HERALDED as a forward-looking champion of brotherhood who embraced all of humanity, national bard Robert Burns would have been in the business of people-trafficking - but took cold feet, according to a Burns expert.

Notorious for fornication and exploiting women, Burns had a fantasy to emigrate to Jamaica and become a slave driver before making his fortune and returning to Scotland, says Dr Gerard Carruthers, a lecturer in Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow in a new paper to be published later this month.

He said: "Although the reason often given by biographers for Burns aborting his Jamaican plan is the death of his lover and a delay in winding up his affairs, I think Burns had taken cold feet about his proposed voyage long before this. In fact I believe it was a fantasy he harboured based purely on his injured class pride."

Burns, claims Carruthers, never got over his father-in-law's disapproval of him. He and Jean Armour married in 1786, but her father employed a lawyer to dissolve the marriage and even threatened to have Burns put in jail. The poet then ran off with his servant girl, Mary Campbell (Highland Mary) and resolved to start a new life with her in Jamaica.

But Burns, claims the academic, never got over the snub which left him simmering and fantasising about returning to Scotland rich and successful.

He said: "Burns sets up a pose, makes inquiries and carries on the fantasy aspiring to be in a higher class and lord it over those who had previously snubbed him.

"He may not have been seriously contemplating going to the slave plantations, but even to pose as a potential slave manager doesn't cast him in a very good light at this period in his life."

And the class-conscious bard was strangely silent on slavery at a time when abolition was a big issue. Carruthers claims this points to a lack of concern.

He said: "Even supposedly right-wing contemporary Scottish poets wrote more against slavery. For instance, the Glasgow poet William Campbell, who was against the French Revolution, published poems in Glasgow newspapers passionately protesting against the crimes against humanity that Britons were committing on a daily basis both in their own country and overseas against black people.

"Burns only writes one mediocre song, The Slave's Lament, which has very little to say about the plight of the slaves.

"And in the poem, On A Scotch Bard, Gone To The West Indies, he projects a happier life among people who will care about him. Well, these presumably white people may care about Burns, but in this poem he is completely devoid of compassion for the human traffic that is all around him."

Carruthers claims that Burns is unsympathetic and lacking in imagination as far as slavery is concerned, and that he even ridicules abolitionists in some of his work. He said: "In another of his poems, The Ordination, Burns pokes fun at the unenlightened ignorance of certain Calvinists in Ayrshire. And yet some of those Burns names are among the most vocal abolitionists."

"It's even possible that his use of the phrase the coward slave' in A Man's A Man For A' That, taps into contemporary notions at this time about how those enduring slavery without resisting became weak and almost less than human. The great poet of humanity has a blind spot."

Johnny Roger, editor of The Drouth magazine, where the article will be published, expects a Burnsian backlash.

He said: "With a steady critical eye and a flawless knowledge of the poet's work, Carruthers insists on appreciating Burns as a great and powerful writer and not as some kind of cult prophet. He doesn't go quite as far as to call Burns a passive or cultural racist', but he does claim that Burns just had little interest' in how appalling was the slave trade which flourished in his day.

"He may indeed be the only critic who reads the line a man's a man for a' that' as absolutely literal. It will win him few friends from the Burns-cult mindset but for the rest of us it is an open, mature and vital reading. Frankly, it's a relief."

Burns and slavery is one of the topics to be discussed at this year's Burns an a' that! festival. Carruthers, along with a panel of experts from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, will discuss controversial issues surrounding the poet at the National Heritage Park in Ayrshire.

The event, titled The Robert Burns Conspiracies, will be held on Tuesday, May 20, at 7pm. The panel will also talk about whether Burns sent guns to the French revolutionaries.