Robert Fergusson

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When Robert Burns arrived in Edinburgh in 1786, he made a pilgrimage to the Canongate kirkyard to pay his respects to the young man, Robert Fergusson who had inspired his poetry, and whose grave had remained unmarked since his death at the age of 24 in October 1774. Robert Burns was to describe Ferguson as "my elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse".

(CC) Photo: Citizendium
Bronze statue of Robert Fergusson on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh. (sculptor: David Annand). The statue was dedicated on 17th October 2004 [1]

Early Life

Robert Fergusson (September 5, 1750 - October 17, 1774), born in Cap and Feather Close, in Edinburgh's Old Town, was the fourth of five children of William Fergusson and Elizabeth Forbes. [2] He entered Edinburgh's High School in 1758, and then gained a bursary to attend the Grammar School in Dundee in 1762 (the "David Fergusson mortification", a scholarship for those with the surname Fergusson). Two years later, he enrolled at St Andrew's University, where he gained a reputation for pranks, and began writing poetry. At that time, students following the Arts curriculum at St Andrew's could study Greek and Latin throughout the course, with Mathematics and Logic in the second year, Mathematics and Moral Philosophy in the third, and Natural Philosophy in the fourth. Fergusson excelled at mathematics, and became a favourite pupil of the Professor of Mathematics, the farmer-poet William Wilkie.[3]

The "Daft Days"

When his father died in 1767, Fergusson returned to Edinburgh in 1768 without a degree, and found a job as a copyist for the Commissary Office to support his widowed mother; despite this dull occupation, he became a whole-hearted participant in Edinburgh club life, and was a member of the Cape Club [4],and the Robinhood Society (a debating society). On 7th February 1771, he published (anonymously) the first of three pastorals in Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, entitled ‘Morning’, ‘Noon’ and ‘Night’, and Ruddiman's became a staunch patron of his verse. Fergusson began writing mainly in the Scots tongue, evoking vivid pictures of life in the Old Town. His first of these, The Daft Days, was published by Ruddiman's in January 1772:

"Now mirk December's dowie face
Glours our the rigs wi' sour grimace,
While, thro' his minimum of space,
The bleer-ey'd sun
Wi' blinkin light and stealing pace,
His race doth run."
from The Daft Days[5]

Fergusson is particularly notable for the choice he made to write in vernacular Scots, but he also wrote in English. Here, written in English, is his "Character of a Friend, in an Epitaph which he desired the Author to write."

"Under this turf, to mould'ring earth consign'd,
Lies he, who once was fickle as the wind.
Alike the scenes of good and ill he knew,
From the chaste temple to the lewdest stew.
Virtue and vice in him alternate reign'd;
That fill'd his mind, and this his pocket drain'd,
Till in the contest they so stubborn grew,
Death gave the parting blow, and both withdrew.."
from [6]

Fergusson was certainly an important influence on Robert Burns. His "Leith Races" in particular supplied the model for Burns' "Holy Fair."

Early Death

" the Canongate churchyard, lies Robert Fergusson, Burns's master in his art, who died insane while yet a stripling; and if Dugald Stewart has been somewhat too boisterously acclaimed, the Edinburgh poet, on the other hand, is most unrighteously forgotten. The votaries of Burns, a crew too common in all ranks in Scotland and more remarkable for number than discretion, eagerly suppress all mention of the lad who handed to him the poetic impulse and, up to the time when he grew famous, continued to influence him in his manner and the choice of subjects. Burns himself not only acknowledged his debt in a fragment of autobiography, but erected a tomb over the grave in Canongate churchyard. This was worthy of an artist, but it was done in vain; and although I think I have read nearly all the biographies of Burns, I cannot remember one in which the modesty of nature was not violated, or where Fergusson was not sacrificed to the credit of his follower's originality. There is a kind of gaping admiration that would fain roll Shakespeare and Bacon into one, to have a bigger thing to gape at; and a class of men who cannot edit one author without disparaging all others. They are indeed mistaken if they think to please the great originals; and whoever puts Fergusson right with fame, cannot do better than dedicate his labours to the memory of Burns, who will be the best delighted of the dead."
(Robert Louis Stevenson [7]

At the end of 1773, acute depression (some biographers have described his condition as ‘religious melancholia’) led Fergusson to give up his job. Soon after, Fergusson suffered a violent blow to the head falling down a flight of stairs. After his fall, the poet was deemed ‘insensible’, and he was transferred to Edinburgh’s Bedlam madhouse, where he died on October 17th, 1774, aged twenty-four. Burns paid for the headstone that now marks Fergusson's grave and composed its inscription:

"No sculptur'd marble here, nor pompus 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."

The back of the stone displays a tribute which reads, "By special grant of the managers to Robert Burns who erected this stone this burial place is to remain for ever sacred to the memory of Robert Fergusson."

Years later, after being damaged, the gravestone was repaired by Robert Louis Stevenson. In May 1894, Stevenson, who was then in Samoa, wrote to Charles Baxter in Edinburgh to ask "I wonder if an inscription like this would look arrogant - This stone originally erected by Robert Burns has been repaired at the charges of Robert Louis Stevenson, and is by him re-dedicated to the memory of Robert Fergusson, as the gift of one Edinburgh lad to another."

Fergusson's grave is in Canongate Kirkyard on Edinburgh's Royal Mile; a statue of Fergusson now stands outside the Kirk. [8]


  1. Robert Fergusson statue unveiled in Embro]
  2. The Cap and Feather Close has long since disappeared; it was demolished in the course of building the North Bridge that links Edinburgh's Old and New Towns.
  3. William Wilkie (1721-1772), the "Scottish Homer," was the author of an epic in the style of the Iliad, entitled the "Epigoniad, a poem in nine books". Wilkie's friends included David Hume, Adam Smith and John Home. According to Henry Mackenzie (1745-1831), in his biography of John Home, Wilkie’s friends are said to have spoken of him as "superior in genius to any man of his time, but rough and unpolished in his manners, and still less accommodating to the decorum of society in the ordinary habits of his life."
  4. Fergusson's poemAuld Reekie is dedicated to his fellow members of the Cape Club, where he was known by the nickname 'Sir Precenter'. The Club, whose members called themselves "The Knights of the Cape", met at a tavern in Craig's Close; each had a character assigned to him, which he had to maintain at these meetings. David Herd (1732-1810), the collector of Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (1776), was sovereign of the Cape, in which he was known as "Sir Scrape". The Club's Minute Book, now held by the National Library of Scotland, contains a drawing of Fergusson.
  5. Ferguson's poetry
  6. [ The poems of Robert Fergusson:] in two parts. To which is prefixed, the life of the author, and a sketch of his writings; with a copious glossary annexed. (Google eBook)
  7. Robert Louis Stevenson Edinburgh Picturesque Notes
  8. Robert Fergusson's statue unveiled (Scottish Poetry Library)The unveiling was marked by a poem written for the occasion by the Edinburgh Makar, Stewart Conn.