UofSC acquires Robert Burns' manuscript

Posted on: 1/21/2014; Updated on: 2/10/2015
By Megan Sexton, 803-777-1421

The University of South Carolina has added another treasure to its impressive Scottish literature collection, with USC Libraries’ acquisition of Robert Burns’ poem “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” written in the Scottish poet’s hand circa 1789.

“The G. Ross Roy Collection of Scottish Literature at USC is recognized as the largest collection of Scottish literature outside of the United Kingdom,” USC Dean of Libraries Tom McNally says. “The collection was the lifework and legacy of the late G. Ross Roy, noted scholar of Robert Burns and Scottish literature and distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina.”

USC Libraries acquired a manuscript copy of Burns’ “Afton Braes,” also known by its first line as “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” in memory of Roy, who died Feb. 19, 2013.

Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, was among the most influential writers of his time, and his Jan. 25 birthday is celebrated around the world. USC is home to more than 5,000 items including manuscripts, first and later editions of his poems, music, books about Burns – even his porridge bowl and spoon. Much of the university’s collection was acquired by Roy, a professor born into a family of book collectors and proud of his Scottish heritage. The G. Ross Roy Collection goes back to 1892 when Roy's grandmother, Charlotte Spriggings, inscribed an edition of the works of Robert Burns to her friend W. Ormiston Roy. The collection was inherited by her grandson in 1958 and grew substantially.

The university acquired Roy’s collection in 1989, and the library continues to add to this internationally renowned collection.

The collection has drawn scholars and visitors to Columbia from around the world, for individual research and for exhibitions and conferences. In April, the Robert Burns Association of North America will gather at USC for its annual conference.

The newest piece is one of three known manuscripts of the poem written in the Scottish poet’s hand. USC’s copy, bearing the title “Afton Braes,” is considered to be the earliest version. The poem has special relevance to the University of South Carolina. In 1837, Burns’ poem was set to a tune composed by Jonathan E. Spilman, a Kentucky lawyer, minister and composer. That music later was used as the tune for USC’s Alma Mater. In 1911, G.A. Wauchope, professor of English at USC, penned the lyrics to the alma mater using the most popular setting of Burns' poem.

USC associate professor Tony Jarrells, co-editor of Studies in Scottish Literature and expert in romanticism and 18th century Scottish and English literature, uses USC’s Scottish literature collection in his classes. He says the library’s collection can compete with many of the collections in Scotland, especially in its collection of Burns’ letters, manuscripts and physical items from the period that belonged to the poet.

“We have Burns manuscripts that people all over the world come to consult. The library has done a great job to fill out the collection,” Jarrells says. “The holdings are really, really rich in Scottish literature. Students and scholars can get a full look at Scottish literature through the collection.”

He calls the collection “a great resource for teaching,” and often visits the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections with his students, where they have the opportunity to handle and view exceptional manuscripts and books.

“The times I’ve brought students they’ve been surprisingly excited. I say surprisingly because you’d think with all of the talk of the end of book, younger people wouldn’t care about an older form of reading,” Jarrells says. “But, maybe because of the threatened end of the book, it takes on significance or importance or even romance.”

Learn more about the G. Ross Roy Collection of Burnsiana and Scottish Literature at USC.

Highlights include:

Kilmarnock edition of Robert Burns’ “Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”(Kilmarnock: John Wilson, 1786)

Robert Burns’ “The Merry Muses of Caledonia,” first edition, 1799, one of two known copies and the only one with a complete title page.

Robert Burns’ porridge bowl and horn spoon

Sylvander to Clarinda correspondence

Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection of 71 Scots Songs, ca. 1720

The collection also includes a substantial number of chapbooks printed in Scotland, as well as a number of collections of Scots songs.

The Roy Collection also includes a substantial number of works by other Scottish authors including Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, Naomi Mitchison, and others. Roy also had a lifelong love of poetry and his collection demonstrates that interest.

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