It is one of three works dedicated to Mary Campbell, with whom Burns was in love in the 1780s. The others, "Highland Lassie, O" and "Will Ye Go to the Indies My Mary?", were composed in 1786. "Highland Mary" consists of four stanzas that speak of Burns's affection for the lady, his melancholy at her death and his continued memory of her.
Burns said of his song, "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."She was staying in Greenock with relatives whilst waiting to take up employment with the family of Colonel McIvor at Glasgow.
Mary Campbell died at the age of 23, around 20 October 1786, probably from Typhus contracted when nursing her brother Robert. She was buried in the old West Kirk churchyard at Greenock, in a lair owned by her host and relation Peter Macpherson.
In 1842 a monument in her memory was designed by John Mossman. A statue of her by David Watson Stevenson was also erected in 1896 at Dunoon on the Castle Hill, overlooking the Firth of Clyde. In a solemn ceremony on 13 November 1920 Mary's remains were re-interred in Greenock Cemetery under the 1842 Mossman monument moved from the old West Kirkyard.
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 oursel's 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 aye the sparkling glance
That dwelt 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!