Robert Fergusson, poet

Robert Fergusson

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Robert Fergusson

Portrait by Alexander Runciman, 1772.

Robert Fergusson (5 September 1750 – 16 October 1774) was a Scottish poet. After formal education at the University of St Andrews, Fergusson followed an essentially bohemian life course in Edinburgh, the city of his birth, then at the height of intellectual and cultural ferment as part of the Scottish enlightenment. Many of his extant poems were printed from 1771 onwards in Walter Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, and a collected works was first published early in 1773. Despite a short life, his career was highly influential, especially through its impact on Robert Burns. He wrote both Scottish English and the Scots language, and it is his vivid and masterly writing in the latter leed for which he is principally acclaimed.


LifeStatue of Robert Fergusson outside the Kirk of the Canongate, Edinburgh

Robert Fergusson was born in Cap and Feather Close, a vennel off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, later demolished to make way for what is today the North Bridge. His parents, William and Elizabeth (née Forbes), were originally from Aberdeenshire, but had moved to the city two years previously. He was the third of three surviving children by them. He received formal schooling at the city’s Royal High School and the High School of Dundee, leading to matriculation into the University of St Andrews with the assistance of a clan Fergusson bursary in 1765.

In May 1768 Fergusson returned to Edinburgh. His father had died the previous year, his sister Barbara had married, and his older brother Harry had recently left Scotland, enlisting with the Royal Navy after a business failure. This probably left Fergusson, who had not completed his studies, to support their mother. Any possibility of family support from his maternal uncle, John Forbes of Round Lichnot near Auld Meldrum, ceased when his uncle permanently disowned him after a quarrel. Fergusson, who had rejected the church, medicine and law as career options open to him due to his university training, finally settled in Edinburgh as a copyist, the occupation of his father.

Literary career

Fergusson’s relatively lowly employment gave him liberty to pursue his writing career. There is good evidence he had already been developing literary ambitions as a student at St Andrews where he claimed to have begun drafting a play on the life of William Wallace. His earliest extant poem, also written at this time, is a satirical elegy in Scots on the death of David Gregory, one of the university’s professors of maths.

Fergusson involved himself in Edinburgh’s social and artistic circles mixing with musicians, actors, artists and booksellers who were also publishers. His friend, the theatre-manager William Woods, regularly procured him free admission to theatre productionsand in mid-1769 Fergusson struck up a friendship with the Italian castrato singer Giusto Fernando Tenducci, who was touring with a production of Artaxerxes. Fergusson’s literary debut came when Tenducci asked him to contribute Scots airs for the Edinburgh run of the opera. Fergusson supplied three, which were performed and published with the libretto.

After February 1771 he began to contribute poems to Walter Ruddiman’s Weekly Review. These at first were generally conventional English language works that were either satirical or fashionably pastoral in the manner of William Shenstone. His first Scots poem to be published (The Daft Days) appeared on 2 January 1772, and from that date on he submitted works in both languages.

Popular reception for his Scots work, as evidenced in a number of verse epistles in its praise,helped persuade Ruddiman to publish a first general edition of his poems which appeared in early 1773 and sold around 500 copies, allowing Fergusson to clear a profit.

In mid-1773 Fergusson attempted his own publication of Auld Reekie, now regarded as his masterpiece, a vivid verse portrait of his home city intended as the first part of a planned long poem. It demonstrated his ambition to further extend the range of his Scots writing. This also included an aspiration to make Scots translations of Virgil’s Georgics, thus following in the footsteps of Gavin Douglas. However, if any drafts for such a project were made, none survive. The poet was a hard self-critic and is known latterly to have destroyed manuscripts of his writing.


Robert Fergusson's Grave

Robert Fergusson’s Grave

Fergusson’s literary energy and active social life were latterly overshadowed by what may have been depression although there are likely to have been other factors. From around mid-1773 his surviving works appear to become more darkly melancholic. In late 1773, in his “Poem to the Memory of John Cunningham” which was written on hearing news of the death of that poet in an asylum in Newcastle, Fergusson expressed fears of a similar fate.[6]

His fears were founded. Around the backend of the year 1774, after sustaining a head injury in circumstances that are obscure, Fergusson was submitted against his will into Edinburgh’s Darien House “hospital” (close to today’s eponymous Bedlam Theatre), where, after a matter of weeks, he suddenly died. He had only just turned 24. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the west side of the Canongate Kirkyard.


Robert Fergusson's Epitaph

Robert Fergusson’s Epitaph

Robert Burns’ epitaph

A memorial headstone, designed by the local architect Robert Burn, for Fergusson’s grave was privately commissioned in 1787 by Robert Burns and paid for at his own expense. It reads:

No sculptur’d marble here, nor pompous lay,
‘No story’d urn nor animated bust;’
This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her Poet’s dust.

In Burns’ commonplace book he also added 2 further stanzas:

She mourns, sweet, tuneful youth, thy hapless fate,
Tho’ all the pow’rs of song thy fancy fir’d;
Yet Luxury and Wealth lay by in state,
And thankless starv’d what they so much admir’d.

This humble tribute with a tear he gives,
A brother Bard, he can no more bestow;
But dear to fame thy Song immortal lives,
A nobler monument than Art can show.

In the later nineteenth century, Robert Louis Stevenson intended to renovate the stone, but died before he could do so. The epitaph that Stevenson planned to add to the stone is recorded on a plaque added to the grave by the Saltire Society on the Society’s 50th anniversary in 1995.

Memorial statue

The statue outside Canongate Churchyard was unveiled on 17 October 2004, following a competition for a memorial to Fergusson. The sculptor was David Annand

Overview and influence

Fergusson’s literary output was both urban and pastoral in equal degree. He was often an effective satirist and generally nationalist in themes and outlook. Although small, his canon stands as an important artistic and linguistic bridge between the generation of Allan Ramsay (1686–1758) and most later writers in Scots. His bilingual career was the acknowledged inspiration for the career of Robert Burns. Many leading makars of the twentieth century, such as Robert Garioch or Sydney Goodsir Smith, similarly recognised his importance. More widely, however, his legacy has tended to be unjustly neglected
Robert Fergusson plaque inside St. Giles High Kirk

Robert Fergusson plaque inside St. Giles High Kirk

Many works by Burns either echo or are directly modelled on works by Fergusson. For example “Leith Races” unquestionably supplied the model for Burns’ “Holy Fair”. “On seeing a Butterfly in the Street” has reflections in it which strikingly correspond with “To a Mouse”. Comparisons, such as between Fergusson’s “The Farmer’s Ingle” and Burns’ “The Cottar’s Saturday Night”, often demonstrate the creative complexity of the influence.

Fergusson’s life also had one important non-literary influence. The brutal circumstances of the poet’s death prompted one of his visitors in Darien House, the young doctor Andrew Duncan (1744–1828), to pioneer better institutional practices for the treatment of mental health problems through the creation of what is today the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.


Ruddiman’s 1773 edition of Fergusson’s work was reprinted in 1779 with a supplement containing additional poems. A second edition appeared in 1785. There are later editions, by Robert Chambers (1850) and Alexander Grosart (1851). A life of Fergusson is included in David Irving’s Lives of the Scottish Poets, and in Robert Chambers’s Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Scotsmen. Alexander Grosart also contributed a biography of Fergusson for the “Famous Scots Series”, (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1898).

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