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Robert Burns Lives!
Chairman of the Bard by Jim Gilchrist, The Scotsman.

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

(L-R) Dr. Ross Roy, Frank Shaw and Dr. Patrick Scott in March, 2004 examining the Roy Kilmarnock and the just purchased Shaw Kilmarnock

Several years back I read an interesting article by Jim Gilchrist, long-time writer for The Scotsman. I contacted Jim through a mutual friend, Dr. Kenneth Simpson, regarding the possibility of sharing his article so cleverly entitled “Dr G Ross Roy Interview - The Chairman of the Bard.” In fact, I enjoyed the title so much I have borrowed it from time to time in talking or writing about Dr. Roy. Over the years I have met and corresponded with many prominent Burns scholars here in the States and in Scotland. Yet no other Burnsian, scholar or layman, can adequately be described as “Chairman of the Bard” than G. Ross Roy. What a terrific title!

I want to thank Jim for allowing me to re-print the Roy article for our readers, and my gratitude is also extended to The Scotsman. In a recent email, Gilchrist wrote that “after an alarming number of decades on The Scotsman, I took early retirement from it last August…” Jim is, I hope, enjoying a much deserved retirement. I get the feeling he is like many of us who have retired - we never really do - and “semi-retired” may be a better description. Although technically retired, this talented writer continues to cover folk and jazz music and other material for the paper. He also contributes to the US Scottish interest magazine Scottish Life, and I heard via email from Ken Simpson that Jim “is still writing the weekly radio review for the Hootsmon; and he’s free-lancing - last year he wrote a fine piece on RB (Robert Burns) for Korean Air’s in- house magazine.” I need to get my hands on that article.

When my wife gave me a subscription to The Scotsman many years ago, it became a wee bit frustrating receiving the newspapers a week or two after their publication dates. Sometimes they would come in bunches of four or six. Thankfully, the internet took care of that situation, making Gilchrist’s columns current. It has been my wish to share this article since it was published in November of 2008. Enjoy!

As to the subject of this article, G. Ross Roy, there is not much to say that has not already been spoken or written about this delightful man. You may wish to go to the chapter titles found in Robert Burns Lives! to refer to the many articles by and about Dr. Roy. Enough said. (FRS: 8.4.10)

(L-R) Dr. Kenneth Simpson, Susan Shaw, Dr. Ross Roy and Frank Shaw in the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina.

Dr G Ross Roy Interview - Chairman of the Bard
By Jim Gilchrist

WHEN DR G ROSS ROY HEADED back home to Columbia, South Carolina, last month after his most recent visit to Scotland, he had a cast of Robert Burns's skull in his luggage. We don't know what customs might have made of it, had they cared to check, but it wouldn't be the first time Roy, one of the world's leading Burns scholars, had taken bardic relics through baggage checks.

Back in 1965 it was a priceless first edition of The Merry Muses, Burns's posthumously published collection of bawdy songs and poetry, when Roy used his excess duty free to distract a New York customs officer from what in those days could have been deemed pornography and confiscated. Now the skull has joined the Muses and some 12,000 other items, more than 5,000 of them by or concerning the Ayrshire bard, in the G Ross Roy collection at the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library, the largest collection of Scottish poetry and other literature outside this country.

Quite apart from acquiring the skull cast – a copy of one made when the poet's grave was opened in 1834 for the burial of his wife – Roy's visit took in a dinner held in his honour by the venerable Irvine Burns Club. Speakers included the author William McIlvanney and his friend and fellow scholar Kenneth Simpson, Honorary Professor at Glasgow University's Robert Burns Centre, who praised Roy for helping establish Scottish literature on the world map, particularly through his seminal journal Studies in Scottish Literature. The publication was launched, against all advice, in 1963 when the climate regarding Scottish literature was arid to say the least.

"Here we are in 2008," declared Simpson. "In a Scotland few could have envisaged in 1963. Arguably it is the new Scottish nation which is the greatest beneficiary of Ross's achievements."

