ROBERT Burns hid his radical and progressive political views “in plain view” while working for the Crown during the turbulent years of the late 18th century, it is claimed.

Professor Gerard Carruthers, a leading expert on the Bard, is also convinced that Burns’ political leanings were an “open secret” in the civil service where he worked.

Carruthers is to expound on the claims tomorrow in a sold-out talk at National Records of Scotland (NRS) in Edinburgh.

The Francis Hutcheson professor of Scottish literature and co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University came to his conclusions after studying recently unveiled Burns letters.?His talk examines the bard’s place in what would be today’s HM Customs and Excise, just after the French Revolution.

“Lots of near-conspiracy theories through two centuries have sought to account for Burns’ career in the Excise service,” he said. “The common idea in these theories is 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 this 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. Graham was a commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise and helped to secure Burns’ job as an excise man in late summer of 1788.

The last four years of Burns’ life coincided with a movement for democratic and parliamentary reform that directly involved ordinary Scots in politics for the first time. Like many other poets of the era, many of his political poems and songs like Scots Wha Hae were published either anonymously or under a pseudonym.

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

Today Burns is known as an opponent of monarchy and slavery and a champion of democracy.

However, 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. It was a claim he refuted at the time and he was exonerated.

However, Professor Carruthers pointed out: “And in this ‘space’ Burns writes some of his most political songs, including Scots Wha Hae and A Man’s A Man [where] 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 significance of the newly discovered letters, located in the National Records of Scotland, came to light as part of the University of Glasgow/Oxford University’s Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century, which is led by Professor Carruthers. It began in project began in 2009, the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and will take 15 years to complete.

The free Robert Burns: Radical Exciseman exhibition, featuring the John Mitchell letters, is on until February 23, also at the NRS.