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The Creation and Controversy of Dunoon’s Highland Mary

Highland Mary has stood atop Castle Hill since 1896 and for many of us, is another local feature that we have grown used to and pass by. The statue depicts Dunoon-born Mary Campbell, who is known for her relationship with Robert Burns before her untimely death, and her mentions in Burns’ work. The statue stands at ten feet six inches tall and is cast in bronze. The money was raised by Burns societies near and far, and the unveiling marked the end of celebrations for the centenary of the poet's death. However, the creation of the statue was the centre of widespread controversy, which can be seen through the debate in contemporary newsprint.


Who was Highland Mary, and what happened between her and Burns? Mary was born in March 1763 at Dunoon’s Auchamore Farm to Archibald and Agnes Campbell. After five years the family moved to Campbeltown, where Mary’s three siblings were born, and then to Greenock. Burns and Mary struck up a romantic relationship when Mary was working as a dairymaid in Ayrshire, near Burns' family farm in the same parish. The two handfasted in 1786 and planned to emigrate to Jamaica together. Handfasting was a Scottish tradition which symbolised a wedding, and the couple exchanged bibles and washed in a stream, either the Mauchline Burn or the River Fail. This is said to be their last meeting, as Mary died aged 23 from typhus after nursing her brother through the same illness.


The idea to create a statue came from the Glasgow Cowal Society in October 1886, who were reported as starting a ‘movement’ to have a memorial to Mary built on Auchamore Farm itself. The next month saw a meeting between the Society and various other Burns clubs, where their mindset about the location was changed. Castle Hill was agreed upon after a letter was received from the Duke of Argyll awarding them the space, and a committee was set up to raise funds and oversee the creation of the statue. Donations also came from overseas, such as Burns’ clubs in America and Canada. Grand public events in London were organised to raise money, and the Glasgow Herald in March 1886 reported that a lavish costume ball was held in aid of the ‘Highland Mary Statue Fund’ at the galleries of the ‘Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours.’ It was originally planned that individuals should pay no more than one shilling each to allow a greater number of people to contribute to the fund. However, the 1895 Burns Chronicle proclaimed that individuals who contributed Five Guineas would receive a two-foot figure of Mary, and those who contributed Ten Guineas would receive one of three feet.


While these funds were being raised over several years, fierce debate raged on in the columns of Scottish newspapers over whether the statue should be created at all. In 1894, a self-proclaimed Burns admirer argued in the Glasgow Herald that those who supported the statue of Mary were ‘degrading her memory, and dishonouring Burns.’ He claimed that although Mary was known for her affair with Burns, this was only a fleeting moment of her life, and she had ‘no claim to such recognition as a public monument.’ In the same year, the Daily News received correspondence from a reader that stated a public monument to Mary would not be fitting, asking ‘what has the simple Highland girl done that she should be elevated on a pinnacle of fame,’ with her ‘lowly virtues’ of ‘rustic beauty, modesty, chastity and simplicity.’ Also, many were against the statue being placed in Dunoon as Mary’s final resting place is in Greenock’s cemetery, where a monument to her memory already stood. The correspondent who wrote to the Daily News echoed this point, and argued ‘nothing can now sever the memory of Highland Mary from the spot where her dust has lain in peace for more than a hundred years.’ It was also reported that Mary’s family resented their name being associated with Burns, and that they would not have wanted the monument if they were still alive. Even after the statue had been unveiled, debate carried on- one Campbeltown historian in 1928 trivialized the association of Mary with Dunoon, as he argued that Mary had a more ‘intimate connection’ with Campbeltown.


Despite this, proceedings continued- the Yorkshire Evening Post reported in Mary 1895 that ‘Dunoon is to have its Highland Mary statue after all. The popular sculptor David Watson Stevenson was chosen to craft the sculpture, and the intricate details of his work were specified in the press. The Aberdeen Express discussed that ‘the head is that of a well-favoured, sweet and modest girl, and the figure is attired in a costume studied from pictures of her time [created] by David Allan,’ such as her kilted gown. Mary is depicted as carrying a bible in her left hand to represent that given to her by Burns, as well as a satchel in her right, and stares longingly across to the Ayrshire Coast. Although the original design of the statue was to be made from white marble, in order to draw the attention of the ‘excursionists, travellers and seafarers’ who flocked to the area, Mary is sculpted from clay encased in bronze.



D. W Stevenson and the completed Highland Mary Statue


The statue of Highland Mary was unveiled on the first of August 1896 with many notable guests travelling to Dunoon to witness this, such as Lord and Lady Kelvin. Thousands of people were there, crowded round Castle Hill. After the unveiling it was reported that although the invited guests were given tickets for the event and could gather round the statue, locals who attended had to stand on the adjacent hill and were unable to hear the speeches. These speeches were made to emphasise the importance of Mary to both Burns and Dunoon, and Lord Kelvin stated that ‘her memory was cherished wherever the English language had permeated,’ a Dunoon sailor’s daughter who had a ‘name known throughout the whole world.’ A garden party was held after the ceremony on Castle Hill. Guests were treated to ‘lanterns, coloured globes, and electric lights,’ as well as a Glaswegian choir. This was described as having created an ‘effect so charming as to render it beyond the power of description.'