Greenock Cemetery is full of grandiose monuments to the great and good of bygone days — merchants, shipbuilders, industrialists and politicians. They are celebrated in doric, ionic or corinthian style, immortalised in stone for all to see. Yet few of us stop to admire or reflect. Sadder still, we choose not to stop by the monument to an 18-year-old highland girl who died of typhoid in a Greenock tenement more than 200 years ago. But then, why should we care for someone whose only claim to fame was that she fell prey to the amorous advances of our national bard?
Mary Campbell was born on Auchnamore farm near Dunoon in 1768. Like most families living in Argyll at that time, life was difficult for the Campbells. The legacy of oppression from the defeat in ’45 hung heavy in the air and, while the Clearances would not properly begin for another 15 years, the old way of life was already becoming untenable for many communities.
When Mary was five years old, her father, Archibald Campbell, moved the family to Campbeltown and bought a share in a coal sloop that made runs across the Clyde to Ardrossan. No one is really sure how this young highland girl came to meet Ayrshire’s most famous farmer, Robert Burns, although some sources suggest they first became acquainted through the church they both attended when Mary was a house nurse at the Castle of Montgomery. Their whirlwind romance itself has been the subject of much discussion and has become something of a fascination among many Burns enthusiasts. Perhaps it is the power of the “Mary” poems themselves that fuels this fascination, or perhaps it is the romantic allure of the tale of a young highland lass and the lowland farmer whose love ends in tragedy.
One aspect of the story that has always attracted much attention is the notion that Mary and Burns married secretly.Certainly, we know that when she first met him he was already engaged to Jean Armour, who was herself pregnant and expecting Burns’ twins. We know also the two exchanged Bibles during their last meeting together. While there is no trace of the Bible Mary gave Burns, the two volumes of the one that he gave to her are to this day preserved at the Alloway Monument.
This idea of a ‘secret Gaelic wedding’ is supported by Burn’s poetry when he writes: She has my heart, she has my hand, By secret troth and honour’s band. Whatever the truth, Mary and Robert were never to be together again after this.We know that Burns intended to go to the West Indies and is more than likely to have wanted Mary to go with him. In Scotland, a new life for the two of them would have been difficult to pursue given Burns’ responsibilities to Jean Armour. His poetry was not yet successful enough to support them both and farming was at this time becoming an increasingly difficult occupation. Thus, like many young couples of the day, highlanders and lowlanders alike, they were faced with the task of raising their fare to the New World. Mary could have turned to her family for help with the expense: but then it is unlikely they would be keen to support her emigrating to the other side of the world with a man they had never even met.
Some months after her last meeting with Burns, Mary returned from Campeltown to Greenock, where she lodged with her relations, the MacPhersons, in Charles Street. Also present was her father, who had come to attend a celebration in honour of his son completing his apprenticeship at Scotts yard. But it is possible he may have come hoping to meet his daughter’s ‘husband’ or to bid her farewell on her journey to the New World.
Yet it was not to be. Mary’s brother, Robert, developed typhus shortly after their arrival in Greenock. The disease was prevalent in heavily populated areas where sanitation was poor. There was little treatment for the disease and sufferers would have to rely on their family to care for them. It was Mary who took on the role of her brother’s nurse and in doing so, contracted the disease. In late October 1786, she died. With the family unable to afford a plot in the cemetery, she was buried in the MacPherson lair in the Old West Kirk yard.
It was nearly 60 years later, in 1842, that the foundation stone of her monument was laid in the Old West Kirk yard. In 1926 the expansion of Harland & Wolff’s shipyard resulted in the Old West Kirk being moved to its present site on the Esplanade. While some of the gravestones were moved to the same site, Mary’s remains were moved to Greenock Cemetery, along with the monument. And there it remains to this day. There, too, lies the real significance of Burns’ ill-fated love. For it is not as a subject of his poems that we should remember her, or as some romantic idealised highlander who fell in love with the lowland farmer. Instead, we should remember her as Mary Campbell who, like countless others living in Scotland at that time, encountered hardship and tragedy in her search for happiness.Hers is not a unique tale, but an all too common one, immortalised by our national bard and an often forgotten monument.
written by Neil Bristow, originally printed in the Greenock Telegraph
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