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Robert Burns Lives!
As Others Saw Him: Robert Burns and Highland Mary by G Ross Roy

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

A few months ago, three men came together in Scotland at a seminar in Greenock’s Lyle Kirk to talk about Highland Mary. Two of them were from Scotland and the third made his way from Columbia, South Carolina to appear on the program. This octogenarian, on a previous visit to the Greenock Burns Club, had promised he would return, and G. Ross Roy keeps his word. Speeches by the other two, Gerry Carruthers and Kenneth Simpson, have already been posted on Robert Burns Lives! and can be found in the index as Chapters 128 and 148 respectively. Today it is an honor to bring you Professor Roy’s paper.  Colin Hunter McQueen, Ross’s dear friend, read his paper to the assembled crowd. (You will also find in Robert Burns Lives! a book review of a publication by Colin and his son Douglas under Chapter 33.)

The Greenock seminar has been described as a major conference on Burns, and with these three speakers participating, it couldn’t have been anything else. They delighted club members and guests with their remarks, and I only wish I had been there to enjoy the occasion as well. You will find more information about the seminar on the Greenock Burns Club website. A big thank-you to Ross Roy for allowing our readers to have access to his presentation.

With these three articles about Highland Mary, I am proud to say this is the second subject within the web site on which we have had three different articles. The other topic was on Robert Burns and Slavery. (FRS: 7.25.12)  

As Others Saw Him: Robert Burns and Highland Mary
By G. Ross Roy
April 2012

(Note: Ross Roy's talk discusses how some important non-English speaking Burnsians presented Burns and Highland Mary, beginning with the German scholar Hans Hect, and then looking in more depth at the major French Burns translators and scholars. He ends with brief comment on work in some other languages.)

Ross Roy studying a Kilmarnock


There have been more editions of German translations of Burns than into any other language, and the only foreign book on Burns which has been translated into English and which went into a second edition was Hans Hecht’s ROBERT BURNS THE MAN AND HIS WORK. The German original work was published in 1919, and the English translation by Jane Lymburn in 1935, with a new Preface by Hecht. In it he points out

We all know that too close proximity obscures the vision, and that too great love blinds the judgment as much as too violent antipathy. In the case of Burns there is the further difficulty that the controversial points move along the dangerous lines of sexuality, alcoholism, religion, politics, and class prejudices or preferences.

Hecht was himself the victim of prejudice and was in the 1930s obliged to give up his position at the University of Göttingen and move to Switzerland. It may also explain why this excellent volume did not go into a second edition in German.

Hecht sometimes gets carried away in describing events. For instance, when he mentions how James Armour destroyed the paper he had given Jean, effectively a marriage certificate, Hecht says that the poet went “stark, staring mad” and he goes on to say that Burns “felt himself nine-tenths ready for Bedlam” (p. 85). I have read numerous accounts, including Burns’s own, of the Armour event, and nothing suggests what Hecht claims. Immediately after this passage Hecht introduces Highland Mary. In Hecht’s words

The woman with whom Burns sought and found consolation for the insult he had suffered was, according to a firmly rooted sentimental tradition, Mary Campbell, the Highland lassie, the never-forgotten immortal sweetheart, the transfigured love, lover of the song “Thou Lingering Star,” written in the autumn of 1789 (p. 86).

It strikes me that here it is Hecht who overdoes the sentimentality rather than Burns.

But who was this Mary Campbell? As this audience will know, we have little to go on, and, of course, Hecht admits to the obscurity of this woman. In a rather fanciful passage Hecht contrasts Jean Armour and Mary Campbell.

Hecht has a problem with various earlier sources about Highland Mary, whom he almost always refers to as Mary Campbell. These sources, he writes, do not bring us any nearer to the facts which Burns may have intentionally concealed. Mary Campbell, about whose existence it is not permissible to doubt, remains herself and in her real or her imaginary relationship to Burns a shadowy female figure which glided through the life of the passionate poet during this period, and whose death later became to him the subject of melancholy memories. That is all. The star that ruled the hour was named Jean, not Mary. (pp. 87-8).

