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Prof G Ross Roy

Scottish literature champion and Burns authority and collector;

Born: August 20, 1924; Died: February 19, 2013.

Professor G Ross Roy, who has died in Columbia, South Carolina, at the age of 88, was immensely influential in promoting the cause of Scottish literary studies, both internationally and within Scotland. His magisterial series, Studies in Scottish Literature, has given the subject and its scholars an international context and credibility as well as transatlantic vitality. He was also an indefatigable collector of Burns manuscripts, memorabilia and artefacts. His collection, at the University of South Carolina, is considered the most impressive overseas.

Prof Roy's Caledonian roots were deep. Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1924, he could claim Scottish ancestry on both sides of his family. One ancestor, Captain Alexander Fraser, fought under General Wolfe at the taking of Quebec in 1759; another, George Simpson, worked for the Hudson's Bay Company.

The Scottish connection was reinforced when he was eight and accompanied his grandfather W Ormiston Roy – a well-known landscape architect who had laid out Henry Ford's grounds at Dearborn, Michigan – on a Scottish tour. He would recall the highlight of handling William Wallace's sword at Stirling and the low point of having the wife of the poet Charles Murray scrub his ears.

Both his parents served in France in the First World War and he enlisted in the Canadian Royal Air Force two days after his 18th birthday in 1942. Unable to train as a pilot, he became a navigator and served as an officer on loan to the RAF in the UK during the Second World War.

As a war veteran, he had been expected to take over the family horticultural business but, after much agonising, switched from agriculture to literature. Studies at Montreal and Strasbourg universities followed, and after teaching at the Royal Military College, Quebec, he was awarded a scholarship to the Sorbonne, Paris, where he completed his doctorate in 1958. Such was the cosmopolitan background of this champion of Scottish culture.

He conceived the idea of a journal devoted to Scottish literature while teaching at Montreal University. The authorities declined to subsidise it, but Texas Technological College responded positively and appointed him a professor in 1963. Two years later he moved to the University of South Carolina where he remained until his retirement. Here, over four decades and aided by his wife Lucie, he produced successive volumes of Studies in Scottish Literature. Hugh MacDiarmid served on the editorial board of the new publication.

It became the premier journal of record in its field. And his capacity for innovation showed in what was planned to be the final double issue in 2007. In this, for the first time, new creative writing was included. Alasdair Gray, Seamus Heaney, Edwin Morgan and William McIlvanney were among the distinguished contributors. Happily, the journal continues.

His own scholarship was manifest in publications over the course of his lifetime, the most notable the two-volume edition of Burns's letters, published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 1985. As honorary research fellow of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University, he had been currently advising on a revised edition of the correspondence.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow universities awarded him honorary Doctorates of Letters. He was a founding member of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies and in 2010 awarded one of its first fellowships. (When the Icelandic volcano prevented his attending the awards ceremony, he sent a message saying he'd already climbed Vesuvius and had no need of another volcano in his life.)

Among his many positions was that of honorary president of the Robert Burns World Federation. In 2009, Scottish universities and the then Scottish Arts Council established the G Ross Roy Medal, to be awarded annually for outstanding postgraduate research in Scottish literature. His encouragement of young people with academic potential also showed in the list of speakers at the International Burns Conference at the University of South Carolina in 2009.

Like other participants in this event, I was astonished by the scale and quality of the Burns holdings in the university's Thomas Cooper Library, ranging from manuscripts in the poet's hand to his porridge bowl and a rare first edition of the bawdy Merry Muses of Caledonia. Prof Roy was again responsible for this transatlantic treasure trove, built on the sizeable collection inherited from his grandfather.

With his square beard and strong features, Prof Roy was the most engaging of men, showing an extraordinary energy that had no time for jet lag or such weaknesses. Even in his mid-80s and beset by walking and eyesight problems, he thought nothing of flying from America to Scotland, on to the continent and back again. He enjoyed fine food and wine and company.

Although most of his adult life had been spent in the US and he saw himself as good as bi-national, he never took out citizenship. "Americans are good and friendly people," he once observed, "even if I don't always like their politics."

He is survived by Lucie, his wife of almost 60 years. Their only child, Dr Madeleine Roy, died in 2002. His ashes will be buried in the family plot in Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal.

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