When first glancing at this artwork one is instantly aware that what you are gazing at is an intimate moment: in this lovely oil painting we are given an insight into what we think may have occurred between Robert Burns and the legendary Margaret Campbell or “Highland Mary”. It depicts tranquil forest scenery (presumably a spot near Ayr) whereby the stream is trickling peacefully, the plants are in the full bloom of spring and the golden warmth of a fine Scottish sunny day is bathing the two lovers in light. The artist has masterfully captured the balance between light and shadow which is always in extremes whilst one is in thick woodland areas and the rich, deep browns of the trees, brilliant greens of the plush growth, as well as startling blue of the sky, make this scene a vibrant array of colours for the eye and altogether a harmonious setting.
At the centre of the painting is a moment captured in time between the two individuals; presumably the pair stopped here after a walk together or it is a meeting place as Burns’s walking stick is propped up against a tree and Mary is bathing her feet in the stream. Burns is down on one knee and offering a bible to Highland Mary: the pairs eyes are locked with one another’s, one of Mary’s hands is outstretched, whilst the other is clutching to her heart in surprise, and her face seems serene alike to her surroundings. This gesture was commonly regarded as a solemn oath or even a proposal of marriage. Interestingly, the museum collection boasts the bible believed to have belonged to Mary which is pictured here.
The bible itself is two volumes, contains Burns’s Masonic mark and the words ‘Robert Burns Mossgavill’ as well as biblical verses in Burns’s handwriting. It also has a lock of hair in it said to have belonged to Mary.
Burns is recognizable by the presence of his border-collie sheepdog Luath – who was immortalized in the poem The Twa Dogs – and his tam hat. Mary is depicted as a fair, blue eyed, blonde woman: interestingly the hair contained in the bible is visibly blonde. Records do describe her thus so perhaps it really is Mary’s hair!
Burns and Highland Mary’s love affair is steeped in mystery and it has become quite the legend with many variations to the tale, but one thing is pretty much universally understood, it was a passionate and short affair with a tragic ending. The affair took place during the spring and summer of 1786. Very little evidence survives regarding her identity or the details of their relationship, but Highland Mary is believed to have been a servant from Campbeltown whom Burns met while she was working in Ayrshire. It is thought that the two lovers would rendezvous on the banks of the river Ayr. The story goes that the pair planned to immigrate to Jamaica together; however, after travelling back to her parent’s home in Greenock, she died of typhus on the way back to meet with Burns.
As previously stated, there are some who believe that this version of events has been thwarted and twisted, for instance academics at the University of Glasgow have said the myth between the two lovers was largely constructed to lend cultural significance to the poet himself. They believe that Highland Mary died only a few weeks after meeting Burns in 1786. Professor Murray Pittock, director of the Robert Burns – Beyond Text project, said the legend of Mary was largely constructed by Burns’s subsequent biographers from objects such as statues and snuff boxes – rather than any written documentation – and he stated that such objects dictated the social and cultural legend of Highland Mary throughout the 19th Century and afterwards. Thus, the provenance and details of the love story between the lovers has been, and still is, vehemently disputed.
However, the Bard did go on to publish works dedicated to her, for example, The Highland Lassie, To Mary in Heaven and O, Highland are all thought to have been inspired by her. So, even if they had only known each other for a few weeks, it was still enough time to have a massive impact upon Burns emotionally and creatively. We know that Burns was a great romantic and lover of women. Some of his most famous works such as My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss and his first ever song O Once I Loved a Bonnie Lass all have the theme of love, romance or heartbreak at the core of them. In my opinion, I think it is possible Burns only knew Highland Mary for a short but sweet few weeks of his life before fate cruelly snapped her away from him, but, this was enough time for him to have fallen head over heels in love because that was in his nature and he repeatedly did that with various other love interests throughout his lifetime. Does time dictate the power and strength of a couple’s love? Or is the intensity of their feelings for one another that determines that, however fleeting they may be?
