THE drinking cups o’kindness are empty. A major conference on Robert Burns has been thrown into chaos after a leading expert on the Scottish bard said he would boycott the event if a rival scholar accused of plagiarism was allowed to speak.
Dr Andrew Noble, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde and co-editor of the authoritative The Canongate Burns, has written a letter of complaint to organisers and threatened to withdraw from next month’s international event unless Dr James Mackay is removed from the list of speakers.
Mackay, a Glasgow author, was widely considered the world’s authority on Burns. But his definitive biography of the poet, Burns - which earned him the 1994 Saltire award and an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow - was later found to have heavily plagiarised a little-known 19th century text.
Two years ago Mackay was accused of "spectacular and sustained plagiarism" and was forced to pay more than 20,000 in compensation over another book, a biography of the US naval hero John Paul Jones.
It followed similar allegations over books on Andrew Carnegie, William Wallace and Alexander Graham Bell. In another instance he was caught out after copying parts of Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots when he included an error Fraser had made deliberately.
Now, the two-day Burns International Conference, hosted by the University of Strathclyde in January, is in turmoil over the decision to have Mackay share a platform with other Scottish authors, including William McIlvanney and Liz Lochhead, and Burns experts from Britain and the US.
Last night Noble refused to comment on the contents of the letter or to say whether he would be prepared to withdraw from the conference.
However, one Burns scholar said: "Andrew Noble is horrified that the conference organisers have invited a known plagiarist. He gave a brief note to organisers saying he was ill at ease appearing on the same platform as someone known to have plagiarised several books.
"He said he was deeply concerned at the signal this would send out to delegates and students of the university who have been hammered for plagiarism in the past. He has done this to try to protect the reputation of the university."
In Noble’s The Canongate Burns, published this month, he savages Mackay’s biography for "parasitically plundering" earlier works and presenting research as his own without acknowledgement.
It followed accusations in Scotland on Sunday earlier this year that Mackay - who for 16 years was employed by the World Burns Federation as editor of the Burns Chronicle - had plagiarised large parts of his award-winning work.
Until the revelations, Mackay still retained the credit given at the time for Burns. Ludovic Kennedy described it as a brilliant work of scholarship and Paul Scott, chairman of the Saltire judges, said Mackay had succeeded in the "almost incredible feat" of uncovering fresh information about the poet.
Patrick Scott Hogg, who co-edited The Canongate Burns and who is also due to speak at the conference, said: "The inclusion of James Mackay as an invited speaker at the conference would be a bonus if his Burns research was robust and scholarly. It is not. His plagiarism in the biography is even more extensive than previously revealed in Scotland on Sunday.
"Plagiarism is widely condemned among scholars, and students are hammered for committing such actions. If Burnsian studies are to continue, they should be underpinned by the essential value of the poet himself - and that is honesty."
Professor Malcolm Coulthard, an expert in forensic linguistics at Birmingham University, confirmed that there were "undeniable examples of plagiarism" in Mackay’s work on Burns.
Coulthard added that what he had seen would be unacceptable from students in any academic institution and that a number of Mackay’s biographies were now being used by him as examples of plagiarised texts as he lectured around the world.
The profile of the conference has already been raised this year after it was announced that a film about Robert Burns, made by MGM in 1937 but lost for the past 64 years, will be screened. Last night Mackay could not be reached for comment, but earlier this year denied the allegations of plagiarism in his Burns research.
When confronted at his home in Glasgow, Mackay said: "I am not an academic but I sense this has come about because of a great jealousy towards me. I am generally credited with turning up more new material on Burns than anyone else. My books will still be read long after you’ve gone."