Dr. and Mrs. Ross Roy with Susan Shaw in March, 2005 at St. Andrews Presbyterian College where Dr. Roy received the Scottish Heritage Center Service Award 

"It was great," the subject of this laudatory address tells me about the event, with honest enthusiasm. "I'm an honorary member there." We're dining in Glasgow's Òran Mór restaurant, a converted church that includes a spectacular mural by another old acquaintance of Roy's, the inimitable Alasdair Gray. "I had dinner with Alasdair the other night. He was on a roll," chuckles Roy, a short, stocky, bearded figure, who reveals he is editing a Burns anthology, which Gray will illustrate.

Now 84, the Montreal-born Roy's infatuation with Scottish letters has been a long one. The now retired Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina, to give him his Sunday title, has been collecting Burnsiana and other Scottish books and manuscripts for the past 50 years, gradually building up what is now the greatest collection of its kind in North America. Its roots go back to 1892, when his grandmother, Charlotte Spriggings, signed and presented a copy of Burns's works to the man she would marry, W Ormiston Roy, landscape gardener, dog breeder and an important influence on his grandson.

"They always used to say that any Scotsman who emigrated, the two books he brought with him were the Bible and Burns," says Roy. "The collection I inherited from my grandfather probably included the edition of Burns that his father would have brought over from Paisley, but I can't identify it." Scottish roots on both sides of his family include an ancestor who fought at Culloden – "on the losing side, of course" – before fighting with the Fraser Highlanders at the taking of Quebec.

Roy was 34 when he inherited his grandfather's books. Today, this cornucopia of 18th-century Scots verse and much else includes such gems as Roy's own original Kilmarnock Edition of Burns's poetry, which he bought in Edinburgh for £950 in 1962, funding the purchase by selling off his collection of Canadian books.

Dr. Roy with one of his famous ties

Other items include a copy of John Moore's popular novel of 1789, Zeluco, annotated by Burns, who described it as "a glorious story", as well as the famous "Clarinda" letter to Agnes McElhose in which Burns confesses to weeping with emotion. There is a blot on the page which Roy remarks could be a teardrop (as his indefatigable wife and assistant Lucie believes] or just as easily whisky.

Further Burnsiana includes the poet's porridge bowl. "And I've eaten porridge out of it. It tasted just as bad as porridge anywhere."

There are also innumerable 18th-century editions of Ramsay and Fergusson as well as one of only two known copies of the supposed "second edition" of James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner which, along with much other Hogg material, has provided a basis for South Carolina's important collaboration with Stirling University on the Ettrick Shepherd's works. "We also have one of the four volumes of James Currie's biography of Burns, and Hogg has written all over it. But you always wonder why only one volume, where are the other three?" he muses, revealing the inveterate book-hunter.

There is also work by – and a Benno Schotz bust of – Hugh MacDiarmid, a founder member of the Studies in Scottish Literature board. In his introduction to the current edition of SSL, volumes 35 and 36, Roy acknowledges this is the last regular issue of the journal, while alluding to an old Kenny Rogers number, grumbling: "I know when to walk away, but I don't have to run."

There is, however, a comprehensive index yet to come, and there may well be a "best of" anthology. And, bearing in mind next year's worldwide "Homecoming" celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth, he is far from idle. Among other things, he is involved in the "definitive" edition of Burns, to be published by Oxford University Press and edited by Gerard Carruthers at Glasgow University.

And, while Roy edited the current edition of Burns's letters, he and Ken Simpson are now collaborating on a collection of letters written to rather than by Burns. He is also involved in planning a conference – down to the details of ordering the haggis from a maker he knows and trusts in Texas – at Columbia next April, which looks to be the major North American event during a year when Burns is likely to be globally ubiquitous. What is it, I ask, about the Ayrshire Bard who gets done to death, yet whose work endures and continues to attract so much attention? "I've been thinking about that for years, and I still don't really know," he replies. "He was the greatest songwriter in English – it's a strange fact that among so-called 'English' songwriters the two best were Scottish and Irish, Burns and (Thomas] Moore.

"Another thing is that women can read Burns and say, 'You know, that's the way I feel,' and very few male poets can do that … Our university was recently given a multi-million dollar collection of Milton, including four of the five known Paradise Lost first editions – but how many Milton clubs are there? Who celebrates Milton's birthday?"

Published Date: 01 November 2008

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