A statue of Robert Burns in Dumfries town centre

Editing Robert Burns for the 21st century

£2m of Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding has underpinned years of painstaking scholarship by University of Glasgow academics into the works of Robert Burns. With unprecedented access to documents, correspondence, music, songs, facsimiles and manuscripts, researchers on Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century have been able to collate and put together research that revitalises and reconceptualises our view of Scotland’s national poet.

By 2024, this research will culminate in a new, ten volume edition of Burns' entire works, published by Oxford University Press. Four volumes have already been published to date: Commonplace Books, Tour Journals and Miscellaneous Prose; The Scots Musical Museum (two volumes) and Songs for George Thomson. The next few years will see publication of collections of Burns' letters, poetry and The Oxford Handbook to Robert Burns: the largest collection of critical essays on Burns ever published.

Glasgow is home to the biggest concentration of Burns experts in the world, based in the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. The AHRC funding for Editing Robert Burns has brought full-time research fellows on board, allowed researchers to find new Burns material from across the world, and collaborate with other disciplines, enabling the project to take a wide-ranging view of Burns’ songs, poetry, writing and life.

New sources and perspectives

Working on the project has changed Principal Investigator, Professor Gerard Carruthers’ own preconceptions of Burns’ works. “It’s made me even more convinced that the man, frankly, is a genius. To collect and write over 300 songs of the quality that he does, while being an excise man and a farmer, to produce the poetry that he does, which resonates throughout the world, tells me that he is truly an internationally significant writer.”

Researchers have been able to access at least 500 manuscript sources that were unavailable to previous editors, alongside newspapers, books, facsimiles and correspondence not only from Burns but from the people he was corresponding with. This has opened up new perspectives on Burns’ work and life.

Worldwide impact and global brand

The project has reached out to the wider, worldwide Burnsian community, working with museums, cultural heritage institutions and Burns clubs through the Burns Scotland partnership. There are Burns clubs on at least four continents. His works have struck home with audiences across the globe, something that Professor Carruthers thinks is do with what he describes as Burns’ “promiscuous sympathy, the fact he can identify with different ways of being.”

Professor Carruthers believes the Burns brand plays out in different ways in different national contexts. Burns' accessibility and skill as a poet and songwriter underpins the "accidental" way a song such as Auld Lang Syne becomes well known across the globe because the Guy Lombardo band in New York in the 1920s decided it was a good theme for New Year's Eve in the age of radio.

"He's a man that knows there's more than one way of being Scottish and a man who writes about different varieties of Scottishness... he's one of the first great modern poets who isn't really tied down by his own religious or national or racial background in a lot of ways. He's very ecumenical, he's very pluralistic."
Professor Gerard Carruthers

This continuing public interest has been reflected by the fact over 17,000 people signed up for a recent online course run by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. Editing Robert Burns hopes to continue to reach out to the wider public in this way through a series of online workshops on editing Burns.

One workshop will concentrate on Burns forgery, drawing on some of the most up-to-date research at the University. Combining critical expertise on Burns with the work of a PhD chemistry student on chromatography, the team examined the ink signatures of Burns and his most famous forger, Antique Smith – creating a physical test that can be used alongside circumstantial evidence to examine manuscripts.

The economics of a national icon

The Scottish Government is funding University of Glasgow research into the economic impact of Burns on the Scottish economy. This is thought to be one of the first assessments of a national icon's economic value in the world.

The researchers aim not only to assess how much the continuing fascination with Burns around the world is supporting Scottish jobs and business, but what potential there is for the Burns brand to support future regional growth.

In 2003 a World Bank economist estimated Robert Burns generated £157 million per year for Scotland in tourism and merchandising. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway is second only to Shakespeare in terms of visitor numbers to writers' museums in the UK. In January 2018, the Scottish Parliament recognised the work of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies and the potential for further research into the economic impact of Burns since the original 2003 research though a cross-party motion.

Professor Murray Pittock, who will be leading the research, says: “Tourism and food and drink are two of the three largest industries in Scotland, which in their turn reflect a highly visible national Scottish brand in the global marketplace, a brand which owes an enormous debt to Scotland’s 18th and 19th century history.