With these words Hecht finished off Highland Mary. Hecht is a respected critic, but he does not appear to have understood what Burns wrote, and perhaps failed to write about a woman whom Burns really did love, and about whose death he really grieved. Unfortunately German readers will have been misled about a woman who played an important, if brief role in the life of the poet.

All told Hans Hecht gave his readers a balanced picture of Scotia’s Bard, but as far as the works, the warmth and passion Burns poured into his poetry and his life, both the readers and Highland Mary are the losers.

Second only to German translations of Burns are those into French.  These two languages were chosen because there are more translations of Burns into German than into any other language. And French was chosen because Auguste Angellier’s study of the poet is by wide odds the most important foreign-language work on Burns.


Léon de Wailly produced the first volume of French translations of works from Scots into French. The title COMPLETE POEMS is far from accurate because the volume contains only 181 numbered items and a smaller selection unnumbered. By 1843 there were a good few well known works of Burns, but the selection was a very respectable one. No major poem appears to have been omitted with one major exception; there were no bawdy poems from THE MERRY MUSES OF CALEDONIA included in his selection. But this is true also of the two other nineteenth century French works on Burns which, it will be noted, contained no such material. There was probably more risqué and outright pornographic material printed in France at the time than there was in the UK. But such material was disposed through a thriving sub-culture, rather than openly.

De Wailly divides his book into four sections. First there is an introductory life of Burns, followed by poems published in Burns’s lifetime, then there is a section of songs, numbered (181 of them in all), and finally posthumous poems. The chronology of when the poems and songs were written is ignored, and there does not appear to be a subject grouping of the works included.

In translating poetry there are three methods available: create as accurate a prose version as possible; recreate the poetic pattern of each stanza accurately as possible, but without rhyme; finally, recreate the rhyme itself. De Wailly opted for the third solution. I know exactly how de Wailly felt, because I once translated a French Petrarchan sonnet into an English Shakespearian sonnet. I never tried to repeat the task.

Early in his introduction de Wailly claims that the major problem Burns had in getting his life together was love. While “love begotten” children certainly complicated the poet’s life, there were other problems aplenty.

In recounting the life of Burns, de Wailly waxes almost poetic in tempering condemnation with admiration. He quotes at length from Burns’s long autobiographical letter to Dr. John Moore, the source of much of our knowledge of the poet’s early life, which was first published in 1800. It should be remembered, however, that there is an element of self-justification in Burns’s letter too.

Unfortunately, de Wailly does not indicate that the letter is by no means complete as quoted. And of course Burns cannot always be relied upon when speaking about himself. Writing on his own behalf, de Wailly claims that a poet should be judged more as a human being than as a poet. This does not mean that de Wailly was downgrading the craft of poesy, because he wrote of himself that if he “had the honor” he would wish to be judged that way. Did this opinion have any influence on the order in which the poems were to be placed? I have looked over this order several times without coming to a conclusion. But if the order is a subjective decision, then assessing this judgment is subjective also. Put briefly, if the creative process is subjective, then surely the judgmental process is equally subjective. A great poet will know instinctively when he has the right word or phrase. In a manuscript of one of Keats’s great odes the poet has crossed out several trials, always settling for the best. But that, too, is a subjective statement.

Coming to the Highland Mary poems translated and arranged by de Wailly, the first such is “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” which, oddly, de Wailly entitles simply “Afton.” The translation is accurate and the words flow along smoothly, although de Wailly can not capture the almost magical touch Burns gives to the evocation of that gently-flowing stream which is told not disturb the wondrous dream Burns imagines his Mary is having.

When Jean Armour’s father mutilated the declaration of marriage Burns had given her, which would have been considered a legally binding document at the time, Burns turned his attention elsewhere. Mary Campbell, universally known as Highland Mary, caught his fancy and the two decided to emigrate to Jamaica, where the poet would have had employment as an overseer of field hands. I need not dwell upon the sad story of Highland Mary’s trip to her family to bid them adieu, and her death in Greenock where she lies buried.

