1750 - 1774
Robert Fergusson was born of Aberdeenshire parents in Cap-and-Feather Close, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, on 5 September, 1750. The street has since disappeared, having been demolished during Fergusson’s lifetime to make way for the North Bridge.
After primary education in Edinburgh, Fergusson entered the city’s High School in 1758, attaining a bursary to attend the Grammar School in Dundee in 1762. Two years later, he enrolled in St. Andrews University. As a student, Fergusson became infamous for his pranks, having once come close to expulsion. Despite this riotous reputation, the poet’s education stayed with him: the influence of his schooling in Latin and Greek, and of his friendship with the author of The Epigoniad (1757), Professor William Wilkie, is evident throughout his poetry. While at St. Andrews, legend has it that he began a tragedy on William Wallace, but abandoned the project when hearing of another play with the same theme.
Fergusson’s father died in 1767, forcing the poet home to support his family. Back in Edinburgh, he began work as a copyist for the Commissary Office. Perhaps to alleviate the drudgery of his position, Fergusson became a vivacious participant in Edinburgh club life, being a member of the Cape Club and the Robinhood Society.
Fergusson’s main concern was, of course, poetry, and on 7 February, 1771 he anonymously published the first of a trio of pastorals in Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, entitled ‘Morning’, ‘Noon’ and ‘Night’. Fergusson subsequently enjoyed two years’ patronage from the Ruddimans, and submitted the periodical’s first Scots poem, ‘The Daft Days’, printed on 2 January, 1772. From that moment, vernacular Scots had a poetic voice in the magazine’s pages. Fergusson’s Poems on Various Subjects appeared in 1773.
Towards the end of 1773, Fergusson was afflicted by depression, which beset him until his death. Biographers have described his condition as ‘religious melancholia’, an illness in which sufferers psychotically ponder religious doctrines. Whether or not this is the case, his disorder forced him to withdraw from his work.
Following a short recuperation, Fergusson experienced a violent and ultimately fatal blow to the head falling down a flight of stairs. After his fall, the poet was deemed ‘insensible’, and when his mother’s attempts to care for him failed, he was transferred to Edinburgh’s Bedlam madhouse. Probably as a result of his injury, Fergusson died, incarcerated, on 17 October, 1774, aged twenty-four.
The poet was buried in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard. In 1787, Robert Burns erected a monument at his grave, commemorating Fergusson as ‘Scotia’s Poet’.
Fergusson is a poet of exquisite range, even within his corpus of around one hundred poems. His poetry covers expansive ground, in terms of his development of existing literary forms, and his contributions to contemporary debate. He is frequently commended by critics as a poet of considerable vigour in vernacular Scots, but he also exhibits substantial literary merit in his equally numerous and versatile English language works.
Fergusson’s career-long association with the Ruddiman family and their periodical, The Weekly Magazine, demonstrates his allegiance to his North-eastern, humanist roots, his nationalism and his adherence to the Scoto-Latin circle which included such figures as Walter Ruddiman, Archibald Pitcairne and Allan Ramsay. The Scoto-Latinists believed in the supremacy of both Latin and Scots as poetic languages. His fellowship with this group of writers in turn connects him with the printer Robert Freebairn, whose ‘patriotic editing’ was, alongside Ruddiman, responsible for publishing Gavin Douglas’s Aneados (1513), a Scots translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. This publication sets the scene for Fergusson’s subsequent achievement: with roots in classicism, the poet develops vernacular Scots as a worthy literary language.
His first publication in The Weekly Magazine was the earliest of three English language pastorals, published over three editions, entitled ‘Morning’, ‘Noon’ and ‘Night’ (1771). Although generally derided by critics as imitations of the English pastoral tradition, Fergusson brings a distinct Scottish flavour to this existing template. While the poems exhibit the influence of the English pastoralist, William Shenstone, ‘Morning’ introduces ‘Edina’s lofty turrets’ and the ‘Pentland cliffs’ to the archetypal scene. In his classicising of Edinburgh’s name and his introduction of a specifically Scottish locale to the traditional idyll, Fergusson illustrates the aim of the Scoto-Latinists: to revive the use of Latin and present Scots as equally ‘classic’.
On 2 January 1772, Fergusson’s ‘The Daft Days’ was published in The Weekly Magazine. The poem was a pioneering contribution, being the first piece in Scots ever to be published in the periodical. Concerning the ‘daft days’ of Edinburgh’s Christmastime celebrations, the poem glorifies the Scots tradition of festivity. While retaining classical elements, ‘The Daft Days’ is categorically Scots, both in its language and its use of the renowned Standard Habbie stanza. As well as this Scottish emphasis, the scene described in ‘The Daft Days’ particularly belongs to Edinburgh or, more precisely ‘Auld Reikie’, the vernacular term for the Old Town. Auld Reikie is described as ‘the canty hole’, a comforting ‘bield for mony caldrife soul’. In this poem, and in others such as ‘The King’s Birth-day in Edinburgh’, ‘Hallow Fair’, ‘To the Tron Kirk Bell’ (all 1772) and ‘Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causey’ (1773), Fergusson demonstrates his Scots credentials, and his place as the ‘laureate’ of Auld Reikie.
