbell, the Dunoon dairymaid who inspired some of Robert Burns's song 'The Highland Lassie, O'. ...

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.

In 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.

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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.