Highland Mary

Burns’s Love Story

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Original Manuscript Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose
Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose

Robert Burns has written many different love poems, and beautiful songs, but what has been his inspiration for such poems and songs?

Well to start us off on this journey through the extensive love life of our Robert Burns, you should probably know that Robert was no saint when it came to the affairs of the heart, he went from woman to woman and relationship to relationship to find his perfect bonnie lass.

At the beginning of his path through the mysteries of the opposite sex there was Nellie, she was considered to be the first girl he ever fell for and certainly not the last but she started him off on the road of love and romance.  Robert was only fifteen when he met Nell and he wrote a song for her called ‘Handsome Nell’.

O Once I lov’d a bonnie lass,

An’ aye I love her still,

An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast,

I’ll love my handsome Nell.

As bonnie lasses I hae seen,

And mony full as braw;

But for a modest gracefu’ mein,

The like I never saw.

A bonny lass I will confess,

Is pleasant to the e’e,

But without some better qualities

She’s no a lass for me.

But Nelly’s looks are blythe and sweet,

And what is best of a’,

Her reputation is compleat,

And fair without a flaw;

She dresses ay sae clean and neat,

Both decent and genteel;

And then there’s something in her gait

Gars ony dress look weel.

A gaudy dress and gentle air

May slightly touch the heart,

But it’s innocence and modesty

That polishes the dart.

‘Tis this in Nelly pleases me,

‘Tis this enchants my soul;

For absolutely in my breast

She reigns without controul.

This song was believed to have been written in 1774 and speaks of feminine grace and innocence.  This girl was the one that started Robert’s fascination with the opposite sex.

No doubt that Robert had several different women in his life between Nell and his courtships to Jean Armour, however there are only records of the more influential on his romantic radar.  Jean Armour was the lucky lass that Robert eventually settled down with and married, however it was not all happy, as at first it was just a fling together in 1785, but then Jean fell pregnant to Robert.  She was then taken away to Paisley by her father to prevent her from being with Robert but was later called to admit that she bore an illegitimate child to Robert, from that point Robert and Jean began to court.

The story of the Ayrshire rascal does not end here however, he then met ‘Highland Mary’ later in 1785 and Robert fell for her head over heels instantly.  He wrote a song for her called ‘The Highland Lassie’

Nae gentle dames tho’ ne’er sae fair

Shall ever be my Muse’s care;

Their titles a’ are empty show,

Gie me my Highland Lassie, O.

Within the glen sae bushy, O,

Aboon the plain sae rashy, O,

I set me down wi’ right gude will

To sing my Highland Lassie, O.

O were yon hills and vallies mine,

Yon palace and yon gardens fine;

The world then the love should know

I bear my Highland Lassie, O.-

But fickle Fortune frowns on me,

And I maun cross the raging sea;

But while my crimson currents flow,

I love my Highland Lassie, O.-

Altho’ thro’ foreign climes I range,

I know her heart will never change;

For her bosom burns with honor’s glow,

My faithful Highland Lassie, O-

For her I’ll dare the billow’s roar;

For her I’ll trace a distant shore;

That Indian wealth may lustre throw

Around my Highland Lassie, O.-

She has my heart, she has my hand,

By secret Truth and Honor’s band:

Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,

I’m thine, my Highland Lassie, O.-

Robert loved this woman with his heart and soul, he asked her to elope with him to Jamaica, and she had intended to but alas it was not meant to be, she died in 1786 after falling seriously ill.  However, before she died she and Robert had exchanged Bibles, and it was said that they may also have exchanged vows; however no conclusive evidence exists to prove this is correct.  So Robert returned to his lass Jean Armour to continue courtship.

The next woman I am going to talk about is Agnes McLehose, but before I do I should comment on how Robert was supposed to be courting Jean Armour at the time while he was sending letters and visiting Agnes.   Agnes had previously been married before she met Burns, and although her and her husband were separated, she was technically still married and so she still upheld her vows, and never touched another man.

