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LOCAL History -- Highland Mary -- A Life Too Short

SHE was tall, fair and blue-eyed and her charm won her many admirers. Mary Campbell  -- "Highland Mary" -- was, by many accounts, a head-turner and she famously caught the eye of poet Robert Burns., writes David Carnduff.

Burns's brief affair with Mary provides one of the most intriguing aspects of the poet's life, and verse written in her honour sits among his finest work. But the romance ended in heartache for Burns when she died tragically young in Greenock, where she lived with her parents. 

They had spoken about starting a new life together in Jamaica but the deadly fever which Mary caught aged 23 in October 1786 cruelly ended their dream.

The Highland Mary memorial in Greenock Cemetery

She was buried in the graveyard at the Old West Kirk's original site but her remains were removed and re-interred in Greenock cemetery in 1920 under the monument built many years before to commemorate her life.

Archives of The Innerkip Society give a fascinating insight into the life of the girl who had been born near Dunoon and spoke with an attractive Gaelic lilt that gave rise to the name Highland Mary.

Burns is said to have first set eyes on Mary at church in Tarbolton after she moved to work in Ayrshire. Perhaps it was love at first sight for the poet, who believed he had been abandoned by his wife Jean Armour. 

For according to one account: "[Mary] 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 with a remarkably winning expression".

Through time, Mary's parents moved to Greenock and she was living with them when fever struck, but it took some time for news of her death to reach Burns.

The society records report that Mary's parents offered no sympathy to the grieving Burns whom they regarded with disdain. Burns wrote to Mary's father imploring him to send a memento of her  - "even a handkerchief" - but the letter was ignored.

Burns, it is said, had written to Mary in Greenock every week, but she kept the correspondence secret until nosy neighbours discovered they were from her poet lover and they warned her parents against allowing Mary to receive letters from "such a great scoffer at women."

Mary then admitted receiving the poet's letters and laughed heartily at the description of Burns, whose scoffing she said she was ready to trust.

After her death, Mary's father "disliked all allusions to her or to Burns" and all the letters were lost or destroyed. Her parents' aversion to the poet, who would ultimately be venerated throughout the world, did not stop Mary becoming famed as the Highland lass who won his heart.

Greenock Burns Club (The Mother Club) -- founded in 1801 --  played a major role in ensuring that Mary Campbell's profound influence on Burns would be given lasting recognition. 

* The Innerkip Society was formed in 1798 to provide financial assistance to local individuals in need, a practice it continues to the present day. 

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