Ye’re stridin doon the Canongate, brent new
and lookin like ye’ve never been awa,
were never found curled deid upon the straw
in Bedlam’s cells; ye’re twenty-fower and fou –
no claret-fou, but o yersel and life,
rat-rhymes and habbies rattlin through yer heid,
a book in haun, and hunners mair tae read –
the warld is yours, at least as faur as Fife.
Ye’d ken and yet ye widna ken yer toun:
some gains ye’d praise, some losses ye’d lament –
sae muckle change, sae muckle aye the same.
Auld Reikie’s still as braw beneath the moon,
and noo we even hae oor Parliament,
come hame like you, Rob Fergusson, come hame.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2006. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2006 was Janice Galloway.
I love the statue of Fergusson in Edinburgh – the celebratory effigy like a late apology – and pass it every time on the way to the Poetry Library in Canongate. James Robertson’s formally-disciplined skirl of Scots, bridging old and new visions of Edinburgh, the dead and living poet, more than belongs here.
Like many Scottish writers, I feel a great empathy and affinity with Robert Fergusson (1750–74), who in his short life produced a vibrant set of poetic observations on the Edinburgh of his day. He wrote mainly of the Old Town, yet captured Auld Reikie as it embraced Enlightenment; he was intelligent and cultured, yet also loved the city’s sweaty, boozy dives and howffs; he was an urban bard writing sharp satire and warm social comment, at his best in a rich and adventurous Scots, whose example inspired the rural genius of Robert Burns half a generation later.
Despite the tragedy of his miserable death in the madhouse, there is something in Fergusson’s work that lifts the heart with its gallus joie de vivre. This bouncy elation and gleeful desire to thumb the neb at authority was something I wanted to capture in this sonnet. To achieve this, all I really had to do was study and imitate David Annand’s wonderful bronze of the young Rob ‘striding doon the Canongate…lookin like ye’ve never been awa’. After a fund-raising campaign begun in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Fergusson’s birth, the statue was commissioned and unveiled on 17th October 2004, the 230th anniversary of his death. At last the poet of the capital was walking its streets again, just outside the Canongate Kirk, where he is buried. He lay there in an unmarked grave till Burns, paying homage to his ‘elder brother in the Muse’, erected a stone in his memory. Fergusson is presumably on his way either to the Scottish Poetry Library to return the book in his hand or to jot down some rude words about our MSPs. While he would have enthusiastically welcomed the re-establishment of Scotland’s Parliament he would not have conceded his right to prick any pomposity detected among the inmates.
The poem refers to Fergusson as being ‘fou o life’, not ‘claret-fou’: he undoubtedly knew how to sink a pint of wine, but I believe he valued being alive more than being drunk, which makes his death even more poignant. The ‘habbies’ of line 6 relate to the verse-form ‘Standard Habbie’, which Fergusson used to great effect, which Burns perfected, and which thousands of Burns imitators almost did to death in the 19th and 20th centuries. In line 8 the reference to Fife acknowledges the fact that Fergusson was educated at the University of St Andrews, and that – despite writing a less than complimentary poem about Fife which led to a Dunfermline man challenging him to a duel (he wisely declined) – he was genuinely fond of the Kingdom across the Forth.
The line about Edinburgh still being ‘braw beneath the moon’ refers to the opening couplet of Fergusson’s great unfinished long poem ‘Auld Reikie’. The late John Smith MP used to refer to Scottish Home Rule as ‘unfinished business’. It was perhaps fortuitous, but entirely fitting, that both statue and parliament building should have been completed in the same month of 2004, a pleasing interaction of past with present and future. Fergusson would probably have written a poem exposing the ironies of that conjunction.