Left: The Betrothal of Robert Burns and Highland Mary by James Archer, c.1881. Watercolour over graphite on paper, 5 3/4 x 4 1/4 inches (14.6 x 10.9 cm). Private collection. Right: The Betrothal of Robert Burns and Highland Mary by Richard Josey after James Archer. Coloured engraving on card, 6 × 4 ⅜ inches (15.3 x 11.1 cm). Private collection. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Archer painted two versions of this subject taken from the life of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet. The best-known version entitled The Parting of Burns and Highland Mary was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in 1858, no. 526. Archer returned to this theme much later with a second picture entitledThe Betrothal of Robert Burns and Highland Mary that he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, no. 464. This painting appears to have generated little interest from reviewers at the time. The critic ofThe Saturday Review, for instance, failed to be impresssed noting: “On the line hang Mr. Archer’s ‘Betrothal of Robert Burns and Highland Mary’ (464), which seems to be a study from ugly wax figures” (560). This is likely the small painting in oil on board, 14 x 10 inches and dated 1881, which sold at Christie’s, London, on February 23, 1973, lot 176, and was bought by the Fine Art Society. The current whereabouts of this picture is unknown but its composition can be ascertained from a watercolour study and two reproductive prints subsequently published by Henry Graves & Company, London. The first print was a large mixed method engraving by Richard Josey published in 1882 while the second was a smaller coloured engraving published in 1894. The pose of the figure of Highland Mary is almost exactly the same in the watercolour study and the prints. Burn’s pose has been altered slightly in the prints as compared to the watercolour, particularly in the turn of his head where Burns looks more directly towards Mary and into her eyes whereas in the watercolour study Burns appears to be looking off into the distance. The background has also been modified in the compositon chosen for the finished painting although the foreground remains much the same as in the earlier watercolour study.

Although Burns’ great love was Jean Armour, whom he would eventually marry, they had a tempestuous relationship. In March of 1786, after she discovered she had become pregnant by Burns, she destroyed the document that testified to their commitment to marry. She was sent to live with relatives in Paisley in order to avoid a scandal. Burns then transferred his affections to another girl, Mary Campbell, whom he called his “Highland Mary”. Mary was born in 1763, the eldest child of Archibald Campbell, a seaman, and his wife Agnes. In her early teens she went to East Ayrshire where she initially worked as a nursemaid in Mauchline and then subsequently as a dairymaid at Coilsfiled, which was when Burns met her. Contemporary sources describe her as tall with a pale complexion and a graceful figure, with pale reddish hair and blue eyes, and with a very pleasant and winning personality. She was not considered a great beauty, however. Burns was to write four poems about her, including “The Highland Lassie” of 1786; “To Mary in Heaven” of 1789; “Will Ye Go To The Indies, My Mary” of 1792; and “Highland Mary” of c. 1792.

The subject of both paintings is the well-known episode of their meeting at Failford on May 14, 1786 where, by the banks of the Ayr, they pledged to marry by exchanging Bibles over a running stream - a Scottish custom that signified their betrothal. In the 1858 version a Bible can be seen in Burns’ cap that is lying on the ground near Burns' right foot. The river Ayr can be seen behind the embracing couple. The relationship between Burns and “Highland Mary” was brief but intense, only lasting from April 23 to May 14, 1786. After their betrothal they parted. Mary embarked for the West Highlands to arrange matters for their marriage, while Burns was possibly arranging for them to emigrate to Jamaica because of his financial circumstances. In October they were to meet at Greenock. She had scarcely landed from her sea voyage when she developed a malignant fever, possibly either typhus or typhoid fever, and died. In Burns’ song “The Highland Lassie,” written close to the time of her death, he states:

She has my heart, she had my hand,
By secret troth and honor's band!
Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
I'm thine, my Highland Lassie, O."


Beresford, Richard. Victorian Visions. Nineteenth-Century Art from the John Schaeffer Collection. Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000, 42-45.

“The Picture Galleries.” The Saturday Review. 51 (April 30, 1881): 559-60.

Last modified 1 September 2021