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Robert Burns Lives!
Vindication of Highland Mary by Norman Paton

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

I am always looking and asking, and sometimes outright begging, various people to contribute to the pages of Robert Burns Lives!. Most have been willing to share their work with me while a few never will. Their loss! And it doesn’t matter to me if they have a PhD behind their names or not. They may write great books on Burns while the others of us represent Burns in newsletters, local papers or during the “Burns Season” at our Burns clubs. I like both types as Burns is “the” common denominator.

When a politician was asked how he would vote on a bill to permit drinking whisky on Sundays, he replied, “Well, some of my friends are against it, and some of my friends are for it, and I am for my friends!” Actually what I look for is one’s love for Burns and a sense of honesty about him - two sides of the same coin. They do not have to agree with me on my thinking nor is it imperative for us to be “cut off the same bolt of cloth” or “cuss” in the same places. I’m not interested in their politics or place in society. They can be president or professor of a university, an author, or a layman like me.

However, if I think they are wrong about Burns, I do one or two things: not print what they send me (I’ve had a few of those) or rebut what they say (I’ve done this a couple of times too). The problem with the latter is I burn a lot of energy and sometimes it is like riding a calliope - one gets off where he got on and he hasn’t been anywhere. I usually leave the rebutting to those who are scholars as they are more gifted about Burns and can do a much better job.

This brings me to our guest today: He came recommended by one I trust, listen to, look up to, love, and respect as much as I do any man on earth. In the words of my friend, our writer today is “one of the good guys”.  I welcome him to these pages because he identifies with the phrase “hard working stiff”. Over the years his career took him to the Clyde shipyards as a draughtsman and later on to shipbuilding and structural engineering. If my Daddy, who could easily be described as a “dirt farmer” and latter on after losing his farm in the Great Depression, a drayer, was alive, he would say as we sat around the supper table, “He’s one of us”.  That’s a pretty good recommendation in my book because my Daddy did not have much to say but when he did, you learned rather quickly to listen.

The article below on Highland Mary was written for the Greenock Telegraph and was restricted to 600 words due to their newspaper format. One of my beloved heroes in literature, Ernest Hemingway, used to write over a thousand words a morning when he was on a roll. While this is not a long article, I’d like to think that Hemingway would pronounce it to be a “beautiful story”. Oh, by the way, his Sunday name is Norman Paton but his friends call him Norrie.

Norrie Paton

So now we have two articles back-to-back on Highland Mary, one by a scholar and one by a  layman. Hope you enjoy both of them as much as I did.

In closing, Susan and I recently enjoyed being with our little family enjoying Santa and Mrs. Claus at our Atlanta St. Andrew’s Society Christmas party. I received my usual gift from him – a small bag of coal! No matter, I still believe in him, and he knows when he needs me, I am willing to be his elf. Merry Christmas, everyone!

(FRS: 12.14.11)

Norman R. Paton, b. 1937 at Johnstone, Scotland.

Norrie Paton at Failford monument erected in 1921 commemorating where Robert Burns and Highland Mary took their last farewell on 14 May 1786. This is disputed by some who insist the parting took place beside the Mauchline Burn. You could probably ask two Scotsmen about the dispute today and get three opinions.

Norrie Paton grew up in the shipbuilding town of Port-Glasgow, and at the age of sixteen became an apprentice ship draughtsman in one of the local yards. When the shipyards began to close in the 1970s he  left Scotland to work in the south coast of England, he and his wife living in the Hampshire village of Stubbington. In 1999 they returned to Scotland and now live in the Kintyre town of Campbeltown, where he was involved, along with a local writer, in having a plaque to the memory of Burns's Highland Mary erected at a site close to where Mary had spent her childhood and adolescence.     

In 1994 Norrie had a chapbook on Highland Mary published, with the title, Thou Lingering Star, having been taken from the song written by Burns on the third anniversary of Mary's death. His keen interest in Burns, however, developed from his admiration for the poet's democratic politics, and progressive opinions on the subject of religion, and for many years Norrie was actively involved in Labour politics, especially within the trade union that he belonged to, and, as a socialist, with nationalist leanings, he staunchly supports the idea of an independent Scotland. 

His interests are reading, occasional writing, walking the dog, brewing his own beer, and, perhaps above all, listening to music, in which he enjoys a wide variety of vocalists from Sinatra to Caruso, but his particular favourites within his record collection are, John McCormack, Robert Wilson, Luke Kelly, Kathleen Ferrier and Jo Stafford.

His reading covers subjects such as Scottish interests, of which the Jacobites have considerable appeal, politics, history, biographies of selected persons, sport, mostly on football and the past heavyweight champions in boxing.

