The poet, Robert Fergusson, was born on the 5th of September, 1750.
Robert Fergusson was undoubtedly one of Scotland's greatest poets, and despite Robert Burns having acknowledged Fergusson as the inspiration for his turning to poetry, Fergusson is often called Scotland's forgotten poet. He was much admired amongst his contemporaries in the 18th Century and had he lived and written more than his meager collection of poems, Scotland might now have two National Bards and celebrate Fergusson Night as well as Burns’ Night. Fergusson’s own muse was Allan Ramsay and, like the be-turbaned Ramsey, followed a bit of a bohemian lifestyle in Edinburgh, which was then at the height of an intellectual and cultural tumult as the nerve centre of the Scottish Enlightenment. Fergusson wrote a total of fifty poems in Scottish English and thirty-three in the Scots language, but it is for his remarkable exploits in the latter genre that he should be acknowledged and acclaimed. His poetic subject matter paints vivid accounts of the life and characters of ‘Auld Reekie’ and drunken encounters with the notorious Edinburgh City Guard of Captain Porteous, the ‘Black Banditti’ of ‘The Daft Days’. These poems of Fergusson’s were first printed in 1772, in Walter Ruddiman's ‘Weekly Magazine’, and a ‘collected works’ was first published early in 1773, the year of his last composition and a year before his tragic, untimely death. Fergusson suffered from ill health most of his life and died in Darien House, the public asylum known as ‘Bedlam’, at the tender age of twenty-four. There is no doubt that Burns was a fan and after Fergusson’s death Burns wrote of him, “my elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse.” In 1787, Burns erected a headstone over his long-neglected grave, commemorating Fergusson as ‘Scotia’s Poet’.
Robert Fergusson was born of Aberdeenshire parents in Cap and Feather Close, which stood immediately above Halkerston's Wynd in Edinburgh’s Old Town, on the 5th of September, 1750. The close has long since disappeared, having been demolished during Fergusson’s lifetime to make way for the North Bridge. Robert’s health was always delicate, but he was robust enough in 1758 to go to Edinburgh Royal High School. He also attended the High School of Dundee in 1762, under a bursary, before studying at the University of St Andrews from 1764. He had a proclivity for pranks, which almost got him expelled, but nevertheless, he paid attention to some lessons, particularly those of the author of ‘The Epigoniad’, Professor William Wilkie. It was whilst at St Andrews that the popular, sensitive, but high-spirited and quick-tempered Robert began writing poetry. His first poem was a mock elegy in Scots, which choice of language showed an individuality and flair matched by the poem itself. Sadly, in 1767, Robert’s father died and he had to give up his studies without graduating, in order to support his mother and sister. He took a mundane job as a copyist for the Commissary Office in Edinburgh, but of course, his true passion was for poetry.
Fergusson adopted an unconventional lifestyle as much as his meager wages would alloy and became a vivacious participant in Edinburgh's lively social and literary scene. On the 10th of October, 1772, he became a member of the ‘Cape Club’ based in a pub in the Old Town called ‘The Isle of Man Arms’. Fergusson was as inducted as ‘Sir Precentor’ and elected laureate of the ‘Order’. One of his poems, ‘Auld Reekie’, was written in honour of the ‘Cape Club’ and its members:
“Now many a club, jocose and free,
Gi'e a' to merriment and glee:
Wi' sang and glass they fley the pow'r
0' care that wad harass the hour.
But chief, 0 Cape, we crave thy aid
To get our cares and poortith laid”
His first poem was published anonymously on the 7th of February, 1771, in Ruddimans’ periodical, ‘The Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement’. That was the first of three ‘pastorals’ entitled ‘Morning’, ‘Noon’ and ‘Night’, and Fergusson went on to enjoy two brief years’ of patronage from that quarter. His first vernacular Scots poem, ‘The Daft Days’, was printed by Ruddimans on the 2nd of January, 1772 and people began to speak of him as the successor to Allan Ramsay. Fergusson’s ‘Poems on Various Subjects’ appeared in 1773, but sadly there was to be no more. In that year of 1773, Fergusson began to suffer from depression.
Biographers have described Fergusson’s condition as ‘religious melancholia’, but regardless of whether or not that was the case, he gave up his job, stopped writing, withdrew completely from his riotous social life, and spent his time reading the Bible. He had heard about an Irish poet, John Cunningham, who had died in an asylum in Newcastle. That inspired 'Poem to the Memory of John Cunningham', and Fergusson became terribly afraid that the same thing was going to happen to him. Tragically, his dark prediction came true. In August, 1774, Fergusson fell down a flight of stairs and received a bad head injury, after which he was deemed ‘insensible’. His mother was unable to care for him and he was admitted to Darien House, Edinburgh’s public asylum. That abysmal place, which stood in the vicinity of today’s Bedlam Theatre, was nicknamed ‘Bedlam’ (after the London asylum). It was originally the offices where plans for the ill-fated Darien scheme had been concluded. Fergusson was put in an annex called 'the Cells' and after several weeks of ‘treatment’, he died, incarcerated in a bed in ‘Bedlam’, on the 16th of October, 1774. He died calling for his mother, but the staff at Darien House refused to let her in, because it was outside visiting hours.
Robert Fergusson died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard. Twelve years later, Robert Burns, who was greatly influenced by Fergusson's poetry, paid for a headstone to be made and composed its heartfelt 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.”
In the following Century, Robert Louis Stevenson had the headstone repaired after it had been damaged and, in 2007, a wonderful memorial statue in Fergusson’s honour was erected. It stands outside the Canongate Kirkyard.