Burns fans in a stushie over new compilation of his work

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The Independent Online

When Robert Burns wrote: "The best laid schemes o' mice and men Gang aft a-gley", he unwittingly found the perfect words to sum up the attempts of a pair of Scottish academics to produce the definitive work on Scotland's greatest poet.

The Canongate Burns is billed as a compilation of all Burns's poems, complete with extensive explanatory notes, a wealth of information on his life and even a dozen newly attributed poems and songs.

The Edinburgh publishers Canongate claim the £40 work, edited by Dr Andrew Noble of Strathclyde University and Patrick Hogg, "provides the most complete edition of Burns's work ... drawing on extensive scholarship and the poet's inimitable letters".

However, the book, released 205 years after the poet's death, has been dismissed as "so unreliable it cannot be recommended for teaching, or disseminating knowledge about, Robert Burns".

The attack by Dr Gerard Carruthers, a lecturer in English studies at Glasgow University, centres on a number of flaws that "demonstrate an alarming insensitivity to the Scots language and to Burns's own usage.

"The standard of translation and interpretation here is unacceptable in a book which is supposed to be part of a flagship series of Scottish classics," Dr Carruthers said.

"Among the flaws are an obscurely constructed text of the poems, an inadequate and misleading glossary, loose historical claims and an assertive attempt to attribute Burns's authorship to a number of poems where this, to say the least, is dubious."

Dr Carruthers is especially vexed by the inclusion of the "lost poems", which he described as "mostly pretty awful but which might appear to have the right political credentials". He claims at least two of the controversial poems were actually the work of Alexander Geddes, a Scots radical of the late 18th century.

Dr Carruthers said that despite claims that all of Geddes's work was known about, there were a number of missing manuscripts and printed versions. "There is a double standard going on here," he said.

Yesterday, neither of the two editors of the work was available to comment, although a spokeswoman for the publishers said it intended to respond to the criticism at a later date.

*Stushie (pronounced 'stooshie') is the Scots word for an uproar or row.

Reading between the lines

In The Twa Dogs, Dr Carruthers claims, the Canongate glossary changes the grammatical status of words such as "gaun" which is rendered as "go" instead of "going". "Whyles" is "whiles" when it should be "sometimes"; and "sair-work" is said to mean "sore-work" when it should be "hard-work".

He also claims there is garbling in line three of Burns's famous address To A Mouse. The line reads: "Thou need na start awa sae hasty not", the word "not" being superfluous, which shows a carelessness in proof-reading.

Dr Carruthers is critical of the book's relegation of the line in Tam o'Shanter: "Wi' mair o' horrible an awefu',/Which ev'n to name wad be unlawfu'" to a footnote, saying it is part of the poem.