Vindication of Highland Mary

A young woman who died in a Greenock tenement on (or around) 20 October 1786, became immortalised in world literature as Burns’s Highland Mary. Robert Burns, to whom she was then betrothed, explained the circumstances of the location and cause of her death: “... 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.” Mary had arrived from her parents’ home in Campbeltown to stay with relatives for a short spell until she took up employment with the family of Colonel McIvor at Glasgow. She was buried in a lair owned by these relatives, the McPhersons, in the Old West Kirkyard that stood on the site now occupied by the Gala bingo hall.

In 1920, however, the shipyard adjacent to the church was permitted the legal right to expand, and Mary’s lair was among the first to be excavated with the remains being transferred to the South Street cemetery. Several people had been buried in the lair and, when the board of an infant’s coffin was discovered, it roused no great interest among those present at the exhumation of the remains. They included W. Hillhouse Carmichael, J.P., chairman of the Parks & Cemetery committee, and Archibald McPhail, of the Greenock Burns Club, who informed the Greenock Telegraph of the proceedings.

Ten years later, however, Catherine Carswell brought a storm of abuse upon herself when, in a novel based on the life of Burns, she described the scene at Mary Campbell’s funeral stating that, as Mary and her dead child were being lowered into the grave, the Campbells and McPhersons cursed the very name of Robert Burns, as not even the Armours had done. Mrs Carswell had overlooked the fact that mother and child would have been buried in the same coffin. She dismissed Mary’s intention of taking work in Glasgow as a ruse; her real plan in coming to Greenock was to sail with Burns for Jamaica, where he had already laid plans for his future. Mrs Carswell’s version was fanciful rather than factual!

In 1932, just two years after the Carswell book, Franklyn Bliss Snyder, an American academic, in a highly acclaimed scholarly biography of Burns, suggested that his “lawless love” of a young woman had cost her and her child their lives. It was a preposterous charge against Burns, on flimsy evidence, and left a sad blemish on an otherwise excellent volume. In more recent times James Mackay, the best known of Burns’s biographers, wrote: “There is no proof whatsoever that (Mary) was pregnant, far less that she died in childbirth.” Jim, however, couldn’t resist adding that, “given Robert’s previous track-record”, suspicion that Mary may well have been pregnant, could not be ruled out. 

It is true that five women bore illegitimate children to Burns, however, with the exception of Jean Armour, none of the others were involved with him in a serious affair. They were hapless souls he had taken advantage of when the opportunity presented itself. The women Burns had courted with romantic vigour, such as, Ellison Begbie, Elizabeth Miller, Margaret Chalmers, Agnes McLehose (Clarinda), and to an extent, the platonic Jean Lorimer, for whom he had written more love songs than for any other woman, were not part of the “track-record” criterion implied by James Mackay. The name of Mary Campbell should be added to this list. If she had been pregnant Burns would surely have married her. According to her mother, when Mary returned home from Ayrshire, Burns frequently wrote to her, and had even suggested that he would be willing to come to the West Highlands and marry her.

At the height of the furore caused by the Carswell book, a Miss J Hendry, of 2 Margaret Street, Greenock, testified that the coffin board found in the lair was that of Agnes Hendry, her father’s sister, who had died aged eight weeks in 1827. The family had obtained permission from the McPhersons, their friends and neighbours, to have the child buried in the same lair as Highland Mary. Despite James Mackay’s rebuttal of this claim on the grounds that, Peter McPherson the owner of the lair was, by then, dead, and that burials in the kirkyard had ceased prior to1827, Miss Hendry need not be doubted. She had inferred that, the McPhersons, not specifically Peter, had granted permission, presumably his heirs could have allowed the use of their lair, and it was not until 1845 that plots became unavailable in the kirkyard, whilst existing plots remained in use for some time after that.    

Two further alleged incidents in Mary’s brief life identified her as a woman of “loose character”. It was said that she was Mary Campbell who resided at Dundonald, an unmarried mother who was compelled to face the Mauchline Kirk Session in 1784 for her sin. The other was a tale given out by Burns’s one time friend, John Richmond, who said Mary was the kept mistress of Lord Eglinton’s brother, at the very time Burns was courting her. Both stories were a tissue of absurd lies, gratefully seized upon by sensational-seeking writers, instead of being dismissed as utter stupidity!

In conclusion, where is Mary’s place in the legend of our National Bard’s amours? The opinion given by Professor Snyder is probably not too far removed from the truth: “And he loved her (Clarinda); loved her so it seems, as he never loved any other woman, unless possibly it were Mary Campbell.” The final word, however, must rest with Robert Burns himself, who, on reflecting about the possibility of a life beyond the grave declared:

            There should I, with speechless agony of rapture, again recognise my lost, my ever dear MARY, whose bosom was fraught with Truth, Honor, Constancy & Love.-

                        My Mary, dear, departed Shade!
                            Where is thy place of heavenly rest?
                        Seest thou thy Lover lowly laid?
                            Hear’st thou the groans that rend his breast!

Letter to Mrs Dunlop, December 1789.

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