Wilder Wednesday – Highland Mary

Welcome to Wilder Wednesday, a new series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.

After supper that night [before Laura’s wedding], Laura brought Pa’s fiddle to him, and asked, “Please, Pa, make some music.”
Pa took the fiddle from the box. He was a long time tuning it; then he must resin the bow carefully. At last he poised the bow above the fiddle strings and cleared his throat. “What will you have, Laura?”
“Play for Mary first,” Laura answered. “And then play all the old tunes, one after another, as long as you can.”
She sat on the doorstep and just inside the door Pa and Ma sat looking out over the prairie while Pa played “Highland Mary.” Then while the sun was going down he played all the old tunes that Laura had known ever since she could remember.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie

Music was an important part of Laura’s childhood family. It comforted them, uplifted them, strengthened them. Laura once remarked, “Whatever religion, romance, and patriotism I have, I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight.”

There was Scotch blood in the Ingalls family, and much of the music Pa played reflected this. One special song was “Highland Mary,” which was evidently Mary Ingalls’s favorite song.

The song was composed by Robert Burns in 1792 in memory of his one-time lover Margaret (called Mary) Campbell. She was called “Highland Mary” because of her heavy Gaelic accent.

Mary was described as “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 had a remarkably winning expression.”*

She certainly became a favorite of Burns, pretty much as soon as he met her at church in April, 1786 while she was staying with a mutual friend. Evidently the couple even held a secret ceremony of ancient, traditional Scottish betrothal, in which they exchanged Bibles over a water course. Burns had written verses in his Bible (two verses), signed them, and impressed his Masonic sign.

HighlandMary Burns

The Betrothal of Burns and Highland Mary

Burns later wrote about Highland Mary:
This was a composition of mine in very early life, before I was known at all in the world. My Highland lassie was a warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love. After a pretty long tract of the most ardent reciprocal attachment we met by appointment, on the second Sunday of May, in a sequestered spot by the Banks of Ayr, where we spent the day in taking farewell, before she should embark for the West Highlands to arrange matters among her friends for our projected change of life. At the close of Autumn following she crossed the sea to meet me at Greenock, where she had scarce landed when she was seized with a malignant fever, which hurried my dear girl to the grave in a few days, before I could even hear of her illness.

Alas, Mary left the area the day after this, less than 2 months after meeting Burns, and died before she returned. The probable cause of her young death (at the age of 23), was typhoid fever, from which she had been nursing her brother.

Burns remembered her fondly for the rest of his life. He dedicated three poems to her, including “Highland Mary.” He wrote the words to go to the melody of “Katherine Ogie,” which he thought had “very poor” lyrics “altogether unworthy of so beautiful an air.”**

You can hear the melody here.

Highland Mary ~ Robert Burns

Ye banks, and braes, and streams around
The castle o’ Montgomery,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
Your waters never drumlie!
There Simmer first unfald her robes,
And there the langest tarry:
For there I took the last Fareweel
O’ my sweet Highland Mary.

How sweetly bloom’d the gay, green birk,
How rich the hawthorn’s blossom;
As underneath their fragrant shade,
I clasp’d her to my bosom!
The golden Hours, on angel wings,
Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Wi’ mony a vow, and lock’d embrace,
Our parting was fu’ tender;
And pledging aft to meet again,
We tore oursels asunder:
But Oh! fell Death’s untimely frost,
That nipt my Flower sae early!
Now green’s the sod, and cauld’s the clay,
That wraps my Highland Mary!

O pale, pale now, those rosy lips,
I aft hae kiss’d sae fondly!
And clos’d for ay the sparkling glance,
That dwalt on me sae kindly!
And mouldering now in silent dust,
That heart that lo’ed me dearly!
But still within my bosom’s core
Shall live my Highland Mary.


Highland Mary sheetmusic


HighlandMary p2

Highland Mary p2

Amber Waves Band played this tune, among many others from the Little House books, at LauraPalooza 2012, and there’s now a video of it on YouTube.

You can also purchase some CDs that contain many of the songs in the Laura books here.fiddle

Pa’s fiddle is now on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home in Mansfield, MO. (This is an older photo; today, the fiddle in kept in a glass case, but photos are no longer allowed in the museum, so I couldn’t take a newer one.) Once a year, on Wilder Days held the third weekend of September, the fiddle is taken out and the old songs are played on it. I wrote about Wilder Day in 2012 on my old blog.

*Hill, Rev. John C. The Love Songs and Heroines of Robert Burns. 1961, London : J. M. Dent.
**Letter of George Burns to George Thompson, dated 11 Nov 1792.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Connie in Colorado on May 20, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    Thank you, Teresa, for this lovely history of one of my favorite Scottish Burns’ tunes….long before I realized it was “Little House” related.


  2. Posted by Anonymous on May 26, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    as a Campbell this story is poignant and sweet


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