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Robert Burns Lives!
Obituary of Professor Kenneth Simpson

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

(L-R) Professor Kenneth Simpson, Professor Ross Roy and Frank Shaw at the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library

I have known Ken Simpson for over 12 years, and I met him where most Burnsians meet other Burnsians – attending conferences on Burns. This meeting was at Atlanta’s Emory University and our Burns Club of Atlanta was host to a group of Scots from across the pond who were members of the Robert Burns World Federation. The program advertised that “a panel of Burns scholars will include Kenneth Simpson…” - the first of the speakers listed. I heard Dr. Simpson speak on Friday afternoon July 20, 2001, and he remained in Atlanta to speak at our Burns Club meeting the next week. This was only the second Robert Burns World Federation conference held in the United States. Sometime later, Ken and I met again in Columbia, South Carolina at one of Ross Roy’s Burns conferences, made famous by Patrick Scott, Elizabeth Sudduth and their colleagues. It didn’t take long to have a meal with Ken and an even shorter time to become friends.

In his professional life Professor Simpson was one of the most significant Burns scholars in the world. His books can still be found on eBay and in the better rare book stores across America and in the United Kingdom. Not many Burns scholars can say they were the opening act to famous Scottish singer Eddi Reader! I’m so glad Susan and I were able to have lunch with him while attending the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies conferences the past two years.  Each time we took the train to meet him so as not to subject Ken to a trip to Glasgow as his health was already failing.

I want to thank Dr. Jennifer Orr, now of Newcastle University, for sending the obituary below by Professor Christopher Whatley which appeared in the Glasgow Herald this past Tuesday. My heartfelt thanks to Chris (University of Dundee) for allowing me to reprint this tribute for our readers. He replied promptly enough for the obituary to be included in this week’s Robert Burns Lives!.

“Yesterday's funeral was a low key affair, but well attended by many of Ken's friends and colleagues, plus some family.” Chris went on to say, “I'd be perfectly happy - flattered I think - for you to make whatever use of the obit you choose. I know it'll be in good hands.”

Best wishes to Jennie and Chris for making this chapter possible on Robert Burns Lives!.

(FRS: 10.10.13)

Professor Kenneth Simpson
Tuesday 8 October 2013

Scottish literature scholar and authority on Burns
Born: February 14, 1943; Died: September 28, 2013.

Professor Kenneth Simpson

Kenneth Simpson, who has died aged 70, was a distinguished scholar, an authority on 18th century Scottish literature and above all Robert Burns. His academic career was spent in Glasgow, at the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow. He was a pioneer in public engagement, the driving force behind the Herald-supported, University of Strathclyde-sponsored annual Burns conferences, which from their inauguration in 1990 brought together academic researchers and Burns enthusiasts from the west of Scotland and the wider world.

Born in Kilwinning, he was educated at Ardrossan Academy, where in 1961 he was dux. He graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1965, before spending a year at what was then Jordanhill College, on a secondary teaching training course which, allied to his personal gifts as an inspiring lecturer, served him well for the rest of his life.

In 1969 he was appointed as a lecturer in English in the newly established University of Strathclyde, which was then in the process of recruiting a group of highly talented, energetic academics in the arts and social sciences.

Although he had begun to publish papers and book chapters - on Smollet and Galt for example - in the 1970s, it was in the following decade that he became established as a major voice in Scottish literary studies; 1988 saw the publication of The Protean Scot: The Crisis of Identity in Eighteenth-century Scottish Literature, a seminal work that drew on his PhD. Other important publications followed, not least his papers on the tradition of flyting in Scottish literature, with his focus, increasingly, falling on Burns.

In 1990 he became director of Strathclyde's annual Burns International Conference, a role he continued to fulfil until 2004, when the event moved to the Mitchell Library, with Professor Simpson as co-director. For most of this time he was also (founding) director of the university's Centre for Scottish Cultural Studies. Organising the Burns conferences required enormous effort, not least to find sponsors, but also in cajoling potential speakers from across Scotland but also from abroad, to fill what were always richly-packed programmes. But, ably assisted by Cath Wales and others, he succeeded in establishing the conference as one of Scotland's major cultural landmarks with prestige sufficient to attract, for instance, Prof Tom Sutherland, a Beirut hostage from 1985 until 1991, whose captivity was made bearable by reciting Burns.

