by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
His name may be Norman but
his friends call him Norrie, and I wish there were more people like him.
Norrie Paton has a gifted pen and can tell a story as good as anyone I know.
He has as much to say on his subject as any university professor does and
continues to go out of his way to support Robert Burns Lives!. Visit
Chapter 129 of this website which was published on December 14, 2011, and
read his excellent piece on Highland Mary. And then listen to what this
Campbelltown, Scotland man has to say below regarding the young lady who
captivated the heart and thoughts of Robert Burns until death took her away
Norrie is always welcome to
these pages dedicated to Burns. But Norrie, please do not wait two years
next time to surprise me with another article! For our readers who have not
visited the monument of Highland Mary, go back to Chapter 129 for a great
picture of it. Norrie, it has been said, is one of the good guys.
Gently Sweet Afton
The Story Behind the Song
Norrie Paton (photo courtesy of his wife
gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, Ill sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Marys asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
On the 5th
February, 1788, Robert Burns wrote to his constant correspondent, Mrs
Dunlop, enclosing a song that he had, apparently, just composed, and he
described it thus:
There is a
small river, Afton, that falls into the Nith, near New Cumnock, which has
some charming, wild, romantic scenery on its banks.- I have a particular
pleasure in those little pieces of poetry such as our Scots songs, &c. where
the names and landskip-features of rivers, lakes, or woodlands, that one
knows are introduced.- I attempted a compliment of that kind, to Afton, as
follows: I mean it for Johnsons Musical Museum.-
Flow gently, clear Afton, among thy green braes,
The song was
duly published in Vol. IV, p. 400, of the Scots Musical Museum, with the
title, Afton Water, and with clear amended to sweet. The full text of
the lyric is given in all main works of Robert Burns, and, the internal
evidence of some verses make it immediately obvious that he had taken
considerable poetic license. In the third stanza he comments:
I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Marys sweet Cot
in my eye.
Whilst in the
following stanza he continues the theme of Mary and him still together by
Aftons pleasant banks and green valleys:
oft as mild evning weeps over the lea,
scented birk shades my Mary and me.
Stanza five has
Mary bathing her snowy feet in Aftons wanton waters, and, in the concluding
verse, as she sleeps by its murmuring stream, the river is charged not to
disturb her dream. Burns, however, never lived anywhere near the River
Afton, with, or without a girl named Mary. He would have passed through the
area on his journeys between Ellisland farm and Mauchline, June to November,
in 1788, and doubtless enjoyed the picturesque views he observed, which he
encapsulated into his exquisite lyric.
expressly stated that his lyric was paying a compliment to the River Afton,
there is a reference to Mary in every verse, in all but one by name. In his
letter to Mrs Dunlop he gave no indication or identification of any specific
Mary. Several months later, in a letter to her, dated 13th
December, he did, however, mention a Mary whom he had known intimately.
Reflecting on the possibility of a life beyond the grave he declared:
should I with speechless agony of rapture, again recognise, my lost, my ever
was fraught with Truth, Honor, Constancy & LOVE.-
dear departed Shade!
Where is thy place of heavenly rest?
Seest thou thy Lover lowly laid
Hearst thou the groans that rend his breast!
It is unlikely
that Mrs Dunlop would have connected the Mary of Afton Water with the
dear departed Shade she had now learned about. Burns, however, found to
his cost that she was none too pleased with his reference to Mary in this
letter. This was probably due to the fact that he was still a few months
short of a mere two years married to Jean Armour. There is no doubt that,
the Mary in his letter was Mary Campbell, who had been parted for ever from
him by cruel fate, when she died in the typhoid epidemic at Greenock on, or
around, October 20, 1786. It has been established beyond reasonable doubt
that she had been betrothed to Burns at the time of her death. Was she,
however, the heroine of the exquisite lyric he had sent to Mrs Dunlop in
It would seem
inconceivable that, an emotionally charged poet such as Burns, could have
used the name Mary in his song without reflecting sadly and deeply, about
the Highland Lassie whom he had been planning to marry, three years
previously. Indeed, one renowned Burns editor, Robert Chambers, thought it
quite possible that Burns had written the song back in 1786, when Highland
Mary was still alive, that he had shelved the verses on learning of her
death; but had decided in 1789 to make it known, with the setting amended
from the scenery around the River Ayr, to the area where the Afton flowed
into the Nith. Chambers had obtained information from George Thomson that
Gilbert Burns regarded Highland Mary as the heroine of Afton Water, and
Chambers concluded that: The averment of the brother and bosom-friend of
Burns must be next, in a case of this kind, to his own. Chambers was also
aware that a daughter of Mrs Dunlop, claimed that she heard Burns confirm
Highland Mary as the subject of the song. The introduction to the song in
Chamberss edition had a quotation by the poet drawn from biblical text:
you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not, nor awake my love my
dove, my undefiled! The flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing
of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Taking up on
this, Scott Douglas in the headnote of the song in his edition commented:
And where does the adored name of MARY appear in a more glorious setting
than in this lyric? Even the inspired Singer of Israel has contributed
something to heighten the effect of the poets rapturous song. Douglas was
quite convinced that, when Burns had written to Clarinda in a drunken rant,
telling her of the finest woman he had known, whose name was indelibly
written in his hearts core - though he dared not look in on it - as a
degree of agony would be the consequence, he was referring to Highland Mary.
For some vague reason Scott Douglas thought this proved, ... beyond
reasonable doubt that MARY was the subject of Afton Water and that it was
composed when she was yet alive. As it turned out, Burns was actually
referring to Margaret Chalmers.