“We need to understand the relationship between our culture and our economy more fully in order to maximise our already world-leading position.”

"Blue devilism"

Researcher Moira Hansen has collaborated with Professor Carruthers and Professor Daniel Smith, Professor of Psychiatry at the University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, on a piece of research examining what Burns himself called his "blue devilism": periods of depression that affected his life and work.

By close examination of Burns' letters using both modern-day medical and literary expertise, the researchers believe they have pinpointed evidence which showed bouts of increased energy and hyperactivity, and periods of depression and a withdrawal from day-to-day life, suggesting Burns may have had bipolar disorder.

The team plans to carry out further analysis to create a “mood map” to chart Burns’ emotions over his lifetime.

About the researchers

Professor Gerard Carruthers FRSE is Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. He is Principal Investigator for the project Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century, General Editor of the new Oxford Collected Works of Robert Burns and Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow.

Gerard is Convener of the 'Burns Scotland' partnership (the National Burns Collection) and is the university's representative on the Joint Abbotsford Advisory Committee guiding research into the library of Walter Scott.

Professor Murray PittockProfessor Murray Pittock FRSE is Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow, and has held visiting appointments in Dublin, Prague, Auburn and Yale universities. His 2002 British Academy prize Chatterton Lecture, ‘Robert Burns and British Poetry’, delivered in London, Edinburgh, Oxford, Ireland and elsewhere, played a significant part in the critical recuperation of Burns from six decades of neglect. 

He has published Robert Burns in Global Culture (2011), Scottish and Irish Romanticism (2008, 2011) and The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Romanticism (2011), as well as editing The Scots Musical Museum as part of Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century.

Professor Kirsteen McCueProfessor Kirsteen McCue is co-director at the Centre for Robert Burns Studies and edited Songs for George Thomson as part of Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century.  Her research interests include Scottish song from all periods, 18th and 19th century Scottish Literature and lyrical poetry in the 20th Century Scottish Renaissance.

As part of the project, Professor McCue has also been involved in bringing some of the songs from the new edition to life through public performance.

Professor Nigel LeaskProfessor Nigel Leask has held the Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow since 2004. He has published widely in the area of Romantic literature and culture, with a special emphasis on empire, India, and travel writing, as well as Scottish literature and travel. He was a Fellow of Queen's College Cambridge between 1989- 2004 and Reader in Romantic Literature in the Cambridge English Faculty.

His book, Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late-18th Century Scotland (2010) won the Saltire Prize for the best Scottish Research Book of 2010. He edited the Collected Prose Writings of Robert Burns for the AHRC-funded Oxford edition of the Collected Works of Robert Burns.

He is currently CI of the AHRC-funded 'Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour, 1750-1820' (2014-18) and is completing a book entitled 'Stepping Westward': the Highland Tour 1720-1830. He is also co-curating two exhibitions: 'Curious Travellers: Dr Johnson and Thomas Pennant on Tour' at the Dr Johnson House Museum, London (Autumn 2018), and 'Old Ways and New Roads: Travel in Scotland, 1720-1830' at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow (Autumn 2020). He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and is a Vicepresident of the Association of Scottish Literary Studies.

Dr Pauline MackayDr Pauline Mackay is Lecturer in Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow. In 2011, Pauline was appointed as Postdoctoral Research Associate to Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century. She also helped to coordinate project-related media, including a rolling programme of brand new audio recordings of Robert Burns’s songs.

In 2017, Pauline along with colleagues from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, Scottish History and LEADS, was a recipient of the College of Arts & Humanities and University-Wide Teaching Excellence Award for her part in developing and teaching 'Robert Burns Online'. Pauline is CI and Co-Editor on the major AHRC-funded project, 'Editing Robert Burns's Poetry and Correspondence'.

Moira HansenMoira Hansen is a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith PhD student based in the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts and the Principal Investigator on 'Physical and mental health in the life and work of Robert Burns', a project jointly supervised by the College of Arts & Humanities and College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences.