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A Scottish Valentine’s Day Story

She has my heart, she has my hand,

By sacred troth and honor's band!

Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,

I'm thine, my highland Lassie, O.

Farewell the glen sae bushy, O!

Farewell the plain sae rushy, O!

To other lands I now must go,

To sing my Highland Lassie, O!

My Highland Lassie O – by Robert Burns

Highland Mary and Robert Burns by Thomas Faed

On the 20th of October in 1786, a 23-year-old Gaelic speaking woman passed away suddenly from an abrupt illness in Greenock, Scotland and gave rise to poetic genius. Mairi Caimbeul (Mary Campbell), born in Dunoon in Argyllshire in the West Highlands, grew to become the lost love and muse of Robert Burns. As a child, her family moved to Campbelltown. Later blossoming into a young woman in her teenage years, she moved to Ayrshire.

There she took employment as a nursemaid and dairy and worked until she was hired on at Coilsfield House (called Montgomerie Castle as well). She was described as

"tall, fair haired with blue eyes.”

Miss McNeill stated that she was:

"a great favourite with everyone who knew her, due to her pleasant manners, sweet temper and obliging disposition. Her figure was graceful; the cast of her face was singularly delicate and of fair complexion, and her eyes were bluish and lustrous had a remarkably winning expression."

One Sunday, while at church, a young and unfamous Robert Burns spied her. Robert Burns or Rabbie Burns, just a few years older, fell for her. This was a crossroad in the life of Burns as well as tumultuous cyclone. Burns, a poet, felt betrayed in his relationship with Jean Amour. Jean Amour, also called the Bell of Mauchline, began dating when the couple became aware that Jean was pregnant with Rabbie’s child. Her father was scandalized. Despite evidence the two planned on marrying, James Amour was reluctant to allow his daughter to marry Rabbie. Rabbie attempted to get a marriage document and marry jean but James Amour the father denied it. After all, Rabbie’s occupation and family background would make any father even to this day question if marriage seemed feasible. James sent his daughter to Paisely, and Jean, as a good daughter, chose Paisley and obedience as opposed to running away with Rabbie. James Amour had the marriage certificate mutiliated.

This was not the first time Rabbie felt the sting of love’s pain. Rejected by Alison Begbie, Rabbie seemed to have a knack at finding women who could never be with him. Shortly after he engaged in a relationship with his mother's servant. He fathered a child the servant girl, Elizabeth Patron. While Rabbie’s mother like the girl and thought they would make a good couple, the rest of the family, including Rabbie’s sisters, rejected the idea of Rabbie marrying the help. Rabbie supported the child financially.

Returning to that Sunday, we have a young fair highland girl, and heartbroken young man. Nothing could separate the two. Rabbie decided to change his life and fortune and the two made plans to escape Ayrshire and flee to west indies. In Rabbie’s words and recorded by Robert Cromek, in regards to the song he wrote about her:

“This was a composition of mine in very early life, before I was known at all in the world. My Highland lassie was a warm-hearted, charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love. After a pretty long tract of the most ardent reciprocal attachment, we met by appointment, on the second Sunday of May, in a sequestered spot by the Banks of Ayr, where we spent the day in taking a farewel, before she should embark for the West-Highlands, to arrange matters among her friends for our projected change of life. At the close of Autumn following 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."

1. Cromek, Robert Hartley (1813). Reliques of Robert Burns. T. Cadell & W. Davies. p. 237.

They were in love and Rabbie prepared to move. He crafted the poem:

Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,

And leave auld Scotia's shore;

Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,

Across th' Atlantic roar.

O sweet grows the lime and the orange,

And the apple on the pine;

But a' the charms o' the Indies

Can never equal thine.

I hae sworn by the Heavens to my Mary,

I hae sworn by the Heavens to be true;

And sae may the Heavens forget me,

When I forget my vow!

The two met and over running stream the exchange bibles in what may have been a type of matrimonial vow. In the bible he inscribed the following verses:

"And ye shall not swear by my name falsely—I am the Lord" (Levit. xvi. 12);

in the second bible was inscribed:

"Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oath" (St. Matt. v. 33)

These lines give us some indication and evidence of their attachment and future life.

But their escape to a new life never occurred. Mary, or Mairi in Gaelic, took ill and passed away suddenly. While the exact cause isn’t known, it was suspected to be Typhus or a a premature birth. Regardless, Burns heart broke. His associates commented that he often talked of a “different life” and what could have been and referenced Mary. Later after reuniting and marrying Jean Amour, he would memorialize the life of Mairi Caimbeul in song and verse. His muse passed away, but his career as a poet began. On the third anniversary of her death, he wandered the banks of the river through the night and in the morning wrote Mary in Heaven.

Years later, individuals would attempt to tarnish the memory of Highland mary with many unsavory comments. Individuals accused her of loose morals and having many lovers. Over time, these stories have been shown to be inaccurate in many details in regard to people, places and mostly like developed to destroy her memory. Today, as statute is erected to remember her.

This Valentine’s Day, remember Mairi Caimbeul, and the all of the loves that were cut too soon.

Leave a comment below. What did we get right, what did we get wrong?

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