In a Midsummer Nights Dream, the play comes to no clear conclusion on the existence of true love. Shakespeare suggests that our notion of true love is often mistaken, and sometimes it is simply folly, selfishness or infatuation.

Here we have three Scottish ladies – one perhaps truly in love, another inexplicably infatuated with a murderer and the other entirely ruthless and selfish. There were no Happy Ever Afters…

Taken up Tanner’s Close, ahem, by her lover William Burke, Helen McDougal lived with him in the lodgings in the West Port area of Edinburgh. With William Hare and his bidey-in as a neighbor in the same block, one can only guess at the congenial evenings that were had over a bottle of gin. As Burke and Hare dispatched tenant after tenant, and lured the sick, saucy and sozzled victims back to the lodging house to meet a grisly end, the women stood by their men.

When Burke and Hare were eventually rumbled and convicted, Mr & Mrs Hare turned King’s Evidence and settle Burke’s fate at the gallows in 1829. Helen claimed to be ignorant of the crimes committed by her lover in the tiny flat. Given the lack of space to swing a cat, and the amount of carbolic and mopping that the blood stained floor must have required, it seems unlikely that this was true. However the case was not proven and she walked free.

It seems that others also felt there had been a miscarriage of justice and took matters into their own hands. On a broadside (the earliest form of tabloid newspaper, printed on one side only, and perfect for pinning on the wall) ‘An Account of the Horrid and Barbarous MURDER of Helen McDougal’ hit the headlines on 25th April 1829. Having taken up new mistressing duties with a spinner from Perthshire, Helen was recognized by a gaggle of the lady mill workers from Doune:

“(sic) Individuals most of them Females, who attacked her furiously, seized her by the hair of the head and strangled her, one of the women dispatched her by putting her foot on her breast, and crushed her severely, she was carried to a neighbouring house, where she expired in the course of a few minutes.”


In the tabloid press, then as now, not all stories should be taken as gospel. Thus it is entirely possible that Helen’s demise was altogether less dramatic.

Immortalised as Highland Mary by Robert Burns in his amatory pursuit, Mary Campbell was certainly top Scottish totty as far as The Bard was concerned. Born in Dunoon in 1763, the fair Mary moved to Ayrshire to work first as a milkmaid and then as a nursemaid, and it was there that she caught Rabbie’s roving eye.

Burns and Highland Mary by Thomas Faed c.1850


Mary’s arrival coincided with Jean Armour being hidden away by her family to conceal the fact that she was carrying Burn’s baby. He had already endured a number of sessions on the kirk’s cutty stool for his misdemeanor (and he was no stranger to sitting on that naughty step). Though he loved Jean in his own way, and tried to convince her family that they were indeed married and the child legitimate, he was not deemed suitable son-in-law material.

Not one to be without a bosom to fondle and cry upon, Burns soon had the young Mary under his roguish spell. Romantic whisperings and promises, and a few too many rolls in the hay, led to Mary conceiving a child it is thought. Burns had, by now, secured employment in Jamaica – far away from both money and women troubles – but his heart was captivated by his Highland Mary.

Jumping over the Mauchline Burn, they pledged their troth in traditional Highland style. She travelled to the Highlands – possibly for the duration of the pregnancy, – but it was not a happy ending for his mistress. Burns later wrote:

….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.


Possibly due to complications of pregnancy or a premature birth, poor Mary died at just 23 years old. She was buried in Greenock.


Much mystery surrounds the truth of the story, and whether Mary was even pregnant. However, when the grave had to be moved in the 1920’s due to building work at Harland and Wolff they found the bottom board of a baby’s coffin inside Mary’s grave.

Highland Mary


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.


Educated, coquettish, pretty and a feisty Glasgow girl, Madeleine Smith was born to wealthy parents (her father was an architect). She proved to be a naughty minx by the Victorian standards of her day. Taking a shine to the exotic nurseryman – well, he was from the Channel Islands – she had a bit of a carry on with the besotted underling as he tended the bushes.. Her love affair with Pierre Emile L’Angelier progressed from secret meetings and passionate letters, to fervent snogging and eventually to misplacing her virginity.

Femme fatale, Madeleine Smith

In a girlish fashion she toyed with her adoring lover, even promising to marry the poor fool, but soon lost interest as her parents paraded an eminently superior suitor for marriages purposes. Not wishing to have a tarnished reputation, she demanded her love letters be returned. L’Angelier refused, was petulant and heartbroken, and threatened to use the letters if she did not marry him.

Popping round to the local Victorian pharmacy, they were more than happy to dispense to a potential psychopath any drug they fancied. Little Miss Madeleine purchased some arsenic. Apparently to use as a cosmetic complexion enhancer.

Unfortunately her lover, complaining of stomach pain, died soon after. L’Angelier’s autopsy revealed arsenic, mixed with a dark liquid (possibly coffee or cocoa), in his gut.

With evidence based on the stacks of love letters from Madeleine found at L’Angelier’s lodgings, Madeleine was arrested for murder and put on trial at the High Court In Edinburgh. She was a strangely cool and detached creature throughout the proceedings, and denied her involvement, despite making three purchases of arsenic in the month leading up to his death, saying she “

never administered, or caused to be administered, to M. L’Angelier arsenic or anything injurious and I declare this to be truth.

Circumstantial evidence strongly suggested she was the culprit, but there were no witnesses and therefore the lack of a strong case led to a ‘not proven’ verdict by the jury.



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