The pineapple was an exotic fruit in eighteenth-century Scotland and it is quite likely that Burns had never seen one, let alone tasted it. Anyway, the poet exhibits little knowledge of the fruit in his poem inviting Mary to accompany him to the Indies where he writes: “O sweet grows the lime and the orange / And the apple on the pine;” but de Wailly had a better knowledge of botany because he correctly identifies the fruit as a pineapple. And of course by 1843 probably the pineapple was more firmly established in Paris than it was over a half a century earlier in rural Scotland. Burns wrote the poem when, after his rift with Jean Armor he had decided to take employment in Jamaica. In fact the poem can be seen as a plaintive meditation by the poet about his own upcoming separation from his beloved native land. De Wailly handles the plaintiveness well without becoming maudlin. One point I did find odd in his translation: he addresses Mary as “vous.” Surely a woman whom he was inviting to go with him abroad, and who might even be carrying his child, would be addressed with the familiar “tu.”

One of the most beautiful poems of loss and longing that Burns wrote was “Thou Lingering Star,” which is the third Highland Mary poem, written about three years after the melancholy event of the death of Highland Mary, at a time when Burns was happily established with Jean. The poem certainly underlines the fact that Burns was genuinely in love with Mary and was heart-broken at her loss. One may be permitted to wonder if Burns ever showed the poem to his wife. If I may digress, I am the proud and fortunate owner of a Meters silhouette of Clarinda with, encased at the rear, a lock of hair. This must be Clarinda’s because it would be unimaginable that anyone would place a lock of someone else’s hair there. There are three or four other such lockets in existence, none with hair. In a rather steamy letter to Clarinda, Sylvander promises that the locket will be hung next to his heart. One may suppose that Clarinda’s silhouette was discretely removed at times.


Following de Wailly’s translation Richard de la Madelaine produced a small collection of twenty-six poems by Burns in prose translation; it was published in 1874 in Paris. The decision to use prose allowed de la Madelaine to strive for greater accuracy but at a price, and it brings to mind Gustave Flaubert’s acid comment that a translation, if it is beautiful it is not faithful; if it is faithful, it is not beautiful.  Unfortunately this prose translation tends to bear out Flaubert’s statement.

De la Madelaine’s arrangement is strange. The translator begins with a 35-page introductory essay in which he notes that this is the land of Douglas, Wallace, Robert Bruce, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, and Sir Walter Scott, but goes on to say that it is not necessary to visit a country to appreciate its literature. I’m not at all certain why Smith got in, but the selection was de la Madelaine’s selection, not mine. Most of the remainder of the introduction appears to be given over to showing the reader how much de la Madelaine knew and sheds little information on Scotland, let alone Burns. One major informative part comes when Burns’s famous autobiographical letter to Dr. John Moore is quoted—for five entire pages. Drawing on almost half a century of editing experience I would have had de la Madelaine eliminate all but about five pages of the Introduction and have made the compiler rewrite those pages. But let us now turn to the selections themselves.

To give listeners an idea of the cultural level of de la Madelaine’s discourse he wrote the following in this treatise:  “We are no longer discussing Shakespeare’s plays, abominable pieces, worthy of the savages of Canada.” Had de la Madelaine troubled to visit Canada he would have discovered that the natives had a rich, but unwritten, cultural life.

Turning to the poems, for no discernible reason the first three in this collection are poems Burns wrote to Highland Mary, although de la Madelaine never mentioned her in his introduction. The first of the Highland Mary songs to appear is “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” simply called “Afton” here.  (The other love song which appears in this collection is “The Blue-Eyed Lassie,” which was written about Jean Jaffray.) No prose rendition can catch the rhythm of this “murmuring stream” of course.

The second Highland Mary poem is entitled just that: “Highland Mary” (I translate). It is preceded by a short note on Mary Campbell, whereas there was no introductory note to “Flow Gently.”  It is an almost morbid work centering around Burns’s memories of Mary Campbell after her death in 1786. The poem was first published in Scots Magazine May 1798. In the poem the poet speaks of how pale are the “rosy lips I aft hae kiss’d sae fondly” and goes on to say that her “mouldering …heart that lo’ed me dearly.” One can wonder why de la Madelaine chose that poem, certainly not one of the poet’s best.

