THEY were days when expressing radical and progressive political views about the monarchy and slavery were enough to see someone banished to the colonies.

For more than two centuries the paradox of how Robert Burns managed to combine his position as paid government officer working for what would be today’s HM Customs and Excise while penning some of his most political poems, has kept scholars guessing.

Now Burns expert Professor Gerard Carruthers, co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University, says his studies of recently unveiled letters suggest the Bard’s political leanings were an “open secret” within the civil service where he worked.

He says Burns hid his radical and progressive political views in “plain view” while working for the Crown during the turbulent years of the later 18th century, at a time when the British aristocracy feared radical ideas spreading across the country in the wake of the French Revolution.

Burns wrote “Scots Wha Hae” and “A Man’s A Man” while working as an excise officer, a role he accepted after spending most of the money he had acquired from his wealthy admirers. The poems were published anonymously or under a pseudonym, and coincided with a movement for democratic and parliamentary reform that directly involved ordinary Scots in politics for the first time. At its centre was reform organisation, Friends of the People, and leading figure Thomas Muir, who was eventually convicted of sedition and sent to Sydney Cove for 14 years.

In a talk due to be given tomorrow at National Records of Scotland (NRS) in Edinburgh, Mr Carruthers will reveal details of his studies into newly found letters which cast fresh light on how the poet combined his excise officer role with his political leanings.

He will say: “Lots of near-conspiracy theories through two centuries have sought to account for Burns’ career in the excise service. The common idea in these theories is that 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 his 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 of Fintry was a Commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise, who helped to secure Burns’ job as an excise man in late summer of 1788.

Burns today is known as an opponent of monarchy and slavery, and a champion of democracy and the rights of man.

However as a paid government officer, he was seemingly forced into public silence, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He was even questioned by his superiors on his politics after he was accused of being a radical. He refuted the claim at the time and was exonerated.

Mr Carruthers said: “And in this ‘space’ Burns writes some of his most political songs, including ‘ Scots Wha Hae’ and ‘A Man’s A Man’.

“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 new letters located in the National Records of Scotland came to light as part of Glasgow University/Oxford University Editing Robert Burns for the 21st century, which is led by Mr Carruthers.