Politically, Fergusson was a Tory nationalist with Jacobite sympathies, and in ‘The Ghaists’ (1773), the poet is at his most jaggedly opinionated. In this graveyard dialogue between two Edinburgh ghosts, Fergusson bemoans the political present under the Union, and offers his most explicit statement on the ‘United Kingdom’: ‘Black be the day that e’er to England’s ground/Scotland was eikit by the Union’s bond’. The Scotland that Fergusson champions throughout his work is the ‘Caledon’ of the past, the Stuart Scotland ‘Whan royal Jamie sway’d the sovereign rod’. In works including ‘Elegy, on the Death of Scots Music’ (1772), ‘The Rivers of Scotland’ and ‘To the Principals and Professors of St. Andrews University, on their superb treat to Samuel Johnson’ (both 1773), Fergusson’s political mind is at the fore – glorifying Scotland’s illustrious past, he mourns what he sees as the nation’s subjugated state in Great Britain.
Fergusson’s masterpiece is his panoramic ‘Auld Reikie, A Poem’ (1773), which surveys a day in the life of Edinburgh in spectacular fashion. In a work which refuses to shy from either the grandeur or the depravities of Edinburgh life, Fergusson demonstrates a relationship with his native city comparable to Gay’s London or Villon’s Paris. Auld Reikie is the ‘wale o’ ilka Town’, a centre for conviviality, a place of beauty and chaos, immorality and poverty. It is a town of atrocious ‘morning smell’, where a prostitute makes ‘Vice her end’ and, at the same time, a place where we may glimpse a ‘fav’rite keek o’ glore and heaven’. While irony is not absent from his poem, Fergusson depicts Auld Reikie in an unflinchingly stunning poetic landscape which encapsulates its filth, beauty, decay and glory.
Fergusson is often remembered as a forerunner of Robert Burns, as Burns’s ‘elder brother in the muses’. It is undoubtedly true that without Fergusson, Burns is unimaginable. However, to remember him simply as a rehearsal for Scotland’s national poet is to belittle his achievement. Fergusson stands as one of Scotland’s most original, spirited and scholarly poets. His ability to write extraordinarily powerfully in Scots unites with his unique literary talent to establish Scots as a laudable poetic language and Scotland as a thriving literary centre. This influence is immeasurable.
The Poems of Robert Fergusson, ed. by Matthew P. McDiarmid, 2 vols. The Scottish Text Society, ser. 3, vols. 21 and 24 (1954-56)
The Unpublished Poems of Robert Fergusson, ed. by William E. Gillis (1955)
Poems by Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, ed. by Alexander M. Kinghorn and Alexander Law, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, no. 4 (1974)
Poems by Robert Fergusson (1773)
Poems on Various Subjects, by Robert Fergusson: Part II (1779)
The Poetical Works of Robert Fergusson: With the Life of the Author, ed. by David Irving (1800)
The Works of Robert Fergusson: To which Is Prefixed, a Sketch of the Author's Life by Alexander Peterkin (1807)
Thomas Sommers, The Life of Robert Fergusson, the Scottish Poet (1803)
William Gillis, "An Authentic Fergusson Portrait," Studies in Scottish Literature 1 (1964) pp. 215-22.
Sydney Goodsir Smith, ed., Robert Fergusson, 1750-1774: Essays by Various Hands to Commemorate the Bicentenary of his Birth (1952)
James Connor, "Burns's Elder Brother in the Muse," Studies in Scottish Literature 8 (1998) pp. 59-66.
Kenneth Simpson, "Poetic Genre and National Identity: Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns," Studies in Scottish Literature 30 (1998) pp. 31-42.
Alan T. McKenzie, "Robert Fergusson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Eighteenth-Century British Poets, Second Series, ed. John Sitter, vol. 109 (1991) pp. 137-48.
F. W. Freeman, Robert Fergusson and the Scots Humanist Compromise (1984)
John MacQueen, "Unenlightened and Early Darkened: Alexander Ross and Robert Fergusson," in The Enlightenment and Scottish Literature, Volume One: Progress and Poetry ( 1982) pp. 117-31.
David Daiches, Robert Fergusson, Scottish Writers Series (1982)
Charles Smith, "A Short Day on The Peak of Fame: The Achievement and Tragedy of Robert Fergusson," Scots Magazine n.s. 102-1 (Oct. 1974) pp. 63-72.
Hugh G. Mackay, "Robert Fergusson's Scots Poetry," Library Review 23 (1971-72) pp. 92-95.
Allan H. MacLaine, Robert Fergusson (1965)
Matthew P. McDiarmid, "A Study of the Poetry of Robert Fergusson," in vol. 1 of his edition, The Poems of Robert Fergusson, pp. 118-98.
James A. Roy, "Robert Fergusson and Eighteenth-Century Scotland," University of Toronto Quarterly 17 (Jan. 1948) pp. 179-89.
John Speirs, "Robert Fergusson," in The Scots Literary Tradition: An Essay in Criticism (1940) pp. 114-23.
John W. Oliver, "Fergusson the Writer Chiel," in Essays in Literature, ed. John Murray (1936) pp. 1-25.
William Roughead, "A Note on Robert Fergusson," The Juridical Review 30 (1918) pp. 99-126, 194-226.
Alan Taylor, "Scotland's Forgotten Laureate," New Statesman 129 (Jan. 2000)