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Robert Burns Lives!
Flow Gently Sweet Afton. The Story Behind the Song By Norrie Paton


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

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 from him.

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.”

(FRS: 12.3.13)

Flow Gently Sweet Afton
The Story Behind the Song
By Norrie Paton


Norrie Paton (photo courtesy of his wife Alexandra)

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s 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 Johnson’s 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:

There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet Cot in my eye.

Whilst in the following stanza he continues the theme of Mary and him still together by Afton’s pleasant banks and green valleys:    

There oft as mild ev’ning weeps over the lea,      
The sweet scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Stanza five has Mary bathing her snowy feet in Afton’s 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.  

Although he 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:

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! 

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 February?

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 Chambers’s edition had a quotation by the poet drawn from biblical text:

I charge 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. – R. B. 

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 poet’s 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 heart’s 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 Burns’s story, he pointed out that it was Jean Amour whom he (Burns), “appreciated as the fittest to be his wife he’d ever met.” Yet, it is undeniable that, had Mary not died in 1786, it was she, not Jean Armour, who would have been Mrs Robert Burns.

The attempts of Henley and Henderson to deny Highland Mary’s 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 Mary’s death.

The authority 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 Currie’s errors, then quite emphatically state that his comments were probably founded on fact after all.     

Another version 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. Boyle, (1987):

Local 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 poet’s 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 inn.   

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 Logan’s 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 poet’s 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:

Currie 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.    

It remains, 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 Mary’s 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’! 


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