HE is perhaps the ultimate celebrity endorsement for either camp in the referendum debate.

But according to a renowned Scots academic, the veritable Bard himself, Robert Burns, would have sided with Alex Salmond on the matter of independence.

Robert Crawford, the professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews and author of the definitive biography of the great poet, makes the argument in his new book entitled Bannockburns.

The 54-year-old Burns expert has picked through the bard's letters and poems with a fine tooth comb to look for clues about which way he would vote in this year's referendum. Crawford states that because Burns was working for the Union Crown as an exciseman - or taxman - he was keen to make some poems look pro-Union, but personal scribblings and some of his more "heartfelt" poems show he supported independence.

He said: "Burns was effectively a civil servant. In other words, he was an employee of the Crown, so he made loyal noises.

"I think you have to give far more credence to what Burns is under no obligation to say - and that is to attack the Union.

"Even if you find other quotations from Burns that seem to be defending the Union, you have to bear in mind that he was meant to do that because of the job he was doing at the time."

According to Crawford, poems such as Scots Wha Hae and Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation are prime examples of Burns showing his patriotic tendencies.

The former is written as a speech given by Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 when Scotland maintained its sovereignty from England and the latter criticises members of the Scottish Parliament who signed the Act of Union in 1707.

Another slice of evidence that Crawford reckons backs up his argument is a private letter written by Burns in 1790 that states: "Alas! Have I often said to myself, what are all the boasted advantages which my Country reaps from a certain Union, that can counterbalance the annih-ilation of her Independence and even her very Name?"

Crawford said: "The letter is one of the clearest pieces of evidence presenting Burns's views on the Union. He would have been risking his livelihood if he had said it noisily in a lot of public places.

"His loyalty to the Crown might have been called into question and that would have been dangerous."

This leads Crawford to one conclusion - if Burns could vote in this year's independence referendum, he would vote yes.

He said: "That is my argument about Burns in my book. I think he would vote yes. Burns is one of Scotland's most important literary figures and he's a pivotal figure because he doesn't just write about Bannockburn with dewy eyes nostalgia.

"He was moving support for Scottish independence away from that Middle Age nostalgia and into the arena of modern democracy."

A Yes Scotland spokeswoman agreed with Crawford.

She said: "There is no doubt that the work of Robert Burns helped shape our idea of Scottish identity and nationhood.

"I have no doubt either that were Burns alive today he would have a great deal to say about the independence debate and would be a key contributor to the very lively discussion under way in literary and cultural circles about the two futures on offer in September's referendum vote."

But Richard Baker, a director of the Better Together campaign, argued that anyone could read a selection of Burns poems and "find something in it that would convince them he was either a yes or no voter." He added: "I just don't think that anyone can say with any real certainty that they know for a fact which way Burns would have cast his vote."

Bannockburns will be available from January 25.