The four volume
Centenary Burns (1896), edited by W E Henley and T F Henderson,
announced that they were putting Chambers and Douglas right regarding
the information about Afton Water. They insisted, ... that the heroine
if heroine there were was another than Mary Campbell. Robert Chambers, in
assigning the lyric to 1786, got it completely wrong, in their opinion, as
did Scott Douglas who suggested 1791. (Scott Douglas actually gave 1786, as
has been shown above). Henley, in his essay on Burns, Life, Genius
Achievement, was particularly scathing about the Mariolaters, and
justifiably so, for their absurd adulation of Highland Mary; however, his
caustic comments on the woman herself were totally unreasonable. Denouncing
Chambers for styling her as the heroine-in-chief of Burnss story, he
pointed out that it was Jean Amour whom he (Burns), appreciated as the
fittest to be his wife hed ever met. Yet, it is undeniable that, had Mary
not died in 1786, it was she, not Jean Armour, who would have been Mrs
The attempts of
Henley and Henderson to deny Highland Marys right as the subject of Afton
Water appeared to be given a boost when the name of another Mary surfaced
in an article in the Burns Chronicle (1910), claiming that, Mary
Murdoch who lived at Laight, close to the River Afton, was in fact, the girl
Burns had in mind when he had written his verses. In the book, Burns and
Stair, by John McVie, published in 1927, this opinion was given further
coverage with the viewpoint: Her claim to be the heroine of Flow gently,
sweet Afton, is certainly the most feasible of any yet put forward. She
was the niece of John Logan of Laight, New Cumnock, whom McVie stated was an
intimate friend of the poet, who stayed with him often when in that area.
There is, in fact, no definite evidence to substantiate such a claim. Mary
Murdoch, according to McVie, ... is said to have been a great favourite
with Burns. Again, where is the evidence to verify such a statement, apart
from local hearsay, not published until 122 years after the alleged event,
when anything could have been fobbed off as fact?
It is true that
Burns visited John Logan; however, there seems nothing to suggest that he
stayed with him at any particular time, far less the frequent overnight
stops claimed by McVie. On Sunday, October 19, 1788, Burns dined with Logan
at Laight; however, as he made clear in a letter to Jean Armour, after doing
so, he intended to continue his journey and arrive at Mauchline late in the
evening. On his return journey to Ellisland, on the 23rd October,
he again called at the home of Logan, before proceeding to Sanquhar, where
he wrote to Mrs Dunlop. The dates of those visits to Logan occurred,
incidentally, around the time of the second anniversary of Highland Marys
of Gilbert Burns in naming Highland Mary, was also dismissed by John McVie,
mainly on the grounds of Gilbert being incapable of contradicting Dr Currie.
This referred to information supplied to Robert Chambers from George
Thomson. Gilbert had inferred that Currie was misinformed in several of the
comments he made about the song, in particular the claim of it being
presented by Burns to Mrs Stewart of Stair, as a compliment to her; but Dr
Currie must not be contradicted. This is rather ambiguous it seems more
than likely, that it was Thomson himself, not Gilbert, who was insisting on
Currie being correct. It would really have been absurd of Gilbert to point
out Curries errors, then quite emphatically state that his comments were
probably founded on fact after all.
of opinion based on local tradition about the composition of Afton Water
is given in a book, The Ayrshire Book of Burns-Lore, written by A. M.
legend maintains that the song was written in an inn by the River Afton at
New Cumnock. The poet had halted at the inn on his way from Ellisland to
Mauchline and gone to visit Mr. Logan of Laight, Glen Afton, for the
evening. During his absence from the inn, the landlady spread news of the
poets presence, expecting to have a busy, lively night on his return. When
Burns returned he seemed to be pre-occupied with his thoughts and went
straight to his room. In the morning he sent a servant to Laight with a
draft of the song Clear Afton which he had composed on his way back to the
Again, like the
hearsay given out by John McVie, this is no more than a fabricated legend.
If Logan received a manuscript of Afton Water he was a very privileged
fellow indeed, but what became of it? Surely it would have been regarded as
a prized and treasured possession, and carefully secured in a safe place.
Would Burns not have mentioned to Logan that the Mary of his verses was
Logans niece? If he had done so, then it would have been made known long
before being passed down by word of mouth from 1788 until finally appearing
in print in 1910. In more recent times, James Mackay commented that, Burns
visited John Logan on several occasions ... and during one of them is
believed to have composed Afton Water. (Complete Letters, p.
123, headnote). In this and his later comprehensive, well documented
biography of Burns, covering the poets private life in intimate detail,
there is no mention whatsoever, of anyone named Mary Murdoch, nor does any
other major biography make any comment concerning her. Indeed, Robert
Crawford (The Bard, 2009, p. 309), regarded the song as an elegy to
a dead Mary.
In all the
comments and opinions regarding the song Afton Water, arguably, none have
surpassed that of James C. Dick, for a logical, concise and reasonable
assessment, given in his much admired volume, The Songs of Robert Burns,
published 1903, p.372:
states that it was written on Afton Water, and in compliment to Mrs.
Stewart; Gilbert Burns states that Highland Mary was the heroine; Scott
Douglas agrees with this, but in the Centenary Burns it is asserted
that it has no connexion with Highland Mary, but was written as a compliment
to the River Afton which flows into the Nith near New Cumnock; and that the
verses were sent to Mrs. Dunlop on February 5, 1789. This is doubtless
correct; but it may be, and very likely is, a reminiscence of Mary Campbell.
however, perfectly feasible that Burns had at least the idea of the song in
1786, perhaps even an early draft, but on learning of Highland Marys death
decided to shelve it, reviving it later in the different setting of the
River Afton. After all, the lyric, Will ye go the Indies, My Mary was not
published until the year 1800, although it had been offered to George
Thomson in 1792, who rejected it: This is a very poor song which I do not
mean to include in my Collection. He was not given the opportunity to be
the first to publish the lyric gem that is Flow gently sweet Afton!