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Robert Burns hid his radical politics in plain sight, says university academic

Professor Gerard Carruthers will argue in a speech that the poet’s leanings were an “open secret” when he worked for the Crown.

Scotland’s national bard hid his radical and progressive political opinions “in plain view” while working in the civil service during the turbulent years of the late 18th century, according to an expert.

Professor Gerard Carruthers will argue that Robert Burns’ political leanings were an “open secret” when he worked as an excise man.

Prof Carruthers, co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, made his revelations after studying recently-unveiled letters and will set out his views in a talk in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

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Professor Gerard Carruthers will set out his theories in a speech (University of Glasgow/PA)

The talk examines the bard’s place in what would be today’s HM Customs and Excise, around the time of the French Revolution.

A passionate believer in the rights of ordinary people, Burns secured a job as an excise man in the late summer of 1788.

Prof Carruthers will say: “There are lots of near-conspiracy theories through two centuries have sought to account for Burns’ career in the excise service.

“The common idea in these theories is that the government had Burns where they wanted him: under their control and politically silenced.

“In fact as the new letters, by contemporaries of Burns, show – he was delighted and not reluctant to be given his position.

“Also, the new material reveals that Burns’ progressive political views were an ‘open secret’ in the civil service.

“Indeed, some of those intelligent and educated colleagues with whom he worked shared his views.”

The two letters were written by John Mitchell, the bard’s excise boss, to one of the poet’s most important patrons, Robert Graham of Fintry.

The university said the new letters have helped to inform the debate on the extent of the bard’s radicalism.

Burns was an opponent of monarchy and slavery, and a champion of democracy and the rights of man.

The last four years of his life coincided with a movement for democratic and parliamentary reform that directly involved ordinary Scots in politics for the first time, experts said.

Like other poets at that time, many of his political poems and songs, such as Scots Wha Hae, were published anonymously or under a pseudonym.

As a paid government officer, he seemingly was forced into public silence, especially after the French Revolution.

He was even questioned by his superiors on his politics after he was accused of being a radical – a claim he refuted at the time and he was exonerated.

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Stained glass window of Robert Burns (University of Glasgow/PA)

Prof Carruthers said: “In this ‘space’ Burns writes some of his most political songs, including ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and ‘A Man’s A Man’.

“Here in song, where the texts might be read as ‘historic’ or ‘masonic’, he was actually commenting on contemporary politics of that time.

“In both these songs and surrounded by his like-minded excise colleagues, he was hiding his politics in plain view.”

The letters are located at the National Records of Scotland.

They came to light as part of the University of Glasgow/Oxford University project, Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century, which began in 2009 and will take at least 15 years to complete.

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