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Robert Burns Lives
Volume 1 Chapter 7

 G. Ross Roy’s Library

By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA

I recently met a most remarkable and charming man, G. Ross Roy, with a most remarkable Robert Burns library. I can identify with the man and his books, his passion and love of books, and of Burns in particular.  This story began in 1892 when Charlotte Spriggings wrote in a book containing the writings of Robert Burns to “her friend”, W. Ormiston Roy. These two later wed, and in 1958, G. Ross Roy, their grandson, inherited the Burns collection of his grandparents.

“This extensive collection, acquired from Professor Roy through a generous gift-purchase agreement in 1989, is now widely recognized as among the best anywhere…” The G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, Burnsiana & Scottish Poetry was formally transferred to the University of South Carolina (USC) at a reception on Burns Night in 1989. One of the joys of visiting the G. Ross Roy Collection is the opportunity to view a first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) known lovingly by all Burnsians as the Kilmarnock Burns. I recently saw that one had sold for $60,000, much more money than the poet, who died penniless, begging friends for the loan of a few pounds, could have earned in a hundred lifetimes in his day. There were 612 Kilmarnock copies printed by John Wilson in 1786, all in paper wrappers. Approximately 60 copies are known to exist today and generally will be found in institutional libraries only.

This work is so important that I must digress and tell you that it is the only book of poetry written by Burns. Famous authors today constantly write best-selling books over and over. Burns wrote only one book and became Scotland’s Bard, the national poet and the most honored poet in the country. It is important to understand an equally important fact about Burns’ book. In 1787, an Edinburgh edition of the book was published for subscribers totaling about 1,500 copies. The publishers soon realized a larger run would be necessary, and the book was reset, bringing the total number to around 3,250 copies. One can tell the difference between these two “states”, as they are called, by two words - “skinking” and “stinking” found in Address to a Haggis. In the first state, the word “skinking” was used by the author in the line, “Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware”. In the second state, the words were reset as “Auld Scotland wants nae stinking ware”. (Underlining and bold print are mine.) Skinking simply means “watery”, and all of us can figure out the reset word.

On a personal note, I’ve just returned from “Auld Scotland” and a tour of Burns country the proud possessor of the “skinking” Edinburgh first edition to compliment the “stinking” London edition that I obtained through eBay sometime back.

Thus, with the original Roy collection having been enlarged five times by Dr. Roy from what he inherited, the Thomas Cooper Library at USC has become the most prominent Burns center in the United States. It is a major international center for research across the broad range of Scottish literature and has been proclaimed the best Burns collection in North America. In the August/September 2003 issue of The Family Tree (page 13), Dr. Roy writes in the “Robert Burns Lives” column that the Cooper Library “… is the best collection of such printed material outside of Scotland and the British Library in London.” This worldwide renown and honored Burns scholar should know. He has spent an illustrious career studying and teaching Robert Burns at the university level. Yet, it only takes a few minutes in his presence to know his humility is as genuine as his scholarship.

Briefly, books in the Thomas Cooper Library now number over 3.2 million volumes and it regularly ranks in among the top 40 public university research libraries in North America. The Roy Collection exceeds 5,000 volumes of Burns alone; Scottish literature holdings in Special Collections exceed 12,000 volumes or items. The library contains the works of major and minor Scottish writers from the Renaissance to present day. Along with those of Robert Burns, you will find works of other 18th and 19th century writers - Ramsay, Beattie, Blair, Fergusson, Macpherson (“Ossian”), Currie, Cromek, Johnson, Thomson, Carlyle, Stevenson and Hogg. Even earlier authors like John Scot (1637) and James Watson (early 1700s) cannot be overlooked. In addition, you will find Burns’ works in various languages - Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, and Polish - with some individual pieces translated in Russian and French. And the list goes on. There is no possible way to do justice with this all too short introduction to the G. Ross Roy Collection at USC’s world renowned Thomas Cooper Library.

In addition, there is a W. Ormiston Roy Memorial Fellowship available to an annual visiting scholar for five weeks’ research in the Scottish literature collections at USC. “Roy fellows have come from five Scottish universities, Canada, Italy, and the U.S. Proposals are reviewed once a year, with an application deadline of January 31.” Kenneth Simpson of the University of Strathclyde and Carol McGuirk of Florida Atlantic University, Burns scholars in their own right, are two former visiting Roy fellows. Send inquiries and applications including project description, brief curriculum vitae, and the names and contact information of two referees, to: W. Ormiston Roy Fellowship, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, U.S.A.

There is another remarkable and charming man you need to meet. He is Dr. Patrick Scott, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections & Professor of English, Rare Books & Special Collections at USC’s Thomas Cooper Library. Among his many duties is working with Dr. Ross Roy and the G. Ross Roy Collection. Like Dr. Roy, Dr. Scott has been most helpful in my study of Burns, providing insight on the purchase of rare books by Burns and other Burns’ authors. On this side of the Atlantic or the other, as far as that goes, Burns could not be in better hands than with these two Burnsian scholars. Having visited with them in the library for an extended stay and lunching with both at different times, I have been made to feel welcome and at home in their presence. Both are as humble as they are learned. Robert Burns has that effect on people. It is rare to find such a combination of two educators joining hands in the common goal of bringing the works of Robert Burns alive. 

You can find the G. Ross Roy Collection housed on the mezzanine level of the Thomas Cooper Library on the main campus of the University. Materials are available for use under supervision in the Graniteville Reading Room by any bona fide researcher; identification and a picture ID are required for initial registration. Hours at the Reading Room are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Naturally major holidays are an exception as well as the last week in December.  Here’s how to contact the Graniteville Reading Room: email:; telephone: 803-777-8154; Fax: 803-777-4661, attn. Rare Books.

During my recent two weeks in Scotland, I made sure to stop by the Mitchell Library in Glasgow to visit the Burns Room and see the 4,000 volumes they have on Burns alone. Actually it is as big as a high school gymnasium here in the States.

Do yourself a favor if you are in or near South Carolina - make the pilgrimage to Columbia to see the G. Ross Roy Collection. If you are not able to visit in person, you can view it and other Scottish collections on the web at . Like me, I think you will bookmark this website among your favorites, and it will become just that! (8-25-03)

Statue of Roberts Burns located in the seaport of Leith, Scotland, suburb of Edinburgh (photo by SES)
Burns Cottage in Alloway, Scotland (photo by FRS)

Left:  Statue of Robert Burns in Glasgow's George Square with the Sir Walter Scott monument in the background
Right:  In Dumfries, the place of Robert Burns' death.  This statue honors him

Left photo:  Robert Burns' statue in Ayr, Scotland
Right photo:  Burns Monument in Kilmarnock, Scotland.  This monument has now been fenced in due to need of repair.

Return to October/November 2003 Index Page  |  Visit Frank R Shaw's Page  | Robert Burns Lives


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