De la Madelaine’s third translation is “To Mary in Heaven,” which again deals with Highland Mary’s demise, but in a much more dignified way.  Here the translator notes the date of its composition and the fact that Mary had been greatly loved by the poet.  However, this final poem, as translated by de la Madelaine, begins with something with which I disagree—the title. Burns entitled his poem “Thou Lingering Star,” a completely appropriate title because the imagery is stellar. In fact, the poem is probably better known by the first half of the first line:  “Thou lingering star.”  De la Madelaine, however, calls his translation (I am translating a translation) “To Mary in Heaven.” When we take a close look at Richard de la Madelaine’s translating of Burns into French we are tempted to conclude that Flaubert neglected to add that a translation might be neither faithful nor beautiful.

Given the above, I think that what disturbs me most about de la Madelaine’s rendition of the original is that he uses the formal “vous” rather than “tu” in a love song to a woman with whom he intends to go to Jamaica, and who may be bearing his child. That might have been done in upper class society in France in the mid-nineteenth century, but it certainly would not have been how eighteenth-century Scottish peasants made love to each other. I am left with the feeling that I am listening to someone who is trying over-hard to impress a loved one. In my opinion this is the least of the three Highland Mary poems in this collection, so it probably doesn’t much matter.

Apart from the three or four lines of explanatory material which heads each poem, de la Madelaine does not tell us why he chose the three Highland Mary poems to lead off his selection. But why did Richard de la Madelaine choose three poems about Highland Mary, rather than poems for any other woman, and give them pride of place? I think that it is that Mary Campbell had a special place in the heart of Robert Burns, as he had in the heart of de la Madelaine, and as she has in the hearts of readers in our day.

Burns wrote so many great pieces that very few people would come up with the same best ten or twenty. And so I shall not request a show of hands, but I shall tell you two of mine.

The first was written after he had parted for the last time from his beloved Clarinda. Knowing that they were never to meet again, he sent her a lovely song of parting with these superb lines:

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d so blindly,
Never met—or never parted—
We had ‘ne’er been broken hearted.

That was, of course, a song of parting, not one of death.

The forgiving and long-suffering Jean is reputed to have said that her husband should have had two wives.  Wouldn’t it have been nice if that second wife could have been Highland Mary Campbell?


Obviously the time was ripe for a serious and expansive study of Robert Burns, the man and the poet, in French. The man who was to supply this was Auguste Angellier, who in 1893 published a State doctorate on the poet in two large volumes. For those of you unfamiliar with the French educational system, the State doctorate was a minimum registration period of five years; ten years is not at all uncommon. Successfully passing the exam used to guarantee the candidate a university position. The other doctorate available is the university doctorate, equivalent to the British or American PhD. This is the degree which I hold from the Sorbonne in Paris. If I may digress for a moment: when I was setting up my university doctorate I asked if I could write a study of French translations of Burns, which would, of course, have included Angellier, but with no duplication of his work. I received a polite but definitive answer: Certainly not, there has already been one thesis on Burns. Naturally I did something else.

The classic arrangement of such a work is that it be divided into two volumes, the first devoted to the life of the subject, the second devoted to his/her work. At an earlier time the candidate was required to produce a much shorter volume on a completely different subject, to be written in Latin. No doubt when this requirement was silently dropped, those of the older school wagged their heads and spoke of the degeneration of French education.

It must be recalled that when Angellier was doing his research for his monumental work (1031 printed pages in all), research was what we today would call primitive. The National Library of Scotland was still the Advocates Library with their much more limited collecting desires. There was no registry of manuscripts, individual libraries might have only hand-written lists, not really catalogues, of their holdings. Thus the serious researcher had physically to visit each repository of material he wished to consult. Even these had to be discovered on one’s own. Once at the repository, there was no method of photo-reproducing material other than hand copying it. I belong to the last generation of poor souls who hand wrote all the information onto paper, and was allowed to use only a pencil to do so. Imagine creating pages of large-format type that way.

