He was a self-confessed "fornicator" - but far from being a chauvinist, Scotland's national bard was a man ahead of his time who promoted gender equality long before feminism existed, according to new research.

Pauline Gray, a Glasgow University researcher, has examined Burns's most explicit works for his attitudes towards sexuality and the body.

Burns - who it is estimated fathered 12 children to four different women - angered church authorities during his life with his indiscreet love affairs.

But Gray claims the poet celebrated rather than objectified women.

Gray, believed to be the first woman to carry out this type of research, said: "The bawdy work of Robert Burns is something that, to date, has little been explored by critics. Reserved, sanctimonious attitudes towards sex, gender and religion common in Burns's time rendered this aspect of his work taboo and so it was repressed."

Gray has focused on the poet's portrayal of men and women as carnal sexual beings in The Merry Muses Of Caledonia. The collection of erotic verse and bawdy songs was published in 1799 after Burns's death but was considered pornographic and went out of circulation. However, it was republished in the early 1960s when obscenity laws were relaxed following the famous Lady Chatterley's Lover case.

Gray, whose research is due to be published next year, said: "Burns challenges preconceived ideas of the female gender's passive attitude towards sex. Ideas of equality and mutual enjoyment recur and are an important part of his attitude towards heterosexual relationships, both physical and otherwise."

Gray added that Burns's views were ahead of his time. "His attitude would be more common today," she said. "He wrote of the equality of humanity and of the sexes.

"And although in numerous songs his appreciation of women and the female form has everything to do with sexuality, there is an implicit respect for women's other characteristics. We can see from his correspondence with females that he respected women intellectually."

Senior literary figures have welcomed Gray's findings and expressed excitement that a woman is undertaking this particular branch of research into the poet's work.

Dr Gerard Carruthers, a lecturer in Scottish literature at Glasgow University and an expert on Burns, said: "It's timely that a young, intelligent female Burns scholar should be pushing open a door that previously said men only'.

"Pauline is going back to the archives and re-reading Burns and gender. If not exactly a feminist, Burns ridicules the male psyche but never the female.

"Women are still not entirely welcome at Burns's celebrations on January 25 and yet he celebrated women. Women enjoy themselves in Burns's words."

Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead said it was essential that all of Burns's work is scrutinised, including the "unrespectable".

She said: "All aspects of Burns's works should be explored. The unrespectable should be taken seriously, it's part of the picture. The Scottish Literature Department at Glasgow University is being very open-minded. I think it's great.

"And to see a girl from Scotland carrying out serious research on this subject is really fascinating. She is being unprudish about material that people have previously been po-faced about. It's the sort of stuff a man couldn't do - he would be classified as sexist."