Saturday, September 25, 2010

Highland Mary

The story behind the painting and poem.
Although painted circa 1881 by which time he was living in London, Archer looks back to his Scottish history and takes an incident in the life of Scotland's most celebrated poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) as the subject for this painting. Burns' great love was Jean Armour, the daughter of a master-mason, whom he eventually married. Their courtship, however, was tempestuous and in the spring of 1786, after Jean had destroyed the document that testified to their commitment to marry upon discovering she was pregnant by him, she was sent off to Paisley to stay with relatives and avoid scandal. Burns went into hiding and turned for consolation to another girl, Mary Campbell, whom he called his 'Highland Mary'. She was a dairymaid at Coilsfield, an estate near the village of Mauchline in Ayrshire. Despite meeting at Failford on 14 May 1786 and pledging to marry, the episode came to nothing as Mary died of a fever at Greenock shortly afterwards.
Here is the entire poem "Highland Mary" by Robert Burns. Share


Anonymous said...

Being of Scottish descent myself on the distaff side, I'm well aware not all our honorable heroes are as holy as saints should be! It would appear that's what the visual artists implies also in his composition of the literary artist Burns stepping over the Bible 'away' from the classical redemption direction of stage-scene R (viewer's L) to stage-scene L -- aka sinister in Latin (viewer's R).

Note also that the 'fever' his second lover died from may not have been as innocent an illness as we are apt to naively form a sentimental image of: here's Victorian contemporary Thomas Hardy poem
on the 'pastoral' emmenagogues that led to a Sunday Morning Tragedy (if past behaviour is a good predictor of future behaviour, Highland Mary's family may have chosen a different solution when their daughter faced the same fate as her rival Jean, as happens in many families even into the present day to avoid the shame and social setbacks of "illegitimacy").

Incidentally I heard a neat discussion of the honor code and its implications for respect and dignity of human persons (what we Catholics call the 'sanctity of life') recently that even mentioned Canon Law and Cardinal Newman, listen to archive of Marty Moss Coane from our local public radio station interview Princeton Philosophy Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah here:


elena maria vidal said...

Clare, thank you so much for the superb commentary! And thank you for the link as well! You are a marvel!