Robert Burns was moved to call Fergusson his 'elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse’ when he commissioned a headstone in Canongate Churchyard, thirteen years after the poet had been buried there, a pauper in an unmarked grave. In a beautiful sonnet set in the same churchyard in 1962, Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch was to reflect that ‘here Robert Burns knelt and missed the mool’ [clay] (‘At Robert Fergusson’s grave’).
Garioch had a strong fellow feeling for Fergusson as a poet whose muse was so firmly set in the daily doings of ‘Auld Reekie’, for they were both born in Edinburgh, and made it the subject of many of their verses. Educated at Edinburgh High School, Fergusson attained a bursary to Dundee High and thereafter studied at St Andrews, although his father’s sudden death in 1768 meant that he had to leave his studies to seek employment. After a lively student life and a few false starts, he ended up as a legal copy clerk for the Commissary Records Office in Edinburgh, but soon entered the cultural life of the city. In 1771 he had poems accepted for the Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement whose proprietor, Walter Ruddiman, was to publish all his work, including collections after the poet’s death.
Fergusson remembered his university days fondly in broad Scots poems such as a rather cheerful ‘Elegy on the Death of Mr David Gregory’, one of his maths professors; another elegy on John Hogg, ‘late Porter to the University of St Andrews’; and a pastoral eclogue for William Wilkie, the professor of Natural Philosophy who had been a personal friend to the young student. Dr Johnson’s visit to the seat of learning in 1773 was commemorated in an address ‘To the Principal and Professors of the University of St Andrews, on their superb treat to Dr Samuel Johnson’. Fergusson had not forgotten Johnson’s notorious dictionary definition of oats as a grain eaten by men in Scotland and horses in England, so he proposes an uber-Scottish banquet for the great man starting with a haggis, followed by ‘a gude sheep’s head / Whase hide was singit, never flead, / And four black trotters cled wi’ girsle’ supported by ‘white and bloody puddins routh’, and lots of oatcakes. This was matched by another culinary recommendation ‘To Dr Samuel Johnson: Food for a New edition of his Dictionary’, whose language parodies the good doctor’s orotund and Latinate prose style: ‘can you swill / The usquebalian flames of whisky blue / In fermentation strong? Have you applied / The kilt aerian to your Anglian thighs?’
It was the Edinburgh poet, publisher and bookseller Allan Ramsay (1685-1758) who had started the vogue for mock elegies and satirical and pastoral addresses in broad Scots, and Fergusson (hailed as ‘the new Ramsay’) clearly learned from and surpassed his predecessor, establishing himself, in turn, as an equally important influence on Robert Burns. That youthful talent for parody appears again in his lampoon of Henry Mackenzie’s novel The Man of Feeling (1771), whose sentimental Romanticism had taken its readers by storm, generating a fashion and a passion for deep feeling and manly tears. This was to be one of Burns’s favourite books, but Fergusson’s ‘The Sow of Feeling’, written in high-toned English couplets, gleefully imagines a hog-butcher at work on the porker: ‘Alas, the lovely languor of his eye, / When the base murd’rers bore him captive by! / His mournful voice, the music of his groans, / Had melted any hearts – but hearts of stones!’
Life in Edinburgh in the mid-eighteenth century was lively, dynamic, brilliant, claustrophobic, vulgar and intellectual by turns, and Fergusson’s writing met a ready audience there, undoubtedly enjoyed in the many drinking clubs and debating societies that were a feature of city life at the time. Fergusson himself was a member of the Easy Club, one of the wilder establishments, which included the notorious Deacon Brodie and the painter Henry Raeburn among its members. But the poet’s appetite for late nights and heavy drinking began to take its toll.
Almost all of Fergusson’s poems were produced in an extraordinary two years of production, heralded by the appearance of ‘The Daft Days’ in the Weekly Magazine in 1772, celebrating the New Year holidays in January with plenty of food, drink and mirth to set against a cold climate. Fergusson had struck a vein with his observations of his native city, not least in its festivals and seasonal occupations, so ‘Hallow Fair’ memorialises the annual fair held in November, with its stalls and tents, fortune-tellers and horse-dealers:
Here chapman billies tak their stand, peddler fellows
An shaw their bonny wallies; fancy goods
Wow, but they lie fu’ gleg aff hand very glibly
To trick the silly fallows:
Heh, sirs, what cairds and tinklers come, vagrants and tinkers
An ne’er-do-weel horse-coupers, dealers
An’ spae-wives fenzying to be dumb, fortune-tellers pretending
Wi’ a’ siclike landloupers, vagabonds
To thrive that day.