Robert met Agnes in 1787 while in Edinburgh on publishing business.  He quickly discovered that Agnes was a lover of poems and different writings which interested Robert.  Agnes and Robert started to write to one another, but not long after Robert was involved in a carriage accident and was bed ridden for a short time.   They exchanged many letters which became more intense and intimate as time progressed.  Robert would talk of Jean Armour behind her back saying that he could not stand her, and he found her disgusting compared to Agnes, and Agnes would talk of her situation in being a married woman but wanting to be with Robert (some of these letters are in our museum http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections). After a while they began to exchange visits, this is where their relationship turned sour as Robert wanted to be with Agnes completely but Agnes could not forget her vows which tied her. Not too long after, Robert looked to other woman around him, one such being a servant girl of Agnes’ who bore a child for Robert.  From that point on it was over, Robert left her, and she went to seek her husband, whom she found in Jamaica with another woman, who had given him children.  So she returned to be with Robert but was too late and he had married Jean Armour.

After Robert’s affair with Highland Mary and Agnes McLehose Robert returned to Jean Armour ready finally to commit himself and in 1788 he married her and was with her until the day he died.  Jean Armour gave Robert nine children in total although most of them did not survive very long and died in infancy.  He did truly love Jean Armour in the end and was happy with her as a wife.

And so the tale of Roberts’s love life seemed like a never ending story of tragedy and romance, not to mention a lot of beautiful young ladies but in the end he never could live without his Jean that stole his heart.

By Fiona Jones

Volunteer Learning Assistant

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‘Perhaps this Christian volume is the theme…’

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The priest-like father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the friend of God on high;
Or Moses bade eternal warfare wage,
With Amalek’s ungracious progeny;
Or how the royal bard did groaning lie
Beneath the stroke of Heaven’s avenging ire;
Or Job’s pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;
Or rapt Isaiah’s wild, seraphic fire;
Or other holy seers that tune the sacred lyre.

Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

William's Bible
Bible belonging to William Burnes, containing the names and birthdates of his children.

Bibles form key building blocks throughout the life of Scotland’s Bard. His father William was an extremely religious man, and Burns credits him with the inspiration for the ‘priest-like father’ described in the Cotter’s Saturday Night. This religious upbringing, especially when mixed with William’s fierce desire to see his children receive a good education, would have had a huge impact on the young Bard, although as we see in other poems he didn’t always agree with the views of the Kirk itself!

However, this Bible did not just have religious significance. William wrote the names and birthdates of his and Agnes’s children inside the front cover, creating a touching memento for themselves and leaving a lasting legacy for Burns’s followers in the absence of a birth certificate.

Robert's Bible
Bible belonging to Robert Burns, with the names of his children inscribed

This tradition was later carried on by Robert in his own family Bible, inscribing the names of himself, Jean Armour and eight of their nine children within it. His youngest son, Maxwell, was born on the day of the poet’s funeral and so was not entered by the poet himself.

Kilmarnock Bible
Bible belonging to John Wilson, published in Kilmarnock

Bibles featured at other key moments in the life of the Bard. This Bible was published by the same printer as published Burns’s Kilmarnock edition, and the book would have played a key role in the Masonic rituals young Robert took part in after he joined the Freemasons.

Highland Mary Bible
Bible Burns gave to Highland Mary, containing a lock of her hair

However, it is perhaps this Bible that was the most poignant to Burns himself. As the poet was gathering together subscriptions to support his first volume of poetry in 1786, he began an intense love affair with ‘Highland Mary’, probably a woman called Margaret Campbell. The Bard presented Mary with this two volume Bible, which some believe may have equated to a form of marriage vow. Inside the volume is Robert Burns’s Masonic mark, the words ‘Robert Burns Mossgavill’ and some Bible verses in the poet’s handwriting. A lock of hair which is thought to be Highland Mary’s was also found in the volume.

However, the affair was destined to be short-lived. Soon after receiving the Bible, Margaret set out to Greenock to visit her family, and died shortly afterwards, possibly while giving birth to Burns’s child. In many roles, be it recording birthdays, forming the centrepiece of ritual, or constituting a heartfelt gift to a lover, the ‘Christian volume’ (The Cotter’s Saturday Night) really did constitute a theme in the life of Robert Burns, and features prominently in RBBM’s collections.