The legacy of the conferences endures, in the form of published collections of the papers from some of them, which Prof Simpson edited. The annual conferences also still run, albeit organised by the University of Glasgow's Centre for Robert Burns Studies. The next, January 2014's - the 24th since 1990 - is being dedicated to Professor Simpson.

During the past 25 years Prof Simpson's reputation has spread not only throughout Scotland but also reached the US and Russia - where in 2006, in St Petersburg, he shared a platform at a Burns conference with William McIlvanney. He held prestigious visiting posts in the universities of South Carolina and Connecticut both of which he travelled to on several occasions, as well as giving one-off lectures elsewhere in the US and Canada.

Like Burns, he never forgot the people, and delighted in performing for public audiences, his apparent modesty - and his endearing habit of stroking his beard, philosopher-like- concealing a wry wit, a gentle but telling sense of irony and a deeply held commitment to humane values.

Accordingly, he was much in demand as a speaker at venerable Burns clubs such as those in Greenock, Irvine and Perth. He is vividly remembered in Dundee too, having appeared in 2006 as narrator at the Repertory Theatre in a double-act with Eddi Reader. His only regret was that as Reader was a singer, his audience weren't going to hear his two favourite Burns poems, Holy Willie's Prayer and Tam O'Shanter.

Prof Simpson's accessible style of writing - apparent in his 1994 booklet, Robert Burns, published by the Association of Scottish Literary Studies -has taken Burns into hundreds of Scotland's classrooms while his Robert Burns (2005), with illustrations by Colin Baxter, opened up Burns to yet another audience.

Although Prof Simpson retired from Strathclyde in 2003, by which time he had been promoted to Reader, this was not the end of his career but rather a sideways move across the city to Glasgow, where by 2008 he had become Honorary Professor in Burns Studies - the first incumbent - a post he held until 2011.

His association with Glasgow induced a fresh bout of academic endeavour resulting in a stream of papers on Burns, James Macpherson and Robert Louis Stevenson; he also co-edited (with Patrick Scott) a book of essays in honour of his brother-in-arms in Burns studies, the late G Ross Roy of the University of South Carolina and, with Gerry Carruthers, an online edition of the letters of James Currie, Burns' first editor.

The flow continued, with his most recent publication, a typically penetrating but at the same time highly illuminating examination of the personal, political and intellectual influences on Burns as he prepared the first, Kilmarnock (1786) edition of his poems, appearing in Studies in Scottish Literature, 39, 2013.

The respect in which he was held by academics across the disciplines and from many countries was demonstrated in his election as president of the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society for 2008-9. At the time of his death Professor Simpson was working with Ralph McLean and Ronnie Young on an edited collection for the society, The Scottish Enlightenment and Literary Culture.

Although he revelled in his role as a Scottish literary ambassador, his roots were set deep in Ayrshire, where he lived throughout his life, fitting for a Burns scholar who had family connections with the poet - and to whose songs he had been introduced by his grandparents.

His boyhood was spent in Saltcoats, his adult life in West Kilbride, with his beloved island of Arran usually in view. His affection for Arran was transmitted through invitations to friends to join him on his frequent holidays there (often insisting they hired heavy, steel-tubed bicycles on which he'd lead them to Brodick - and the Ormidale hotel bar - and back, by way of the gruelling String road); and by enticing his Strathclyde students to attend his immaculately organised and enormously stimulating reading parties in Blackwaterfoot.

Prof Simpson had a wide circle of colleagues and friends and many more admirers among the general public and particularly the Burns fraternity than is usual amongst academics. He will be missed by one and all. In spite of the esteem in which he was held he was always courteous and considerate. A gentle man, he bore his final illness with dignity and courage. He was a devoted father and leaves a son, David.

Christopher A Whatley

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