Axed Robert Burns manuscript could have put career in jeopardy, says scholar

A University of Glasgow scholar has discovered a manuscript that could have placed the poet under suspicion with authorities had it been published.

Axed Robert Burns manuscript could have put career in jeopardy, says University of Glasgow scholar University of Glasgow via Supplied

A University of Glasgow scholar has discovered an unseen manuscript from Robert Burns he believes could have cost him his career had it been published – because of its revolutionary ideas.

The cancelled work was a different version of the famous song Ye Jacobites By Name, which was written by Burns in the early years of the French Revolution in 1791 – a time in which reformers in the British Isles increasingly agitated for political change.

The draft, entitled Ye Black-nebs By Name, features writing that Professor Gerard Carruthers, of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, believes shows “implicit sympathy” for the reformers.

“Black-nebs”, a term used to describe reformers in the 1790s, is defined in the Dictionary of Scots Language as meaning “one viewed as disaffected to the government, especially about the time of the French Revolution and for some time afterwards”.

The early manuscript was found among a collection of Burns materials held at Barnbougle Castle near Edinburgh.

Prof Carruthers said the writing is “the most explicit instance” of several where the Bard had his eye on 18th century current affairs and believes the famous poet kept the draft under wraps out of concern the ideas contained within it could put his career as an exciseman for the Crown at risk.

Professor Gerard Carruthers.

He went on to say the discovery of the material, which has been released ahead of Burn’s night on Thursday, provides “a fascinating insight” into his creative genius.

He said: “The cancelled Ye Black-nebs chimes with other songs, most famously Scots Wha Hae and A Man’s A Man For A’ That’, where revolutionary ideas are smuggled in under the guise of writing about the Scottish wars of independence or universal brotherhood.

“In the end, Ye Black-nebs was more explicit than these texts and is completely overwritten by Jacobite.

“Burns’s original version, however, raises the strong possibility that the finished version is code for more recent 1790s revolutionaries.

“The variant Black-nebs (revolutionaries) instead of Jacobites in the Barnbougle manuscripts references someone of democratic principles following the French Revolution and raises the intriguing proposition that Burns thought first of composing a lyric in the voice of a disillusioned radical of 1790s before moving from a Jacobin-themed to a Jacobite one.

“If Burns had lived longer, I believe he would have been in favour of political reforms emerging at that time, particularly after the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s.

“He wouldn’t have continued to use cunning to cover his allegiances, I don’t think. But at the time as a Crown employee and at this point in his life, he hadn’t got there just yet.

“But I believe he would have increasingly been on the side of democratic reform had he lived into the early 19th century.

“However, when this was written, Ellisland, his farm, was not as productive as he would have liked, and things were uncertain financially for him and his growing family.

“He was therefore dependent on his excise employment and couldn’t speak as freely as he might have liked.”

Prof Carruthers, the Francis Hutcheson chair of Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow, added the 1790s were “a very dangerous time” for people who backed political reform.

He pointed to the example of Thomas Muir, a famous Scottish reformer, who in 1793 was transported to Botany Bay with a sentence of 14 years after being found guilty of sedition due to speeches he had given on “the ideals of democracy”.

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