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Robert Burns Lives!
Reminiscences of Editing Burns by G. Ross Roy

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

Our friend and Burns scholar, Patrick Scott, has shared another chapter for our website. In his introduction, he writes the following: 

Ross Roy, a long-time supporter of Robert Burns Lives!, is remembered with affection and respect by many Burnsians. He was one of the most influential Burns scholars of the second half of the twentieth century, best known for his still-standard edition of the Letters of Robert Burns (2 vols., Clarendon, 1985).  Less well known is the range of writing about Burns, formal and informal, that he had published over the years.  A selection of this writing has now been gathered into book form.  With Ross’s approval, Ken Simpson and I drafted the first list of items to include, and in carrying the project out my collaborators were Elizabeth Sudduth, Associate Dean for Special Collections at the University of South Carolina, and my former student Jo DuRant; details are given at the end of this article. It is a selection of his most accessible essays; a full checklist of Ross’s writings on Burns and other topics was given in the festschrift Ken and I edited in 2012, and a few extra items are noted in this new book.  Along with short appreciations of such well-known Burns poems as "Tam o' Shanter" and "Auld Lang Syne," the book includes essays discussing Burns's attitudes to the French Revolution, politics, and religion, his love-letters to Clarinda, The Merry Muses of Caledonia, poems written about Burns, poems wrongly attributed to him, and the earlier history of Burns editing.  The final item in the book is an extended interview I did with him in 2008 about his fifty years as a Burns collector, with illustrations of many of the books and manuscripts he discusses.

We wanted a less formal introduction that gave a better sense of Ross talking about Burns.  For this, we put together a section from several sources but all in Ross’s own words, called “Encounters with Robert Burns.” This draws both on some of his autobiographical writing and on interviews with him in his last year recorded by the University Libraries’ Oral Historian, Andrea L’Homme-Dieu.  His early memories of visiting Scotland as a boy with his grandfather, the Canadian Burns collector W. Ormiston Roy, and later of staying with him in Montreal, appeared shortly after his death as Robert Burns Lives!, no. 174, so are not repeated here. The extract from the introduction given below comes from the transcribed interviews, recounting how he  came to edit the Burns letters, some of his experiences doing it, and some of the other Burnsians he met in connection with the work. To those who knew him, these reminiscences will bring back Ross’s distinctive voice. We hope they will also introduce him in a more personal way to younger Burnsians who have only known him through his formal scholarship (3.30.2018).

G. Ross Roy

I soon dropped into the editing of the letters.  I was doing some research in New York and decided that I was going to do a variorum edition, that is to say, showing all the variations in various manuscript texts of the poetry.  And it came to my attention that a man by the name of Kinsley, who was at that time in Wales, a Scot, was working on that, and it didn’t seem it would be useful for the two of us to compete. 

            So after some consultation around it, he suggested: why don’t you edit the letters, the correspondence of Burns? Now, Burns in his lifetime wrote about seven hundred known letters. Most of these had been published with Oxford University Press by DeLancey Ferguson, an American, but that edition had come out in 1931, and it seemed probably appropriate in modern times that another edition should come out. 

            I got in touch with Professor Ferguson, and he agreed to help me in any way possible. And so began almost a twenty-year effort, because I was teaching of course. And I did some other publishing during the period, because in those days the saying was “publish or perish,” and if you told your department head that you were working on a long-range project he might say, “that’s all very well but you need to publish this year.” 

The decision was that I would need to re-collate, that is to say reexamine, every known letter where a manuscript existed and collate them again.  Nobody’s perfect, and in the Ferguson edition there were a few, very few, but a few mistakes that had crept into his 1931 edition.  This was before the days of Xerox so I had actually to go and examine personally almost every letter that appears in the edition. This meant going to New York, it meant going to Los Angeles, it meant going to London, it meant going to Edinburgh. In all, I don’t think there are probably more than perhaps a dozen or so manuscripts that I’ve not actually seen. 

