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Robert Burns Lives!
The Honorary Graduation of Professor G. Ross Roy

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

This will be an easy introduction regarding a much beloved and respected Burns scholar. Professor G. Ross Roy was recently recognized by the University of Glasgow with an honorary doctorate degree. Before we learned of this honor, my wife and I had already planned the Scottish “trip of a lifetime” with our family, including our two grandchildren Ian and Stirling. Otherwise, had it been just the two of us, we would have changed our plans to be present for the ceremony honoring Dr. Roy. As it happened, he was on the way back the day we were travelling to Scotland…two ships passing in the sky, you might conclude.  We did raise a glass of wine to him at 35,000 feet. Thomas Keith, Burns scholar from New York City, was fortunate to make the trip and represented a vast number of us who wished we could have been present for the festivities.

Dr. Rhona BrownI enlisted the help of Dr. Rhona Brown, who was present and who serves on the faculty of the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Literature Department, to write the article below about the event. I deeply appreciate her comments and think it is one of the better articles submitted to our readers about a man who has been referred to as “The Chairman of the Bard”.  I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did, and I hope you pass it along to others who have respect and love for not only Robert Burns but for  G. Ross Roy as well.  (FRS:  7.30.09)

The Honorary Graduation of Professor G. Ross Roy
University of Glasgow
, 17 June 2009 [1]
Department of Scottish Literature
, University of Glasgow

Professor Ross Roy

In the year in which Scotland celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns and Homecoming, it was particularly apposite that Professor G. Ross Roy be honoured by the department of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. A distinguished scholar familiar to many students of English, Scottish, Canadian, American and French literature, Professor Roy is, of course, most important to the staff and students of Scottish Literature for his enormous contribution to Burns studies. A tireless and avid collector of Burns manuscripts, books and memorabilia, a meticulous editor, a gifted researcher and a man always generous in his encouragement of fellow scholars, the department is especially proud of its relationship with Professor Roy.

Professor Roy’s honorary graduation took place at the University of Glasgow’s Commemoration Day on 17 June 2009. As a fairly new member of staff – I took up my post as Lecturer in Scottish Literature in 2006 – it was my first experience of this historical celebration. Beginning in the morning with a service in the University’s Memorial Chapel to commemorate the institution’s benefactors, the atmosphere of the entire day was appropriately formal and yet festive. With all attendees in full academic dress, Professor Roy was accompanied in the procession by his proposer, Dr. Gerry Carruthers, Head of the Department of Scottish Literature and Director of the newly-established Centre for Robert Burns Studies. After prayers and hymns, the Principal, Sir Muir Russell, read the Roll of Benefactors and the Call to Commemoration. Beginning with a remembrance of the University’s founder, William Turnbull, Bishop of Glasgow, the congregation was reminded of the institution’s long and esteemed history – amongst its early patrons are James II, Pope Nicholas V, Mary, Queen of Scots, James VI, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, Queen Anne, George III and Queen Victoria, as well as numerous individuals, both eminent and unfamiliar. Although Burns himself appears to have had little time for higher education – in an often-quoted stanza from the ‘Epistle to J. Lapraik, An Old Scotch Bard’, Burns refers to students as ‘dull, conceited Hashes’ while he exposes formal schooling’s ability to confuse the brain and transform individuals who ‘gang in Stirks, and come out Asses’! – the roll-call of benefactors set the tone of the day, a day in which achievements, bequests and contributions would be recognised.

Following the service was the graduation ceremony itself. Held in the magnificent surroundings of the University’s Bute Hall, Professor Roy was honoured alongside other graduands including Baroness Helena Kennedy, a QC and Chair of the British Council, the Rt. Hon. George Reid, retired Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament and MSP, Sir Kenneth Collins, retired Chair of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Professor David Hirsh, Executive Vice President for Research at Columbia University, Professor Ian McDougall, Emeritus Professor of the Research School of Earth Sciences at Australia National University and Hannah Frank, artist and sculptor, who sadly died shortly before the ceremony took place. On a personal note, however, it was gratifying to see Professor Roy receive his honorary degree alongside his long-standing friend and similarly prominent figure in Burns studies, Jean Redpath, the renowned Scottish folk singer and the voice of Serge Hovey’s arrangements of Burns’s songs. The University Chapel Choir’s rendition of ‘My Love is like a Red, Red Rose’ gave the ceremony a further Burnsian flavour, and both Professor Roy and Dr. Redpath were delighted by the arrangement, which had been provided by a member of the Choir. While Professor Roy’s achievements were recognised and respected at the ceremony, there was an undoubted sense that Robert Burns’s works were also being celebrated; I certainly found myself glancing up at the Bute Hall’s stained glass window which depicts the poet holding a posy of mountain daisies.