Considering these restraints, and the fact that his work was published almost 120 years ago, Angellier’s life of Burns is today still an important and readable work.

Angellier’s work is divided into two volumes: The Life and The Works. In the first the author spends considerable space on Mary Campbell, as he consistently calls Highland Mary. For no obvious reason Angellier always calls Jean Armour Joan, as though it were a diminutive form of the name. And Scots are very fond of diminutives. According to Angellier Burns was deeply in love with Mary and was devastated when he learned of her death. He mentions the poet’s intention to emigrate with Mary and he translates the entire poem “Will Ye go to the Indies, My Mary”?


The most recent book of translations of Burns is the work of Jean-Claude Crapoulet, published in 1994. The translator does not begin well in his fifty-two page introduction, where, for a starter, he has Burns being born on January twenty-third. In his resume of Scottish poetry he repeatedly refers to a work which greatly influenced Burns—Allan Ramsay’s TEA-TABLE MISCELLANY, which according to Crapoulet was the TEA-TIME MISCELLANY. I read the 53-page Introduction before going on to the translations, and I was not encouraged when I saw Robert Fergusson’s AULD REEKIE translated as OLD STINKY (12-1-8). John Cairney would have loved that one.

Crapoulet mentions Highland Mary specifically only very briefly, in the Introduction, suggesting that she was a sort of plaything, soon forgotten. How then would he explain Burns’s hauntingly beautiful “Thou Lingering Star” written years after Highland Mary’s death? There are too many careless mistakes suggesting poor research or poor editing. For instance Crapoulet refers to the noted Burns scholar Hans Hecht (36) as Doctor Hans.

In essence while Highland Mary is ill done in the introductory material, so are all the other figures that people the Burns universe. So we should now examine the poems themselves.

In assessing an anthology one supposes that the critic should concentrate on what the editor included rather than what was excluded. In his substantial collection of Burns’s poems and songs Crapoulet included only one work about Highland Mary—“Afton Water” as it is called. The translation is apt, if not very poetic. And there is no attempt at rhyme. No one would quarrel with the inclusion of this song, one of the finest and best known that the poet wrote. And perhaps with the scant attention paid to Mary Campbell, one poem is enough. But in the selecting process what happened to other gems such as “Ae fond Kiss” or “Of a’ the Airts the Wind can Blaw”, written for Clarinda and Jean Armour?


In 1988 there was published a small volume of poems by Burns translated into Chinese. There were eleven poems, one of which was “Highland Mary.” This is not the poem most people would have chosen, which sang the praises of the woman Burns loved.

To illustrate the continuing popularity of Highland Mary in 2012, a Ukrainian translated a selection of Burns’s poems. There is a short bilingual Introduction, but there are no notes to individual poems. Among the poems and songs we find “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”

There was no Portuguese edition of Burns until I suggested to a Brazilian PhD candidate of mine, Luiza Loba, that she translate a selection. I chose fifty poems. The work was published in Rio in 1994.

In an ingenious sales plan, the publishers boxed the volume with a miniature whiskey, so if the owner did not warm to the selection or the translation, he or she could at least enjoy Scotland’s greatest export.

We have had a brief look at how translators have treated the subject of Highland Mary in two languages, French and German,* with brief mention of other languages. 

There are those who are dismissive of this love affair, but any poet who could write “Flow Gently Sweet Afton” and “Thou Lingering Star” had very certainly not taken the event lightly. And Burns would certainly not have proposed emigration to Jamaica with a woman who was just a passing fancy.

Robert Burns loved Mary Campbell very dearly, and we have all been enriched by the tributes he paid to his Highland Mary.

I wish to thank Elizabeth Sudduth, Head of Rare Books at the University of South Carolina, Ms. Sej Harman, and my wife Lucie for their assistance in preparing this article.

I also wish to thank my friend Colin Hunter McQueen for lending me his eyes to read this paper. 

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