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Professor Ross Roy’s Gift of Robert Burns Manuscripts to the University of South Carolina
By Frank Shaw


January 25, 2008

It was a distinct honor to be invited by the University of South Carolina’s Interim Dean of Libraries, Tom McNally, and his wife Kim to join a small group of friends and associates of Dr. Ross and Lucie Roy on the 249th birthday anniversary of Robert Burns, Scotland’s Immortal Bard. We gathered on campus in the Thomas Cooper Library for this history-making event. It is not every day that a manuscript of Burns is made available to the public, but on that Friday afternoon, history in Scottish literature was made when more than 20 documents in Robert Burns's hand were turned over as a gift/purchase to the rare books library.

In this writer’s opinion, Dr. Roy is the most preeminent Burns scholar in the world today. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English & Comparative Literature at South Carolina's flagship public university, founded in 1801, and is the recipient of two earned doctorates from the University of Montreal and the Sorbonne (University of Paris), and an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Roy collected his many Burns items during an accomplished teaching career that included the University of Montreal, University of Alabama, Texas Tech University and, since 1965, the University of South Carolina where he taught for 25 years before retiring.


Drs. Sorensen and Roy along with Mrs. Lucie Roy, Associate Editor of Studies in Scottish Literature. (Picture taken by Paul Schultz)

This is not the first time the university and Dr. Roy have collaborated regarding Burns. The Rare Books Library at USC already has the largest collection of Robert Burns’s books and memorabilia outside Scotland, the G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, Burnsiana, and Scottish poetry.  Interestingly, Dr. Roy’s love of Robert Burns and Scotland, as well as all things Scottish, including haggis, started when Dr. Roy was taken to Scotland as an eight-year-old lad in 1932 by his grandfather, W. Ormiston  Roy, a Burns enthusiast himself, who instilled the love of Burns in his grandson.

Dr. Andrew A. Sorensen, President of the University of South Carolina, spoke briefly during the ceremony on his reflections as a theology student in Edinburgh. He is the third University of South Carolina president to have attended the University of Edinburgh.

“Because Scotland is the only country in the world in which the state church is Presbyterian, to an aspiring Presbyterian clergy studying in Edinburgh is analogous to Roman Catholic seminarians heading for Rome or rabbinical scholars going to Jerusalem. “Imagine my delight upon arriving in Edinburgh to be appointed student assistant to the Minister of the Kirk of the Canongate. That church, located a mere 500 yards from the Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland’s capitol, is her parish Kirk when she is in Edinburgh. The Minister whom I served had the title of Chaplain to Her Britannic Majesty in Scotland, so by extension I could stretch the point greatly and claim that I was an assistant to the Queen’s Chaplain.

“Parenthetically, very few Anglicans or Episcopalians know that when Queen Elizabeth leaves Buckingham Palace for Balmoral Castle in Scotland, her family’s favorite home, the instant she crosses the Scottish border she becomes the titular head of the Church of Scotland and thus a card-carrying Presbyterian. In other words, she is a one-woman ecumenical movement.”

Dr. Sorensen mentioned the “Scottish threads woven into the very warp and woof” of the university’s history, including Professor George Armstrong Wauchope who “wrote the lyrics of our university’s Alma Mater and set it to the tune of ‘Flow Gently, Sweet Afton’ whose original lyrics were composed by none other than Bobby Burns, whose birthday we celebrate today. Burns’s own Clarinda is buried in the graveyard of the Kirk of the Canongate where I was an assistant, and some of Burns’s letters to her are now housed in the Thomas Cooper Library.”

He went on to say, “I am eternally grateful to the Scots for their warm reception of this Scandinavian-American. The unfailing graciousness and consistently warm spirit of the Scots is vividly etched in my mind, and to this day those memories cause tears to well up in my eyes every time the bagpipers begin their haunting, piercing rendition of ‘Scotland the Brave’.”

Dr. Sorenson concluded his remarks with a toast:

“Here’s to Scotland, here’s to the University of South Carolina, and – most especially – here’s to Professor and Mrs. Roy.”