The graduation ceremony offered the audience a personal insight into Professor Roy’s contribution to scholarship. In his presentation to the Chancellor for the conferring of Professor Roy’s honorary degree, Dr. Carruthers drew attention to Professor Roy’s scholarly achievements in addition to his personality. After outlining his incredible academic record – a BA from Concordia University in Montreal, an MA from the University of Montreal, a Maitrise from the University of Strasbourg, a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Paris and a PhD in English from the University of Montreal – Dr. Carruthers described Professor Roy’s important early work on French-Canadian literature, including his Twelve Modern French-Canadian Poets (1958). Great esteem, of course, was reserved for Professor Roy’s work in Scottish literature. While recognised for his establishment of the influential and indispensable academic journal, Studies in Scottish Literature in 1963, Professor Roy was also acknowledged for his foundation, along with his wife Lucie, of the W. Ormiston Roy Visiting Research Fellowship which has, since 1990, allowed international scholars to visit and research the Scottish poetry collections at the University of South Carolina during the summer vacation. This library, made up by an enormous and generous donation from Professor Roy, houses the finest and most significant collection of Robert Burns materials in North America. Professor Roy’s second edition of J. De Lancey Ferguson’s Letters of Robert Burns was singled out for special praise, as were countless pieces which have contributed to a greater understanding of Robert Burns and his work. Dr. Carruthers did, however, draw attention to a comical incident in which Professor Roy’s book-collecting fervour is illustrated, as well as his character. Professor Roy had, some years ago, purchased in Scotland an extremely rare edition of The Merry Muses of Caledonia, Burns’s compilation of bawdy songs. Worried that the book might be impounded by US customs as pornography, Professor Roy craftily stocked up on Scottish whisky, offering to pay the excess duty. In the confusion thus created, the Customs official failed to notice the book in Professor Roy’s hand!

Dr. Carruthers was also able to announce two pieces of news which will ensure that the Department of Scottish Literature’s relationship with Professor Roy will continue well into the future. Professor Roy has taken an Honorary Fellowship with the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, housed in the department and led by Dr. Carruthers. His affiliation and expertise is invaluable to the Centre, which will produce, over the next decade and beyond, a new, complete edition of Burns’s work. In addition, Dr. Carruthers announced the forging of the ‘Ross Roy Medal’, a prize which will be awarded to the best student essay in Scottish literature at a Scottish university. This award, established with the cooperation of nine Scottish Universities and the funding of the Scottish Arts Council, will be awarded annually from 2010, and is evidence of Professor Roy’s continuing support for young scholars in an increasingly competitive academic world.

Professor Ross Roy
from left to right: Dr. Gerard Carruthers (Glasgow), Prof. Ronald D. S. Jack (Edinburgh) , Edward Schmidt (South Carolina), Prof. G. Ross Roy,  Thomas Keith (New York), Dr. Jean Redpath, Dr. Kirsteen McCue (Glasgow), Dr. Rhona Brown (Glasgow), Prof. Douglas Gifford (Glasgow), Mrs. Kirsty Jack.  Photos courtesy of University of Glasgow Press.

The ceremony was followed by a lunch held in Hunter Halls. As well as celebrating the honorary graduations, the meal was attended, as is traditional, by the graduates of 50 years ago; on this occasion, the class of 1959. The customary toasts were offered, while the Rt. Hon. George Reid replied on behalf of the honorary graduates. Those in attendance were delighted, however, when they were treated to an impromptu performance by Jean Redpath, where she was in typically exquisite voice. At the conclusion of the lunch, Professor Roy, Dr. Redpath and guests gathered at the department of Scottish Literature for a champagne – and whisky! – reception. Professor Douglas Gifford offered warm congratulations to Professor Roy in his speech, singling out the journal Studies in Scottish Literature for particular praise. Professor Roy and Dr. Redpath were introduced to the company by Dr. Carruthers and Professor Marjorie Rycroft, a colleague from the Music department, and were finally given an opportunity to respond to the words of others. Characteristically humble, both were appreciative and humorous, speaking of the welcoming atmosphere in Glasgow.

At the reception staff and students alike, many of whom had spent years poring over Professor Roy’s work, had a chance to meet him in person and to chat. As an eighteenth-century specialist myself, and having grown up listening to Jean Redpath singing the songs of Burns, the afternoon was a genuine pleasure. As Professor Roy was surrounded by friends and admirers, the atmosphere was nothing short of convivial and, indeed, Burnsian. It is clear that Professor Roy inspires real affection in those who know him; a student from the University of South Carolina had joined him as his escort, while Thomas Keith, a friend and fellow Burnsian, had flown in from New York for the event. Although Professor Roy’s wife, Lucie, and his close friend and colleague, Professor Patrick Scott, were unable to attend the ceremony, they were often remembered in conversation. A pleasant and memorable day, the honorary graduation was an apt way in which to celebrate Professor Roy’s outstanding contribution to literary history and criticism, and in particular to the field of Robert Burns studies. As I left the reception to catch the Subway, I showed Professor Roy my commemorative ticket wallet, which had been issued by Strathclyde Passenger Transport earlier in 2009 to celebrate Burns’s anniversary and Scotland’s Homecoming. In green and blue plastic tartan, it is emblazoned with Burns’s head and with the following celebrated lines from his ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet, for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Having spent an incredibly busy but immensely gratifying year talking about Burns, writing about Burns and attending conferences on Burns, Professor Roy reminded me that research is all about enthusiasm and passion. Showing him the ticket wallet, I said, ‘See? Burns even appears on your travel wallet in Glasgow. You can’t escape him!’ Professor Roy characteristically responded, ‘Why would you want to?’

[1] I am grateful to Dr. Gerry Carruthers for his help in the preparation of this piece.

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