The greatest collection of manuscripts, both poetic and prose, is at Alloway, near Ayr, in the Birthplace Museum, the little cottage in which Burns was born. There is now a tourist and research center on the grounds near to Burns’s cottage.  The cottage remains pretty much in the state that it would have been when Burns lived in it; they had a couple of cows at one end of the building, and the people lived in the other end. There was a thatched roof, and one of the curators in the museum told me that some years ago when they had to re-thatch the roof they had great difficulty finding, in the whole of Great Britain, people who could thatch with straw. But they have amassed a very significant collection. The Birthplace Museum doesn’t buy very much now. The National Library of Scotland, of course, in Edinburgh, being the national library, they still buy manuscripts. 

            Back in those days they did microfilm for me of every letter that was available. The problem is, of course, that over the years letters have disappeared into private hands. There was a collection in the Burns field of manuscript material owned by a man by the name of Law, and since  the time Ferguson was working on these in the early nineteen thirties nobody knew where they were. The original man, Law, had died, and you know these are private things, they get passed on to somebody, or he might even have given them away before he died.  I tried through his lawyers and the firm that he owned, and no trace of it. They still haven’t turned up. They will, because material like that doesn’t get destroyed, but it can disappear.

            The work of course took quite a number of years, because for example, when I went to London to work in the British Museum, now the British Library, there was a great deal of stuff there, and Edinburgh and Ayr had large numbers of manuscripts, and my time was limited because I would have a summer semester off to go and do this research. It had its very pleasant aspect, of course, and I guess I began collecting Burns myself at that time.

            Anyway, after a number of years of collating this material, I was ready to go to press and got in touch with the then-editor of Oxford University Press in Oxford, a guy by the name of Davin, who was very helpful, and the process of seeing the material through the press began.  It took about two years for it to get done. I was sent proofs, and I had a semester of leave and Lucie took all the leave she had from where she worked and we just sat down and proofread, and anybody who’s done any proofreading knows it’s not one of the most exciting things in the world.  I suppose you could say in a way it’s boring, but I think, I think, we got a pretty accurate reading. I’m not going to say, in the two volumes that the published letters occupy, that there wouldn’t be perhaps a typo here or there, but I hope there aren’t very many. 

The work that I did in collecting this material put me in touch with, I suppose, most of the Burns scholars. One was not a professional scholar, but William Dunlop, who owned the Ayr Advertiser newspaper and lived across the Brig o’ Doon, famous in Burns’s poem, “Tam O’ Shanter,” who was a man of considerable means, and was honorary curator, I guess, of the Burns collection there. He knew Burns well, although like my grandfather, he was not an academic. We shared a love of fly fishing and he owned—in Scotland pieces of river are, I don’t know if it’s rented out or sold, but he owned a chunk of a river where he was the only one who could fish legally. My father had belonged to a fishing club in Canada where you weren’t allowed to use bait, you had to fly fish; what we caught was trout. Billy Dunlop was always going to take me salmon fishing, but unfortunately it never happened.  Anyway, he and I became very good friends. 

Whenever I would turn up for the first time at the Museum, Billy Dunlop would have me to dinner, and I saw his house where he had Burns relics and so on. And he’s one of three people to whom I dedicated the edition of the letters, and he was most helpful. He arranged for me to have microfilms of all the material they had on hand without ever charging me, which was obviously an expense on their part to produce this material. 

Willy Dunlop used to go down to bid, himself, in London when Burns manuscripts came up. And a dealer whom I got to know quite well said that they knew immediately when Dunlop would come into the room, they knew what he was going to bid on. And Dunlop himself told me he had a formula for bidding on material, so much a line for poetry and less per line for prose. But the dealers also knew his formula, and they resented that he bid for himself, and by bidding for himself he didn’t have to pay an agent’s fee, which used to be 10 percent. So the dealers bid against him deliberately, but they knew exactly where he was going to end so they stopped one bid below that. Poor chap, something that he should have paid £100 might get bidded up to £150. As I say, he never knew this, but he paid more than he needed to for Burns material.

            Ferguson was a delightful person. He acted as a kind of father to me.  He’s another of the people to whom I dedicated the Burns letters. And he made available to me all of the material that he had. He taught at Case Western and then Brooklyn. I think he may have been from upstate New York, but when I knew him he had retired and was living in Connecticut. But when I spent a summer semester working on Burns material in New York, in the Burns collections in the New York, Public Library and in the Morgan Library in New York, my wife and I drove up and spent a day with him up in Connecticut. He was a delightful person, and very, very helpful. 

