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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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 &
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!
to Mrs Dunlop, December 1789.