Dr. Tom McNally, Interim Dean of Libraries at the University of South Carolina, and Frank Shaw.
(Picture taken by Paul Schultz)

Dr. Patrick Scott, Director of Rare Books and Special Collections, briefly told how the Roy Collection books came to the library, beginning in 1989.  The collection regularly attracts scholars and researchers to Columbia from Scotland and many other countries round the world.  The library had long hoped that Dr. Roy would add the manuscripts to the books, and it is wonderful that they have come in time for Burns's 250th anniversary next year.  Along with all the Burns manuscripts, a cameo, a statue, and related Burnsiana, the gift includes other Scottish items, such the long-lost early bust of Hugh MacDiarmid by the Scottish sculptor Benno Schotz, and the copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass with a chain of autograph inscriptions leading from Whitman himself to Dr. Roy's grandfather, who gave it to Dr. Roy.  What Dr. Roy would be handing over today was just a small portion of the gift.

In the ceremony that followed, Dr. Roy formally presented representative items from the new gift to Dr. Sorensen, who accepted on behalf of the university, while Dr. Roy explained the significance of each item to lovers of Buns.

The first of the three items was a 1787 copy of the Burns Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, annotated by Burns for his friend Robert Ainslie. In the printed text Burns followed the practice of that time of giving the first and last initial of a name with asterisks in between when writing about someone, but for his friend he wrote in the actual names in over thirty places.  The folks back home would not have much difficulty figuring out who Burns was writing, but the people in Edinburgh wouldn’t have had a clue. This unique volume also contains Ainslie's ownership signature, an autograph letter from Burns to Ainslie dated October 11, 1788, and a portion of another letter from Burns dated October 18, 1788 that was probably tipped in by a later owner.  Otherwise, it stands to reason, the whole letter would be present.  


Dr. Andrew Sorensen about to receive the Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect annotated by Robert Burns from Dr. and Mrs. Ross Roy. (Picture taken by Paul Schultz)

The second presentation was a famous signed letter from Burns to "Clarinda," Agnes M’Lehose from early 1787.  In it, where Burns writes about weeping with emotion, there is a blot on the page.  A reader today has to determine if it is a tear drop, as believed by Mrs. Roy, or as I have heard Dr. Roy say on more than one occasion, it could be a drop of whisky! When Dr. Roy tells this part of the story, there is always a chuckle and a smile on his face. The letter is part of the correspondence between the two under the names as “Sylvander” and “Clarinda,” perhaps as a literary device or game, but perhaps also to disguise their identities because Mrs. M’Lehose was a married woman estranged from her husband who was out of the country. As Frank Sinatra sang years ago, these “Strangers in the Night” more than likely became lovers in a bizarre courtship if not “at first sight”.


Clarinda letter (Picture taken by Paul Schultz).

The last gift was Burns’s wooden porridge bowl as displayed at the Glasgow Burns Centenary Exhibition in 1896. It was photographed in the Memorial Catalogue Exhibition, a copy of which is in my own personal Burns library.  Dr. Roy was with his grandfather when he purchased it in 1932, during their trip to Britain together. At a reception following the event, the Burns bowl was lined with tin foil, filled with peanuts, and served to guests so everyone could say they had eaten from Burns’s porridge bowl.  I helped myself twice!


Porridge Bowl  (Picture taken by Zella Hilton).


Dr. Roy and Dr. Andrew Sorensen, President, University of South Carolina,
holding Burns' porridge bowl (Picture taken by Paul Schultz).

I conclude this article, as Dr. Sorenson did his speech, with an acknowledgement of indebtedness to Dr. Patrick Scott for his assistance in furnishing me information regarding the three gifts. I would also like to thank Dr. Roy. In a phone conversation with him just this afternoon, he said to me, “Any time you want to call, I’m happy to tell you anything I know. I’ll answer any of your questions.” Thank you, Ross. You have always been a gentleman willing to work with me on this and other articles, as well as a wonderful inspiration to me.  (FRS: 2-12-08 - Final)


Dr. Ross Roy and Frank Shaw


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