In these busy taverns and crowded streets, cuddling lovers, bold prostitutes and drunken brawlers are all at the mercy of the city constabulary, whose dress and accents were regularly mocked by Fergusson as ‘black banditti’ on account of their Highland origins. ‘Leith Races’ repeats the formula once again in broad Scots and the rollicking ‘standard Habbie’ verse form, later to be called the ‘Burns stanza’. ‘The Tron-kirk Bell’ whose strokes marked the working day in the High Street is cursed as a ‘Wanwordy, crazy, dinsome thing / As e'er was framed to jow and ring!’, while the common man’s daily sustenance is recommended in ‘Caller Oysters’ – a cheap meal in those days:
When big as burns the gutters rin,
Gin ye hae catcht a droukit skin, soaked
To Luckie Middlemist’s loup in, jump
And sit fu snug
Oe’r oysters and a dram o’ gin,
Or haddock lug. fillet
Fergusson has a sure eye for the buzz and bustle of the Edinburgh streets and especially for the hopes, frailties and pretentions of his fellow citizens, dressed up in their best clothes, as in ‘Braid Claith’. Yet there’s a vulnerability there, too, and a degree of sympathy for common human aspiration:
Braid Claith lends fock an unco heese, considerable lift
Makes mony kail-worms butterflies, caterpillars
Gies mony a doctor his degrees
For little skaith: damage (cost)
In short, you may be what you please
Wi’ gude Braid Claith.
As a man with a university education, equally fluent in English and in Scots, whose lines are full of classical references, Fergusson never considers himself above the people he portrays so fondly and furiously in his poems. The pavement and the roadway, in ‘Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causey in their Mother Tongue’, reflect on what they have to endure under the feet and the wheels of those who walk and ride on their battered slabs, but in the end both high and low, rough and smooth, dressed flagstones or rough cobbles, all have their part to play. This is characteristic of the poet’s generous social vision.
Nevertheless, by 1773, subject to his own drinking habits and perhaps tainted by sexual disease, Fergusson’s life was falling into disarray. Failing health and growing fears of death left him depressed and cost him his job, when he took to his room to read the Bible compulsively. A serious head injury, perhaps incurred in a tumble downstairs, tipped him into increasingly violent and still more morbid fears. Towards the end of 1774 he was taken from his mother’s house, against his will, and lodged in the Bedlam next to the Edinburgh poorhouse, where he died in a straw-littered cell within weeks. He was only 24.
Regardless of his extreme youth, Fergusson’s achievement is remarkable, and his status as the poet laureate of Edinburgh was never better realised than it is in ‘Auld Reikie’ a poem of over 300 lines in Scots couplets. On these pages the poet’s eye moves lovingly over Edinburgh like a documentary camera, as if to sum up all his other poems on the city, starting at the crack of dawn:
Now Morn, with bonny purpie-smiles,
Kisses the air-cock o’ St Giles; weather-cock
Rakin their ein, the servant lasses rubbing, eyes
Early begin their lies and clashes; gossip
Ilk tells her friend of saddest distress,
That still she brooks frae scouling mistress; endures
[. . .]
Whan Phoebus blinks wi’ warmer ray
And schools at noonday get the play,
Then business, weighty business comes;
The trader glours; he doubts, he hums:
The lawyers eke to Cross repair,
Their wigs to shaw, and toss an air;
While busy agent closely plies,
And a’ his kittle cases tries. tricky
And so the scene and the long day unfolds, with schoolboys, shopkeepers, porters, chairmen, debtors, beggars, singers, lovers and whores all taking their turn in the crowded streets that gave the poet so much pleasure and inspiration. He still walks there himself, as a bronze statue, striding out on the pavement by Canongate Churchyard, just across the street from the Scottish Poetry Library.