In Search of Highland Mary
In Search of Highland Mary uncovers the mystery surrounding Mary Campbell, the alleged doomed lover of Robert Burns.
A tale of mystery and misdirection, intrigue and red herrings, the story of who she was, or whether she even existed, has been a source of controversy ever since 'Highland Mary' allegedly agreed to emigrate with the poet to a new life in the West Indies in 1786 but died in Greenock shortly before their departure.
In the early 19th century Burns biographer Cromek revealed details of Mary Campbell and a note written by Burns accompanying the song 'Highland Lassie O'. For many years the note lay in an unknown location and many believed Cromek had fabricated its existence, and saw Mary Campbell's connection with Burns as a stain on his reputation. Yet during the Victorian consumerist era 'Highland Mary' was to become increasingly famous, and the romantic tale of the lovers betrothal on the Banks of the Ayr, accompanied by an exchange of Bibles, led to memorabilia produced in her name. But by the early 20th century the mystery of 'Highland Mary' was to take a dramatic turn. When biographer Catherine Carswell suggested that Mary may have been pregnant with Burn's child when she died, Catherine was to receive a silver bullet in the post as a warning not to meddle in such matters. It would seem certain people were keen to protect the image of 'Highland Mary'. When Mary's grave was exhumed in 1917, to make way for an expanding Greenock shipyard, the discovery of baby bones led to more controversy.
The Bibles which Robert and Mary were said to have exchanged are also shrouded in mystery. Both were apparently loaned to Canada and returned, but then one of the bibles disappeared, leading to some saying it never existed. Do the scratched out words on the remaining bible say 'Robert and Mary' or simply 'Rob Mossgiel'?
Meanwhile the existence of the 'Highland Lassie' note, in which Burns talks of emigrating with his Highland Lassie and her sudden demise, remained unsolved
until 2009 when Robert Crawford unproblematically announced its existence at the Birthplace Museum of Robert Burns in Alloway, in his biography The Bard. How long had it lain there and why it had remained undiscovered was another source of controversy.
In Search of Highland Mary is the story of Mary Campbell but also the story of the people who came into contact with her and their motivation to protect or dispel her image.
The BBC Robert Burns website has recordings of several poems and songs about Highland Mary including Will ye go to the Indies My Mary, Highland Mary,
Highland Lassie O and To Mary in Heaven.