Years after her death Burns would think of her fondly and with great sadness. The poem “To Mary in Heaven” was written at Ellisland Farm on the third anniversary of her death. Jean Armour recalled that towards evening, the night before, Robert grew sad, and wandered in solitary contemplation along the banks of the River Nith and about the farmyard in extreme agitation. Even though he was repeatedly asked to come into the house, he would not. Burns entered the house at daybreak, sat down and wrote his address to Highland Mary who was now in heaven.
This painting is on display within the main exhibition space at the museum and it is perfectly and purposefully located in the ‘From the Heart’ display case. In terms of other objects or artworks – that focus on Highland Mary and Burns – which we have here at the museum there are three others which portray Burns and Highland Mary. These include a statue, a postcard and an engraving. All of these objects yet again depict the couple canoodling.
Last but not least I think it only fair to mention the artist himself. This painting is typical for William Henry Midwood, who was a British painter, born 1833 and died 1888: if you look at his style, technique and subjects in his other works they employ similar genre scenes. They concentrate on the humble domestic interior: groups of figures are portrayed in idealized scenarios of family life and scenes of courtship prominent in his subject matter. Three works in particular, which are fairly similar to the Burns and Highland Mary painting, include Rustic Courtship (confusingly two have the exact same title) and The Proposal. The titles themselves are closely connected as they refer to an offer of marriage or two individuals “winching” in the countryside. The colour, the light, the shadowing and the technique which is employed are very similar, however, in all three of these paintings the women, the female counterpart in the work, all seem to have very different expressions on their faces in comparison to Highland Mary. Let it be noted that they do not look like happy expressions; instead they are either looking the opposite way thoughtfully – but not happily – or looking directly at their partner with contempt on their face. The delicate sense of surprise captured in Highland Mary’s face is not present in these other paintings. This may give us an insight into how he personally regarded Burns and Highland Mary’s relationship: that of a great love story.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Officer Trainee)
Encased within RBBM’s ‘Love’ display is a small fragment of a hawthorn bush which was located at Mill Mannoch near Coylton, South Ayrshire. This small tree had been recognised as a familiar landmark and popular trysting (meeting) spot for lovers in Ayrshire years before Robert Burns’s time, and Burns was well aware of its tradition. He referred to the hawthorn in his song When wild War’s deadly Blast was blawn; lines of which feature on one surface of the cross section displayed at RBBM:
“At length I reached the bonnie glen,
Where early life I sported;
I passed the mill and trysting-thorn
Where Nancy aft I courted.”
The tree died in 1916 and it was cut down two years later by James Pearson Wilson, the miller at the time. Sections were sent by Wilson as collectibles to Burns museums and societies all over the world; whilst a seed from the hawthorn was replanted at the original site at Coylton. It has also been recreated in a 3D metal form for RBBM’s display, with visitors encouraged to hang notes of love to others in reference to the markings left by lovers on trysting trees.
Despite it being 300 years old and engraved with thousands of initials, a trysting tree still standing in Scotland is the Kissing Beech in the grounds of Kilravock Castle, Inverness-shire. Trysting spots further afar include the courtyard beneath ‘Romeo and Juliet’s balcony’ in Verona where thousands of visitors have decorated a wall with their chewing gum and paper love notes; the Daijingu Shrine in Tokyo where romantics queue to buy and leave love charms blessed by local priests; and the Trimurti Lovers’ Shrine in Bangkok where visitors make a floral offering in hope of one day meeting a loved one. Perhaps more famously are the Pont de l’Archevêché and Pont des Arts bridges in Paris which lovers have embellished over the years with over 700,000 padlocks. However, due to both health and safety and degradation concerns, Paris officials began to remove 45 tonnes of locks in 2015. Similar issues with aesthetics and preservation of heritage have also resulted in a fine of €500 for anyone caught sticking chewing gum and notes to the courtyard in Verona. Despite the recent restrictions, lovers have continued to follow these traditions in both cities. The site in Coylton also remains a popular spot for couples and romantics.