            He had run a bit afoul of the Burns Federation because there are a few pretty explicit letters, sexually explicit letters, in Burns’s correspondence, and probably the then editor of the Burns Chronicle, he doesn’t need to be named, but he wanted Ferguson not to publish those letters.  And Ferguson said, “well, you know, letters are letters no matter what they say,” so he went ahead and published them.  And the Burns Federation, I think, were quite angry at him because we’re talking the 1920s and ’30s, when the Burns Federation was almost in denial that Burns had ever written anything bawdy.  Anyway, they just didn’t like it.

            Another student of Burns was Robert Fitzhugh, who had edited some of the Burns biographical sources, and he and I became friends. Another was Robert Thornton, Bob Thornton to us, who had been a student of Ferguson. When I taught at Alabama he was teaching at the University of South Carolina, and we met for the first time at a regional conference in Atlanta and spent a few hours together. And then he moved to Kansas State and then New Paltz, and eventually I moved to South Carolina.  He was given the first Russell Award awarded by the University of South Carolina for research, and a few years later I was awarded it, so two of the university’s research award holders have been Burns scholars. He retired to Cheraw, South Carolina, and we kept in touch. Bob Thornton was involved when I was founding the journal Studies in Scottish Literature

I’d forgotten about James Kinsley. He was the person who was editing the poems of Burns when I withdrew from the idea of doing that and concentrated on the letters. At the time that I knew him, he was teaching in Wales, and he later moved to Nottingham.  I visited him two or three times, and he came down and visited me in London. We tried to hire him here, but he was already a professor at Nottingham, and he didn’t feel he wanted to leave England, although he was a Scot.  He was a really first-rate scholar and produced what is still the standard edition of the poems. 


Details about the book:
Author: G. Ross Roy
Title: Selected Essays on Robert Burns

Editors: Patrick Scott, Elizabeth A. Sudduth, and Jo DuRant
Series: South Carolina Scottish Literature Series, no. 2.
Publisher: Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2018.
Pp. xii + 210. Paperback, $24; £18. ISBN: 978-1507523483.

The book is not available for purchase directly from the library, only through Amazon, Amazon UK, CreateSpace, and several other online vendors (prices and shipping charges may vary).

Further references:

Corey Andrews, “John DeLancey Ferguson (1888-1966): An Appreciation,” Robert Burns Lives!, no. 147 (August 2012):

Rob Close, “History of the Ayr Advertiser, part 3” [with information on William H. Dunlop, 1907-1982], Ayrshire History:

Keith Ovenden, A Fighting Withdrawal: the life of Dan Davin, writer, soldier, publisher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

G. Ross Roy,ed., The Letters of Robert Burns, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

___________, “Editing Burns’s Letters in the Twentieth Century,” in R. H. Carnie, ed., Robert Burns: Some Twentieth-Century Perspectives (Calgary: Calgary Burns Club, 1993), 21-27; reprinted in Roy, Selected Essays, 174-180.

___________, “W. Ormiston Roy Remembered by His Grandson,” Robert Burns Lives!, no. 174 (May 2013):

Patrick Scott, “Twentieth Century Burns Scholars: Robert Donald Thornton [1917-2007],” Burns Chronicle (Summer 2012), 3-7.

___________, and Justin Mellette, “Publications by G. Ross Roy, A Checklist,” in Robert Burns & Friends, ed. Scott and Simpson (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2012), 163-180; link from:

___________, “A Lost Collection of Robert Burns Manuscripts: Sir Alfred Law, Davidson Cook, and the Honresfield Collection,” Robert Burns Lives!, no. 210 (February 2015):

__________, “Addenda to Publications by G. Ross Roy: A Checklist,” in Roy, Selected Essays on Robert Burns, ed. Scott, Sudduth & DuRant (Columbia, SC: Scottish Literature Series, 2018), 199-200.  

Kathleen Tillotson, “James Kinsley, 1922-1984,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 74 (1988), 373-387: linked at:

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