Every Scotsman is supposed to be a worshipper of Robert Burns, and every reader of Burns is familiar with the name of Robert Fergusson; yet it may be doubted whether, even in Scotland, at the present day, there is a wide popular knowledge of Fergusson's poetry. The author of Hallowfair and The Farmer's Ingle wrote no popular songs, hence his comparative neglect. But apart from the fact that he struck the keynote, which was afterwards accentuated by the Ayrshire poet, of all the modern vernacular verse of Scotland, he remains, by reason both of his genius and of his tragic story, one of the three most interesting figures of eighteenth century Scottish poetic annals. The legitimate successor of Allan Ramsay as a painter of the humours of Scottish life and character, and the main link between that poet and Robert Burns, he stands first, among all the poets of the north, as a singer of city pleasures; and in particular he holds the place of laureate of the life of old Edinburgh.
Fergusson's father and mother both originally came from Aberdeenshire, and through his mother, the daughter of a farmer at Kildrummie, the poet might have claimed descent from the Forbeses of Tolquhon. His father, however, was a clerk in Edinburgh, earning only the scanty sum of twenty-five pounds a year, equal perhaps in purchasing power to a hundred pounds at the present day. On this income William Fergusson managed to rear respectably a family of no fewer than five. The poet was born, September 5, 1750, in the Cap-and-Feather Close, an alley which formerly, according to Chambers's Traditions of Edinburgh, "occupied the site of the North Bridge Street, and was entirely destroyed in 1767, when the Royalty was extended." The house "stood about the middle of the alley, consequently the spot of the poet's nativity must have been somewhere opposite the head of the Flesh-Market Stairs." Robert was the second son of the family, and, as his mother's favourite, and the least robust, was destined for the church. Accordingly, after four years at the High School of Edinburgh, he secured, through the influence of his mother's relatives, a Fergusson bursary, under which he passed to the Grammar School of Dundee and the University of St. Andrews.
At the university he appears to have been distinguished as much by his high spirits as by his scholarly attainments. When a remittance arrived he would make the fact known by hanging a purse out at the window of his lodging; and he suffered extrusion once for four days for a somewhat irreverent joke perpetrated in the college chapel. Not only, however, did his gay spirits render him highly popular among his fellows, but his accomplishments were recognised by the authorities, who, to his chagrin, made him leader of the chapel psalmody; and his abilities gained him the notice and friendship of Wilkie, the author of the Epigoniad, who was his professor in Natural Philosophy.
In 1768, however, his father died, and as his mother was reduced to take in boarders, Fergusson with secret satisfaction found himself compelled to give up thought of entering the church, and to seek more immediate means of living. His mother's brother, a factor in Aberdeenshire, invited him to his house and arranged an introduction for him to Lord Finlater; but Fergusson appeared on the occasion in such disordered dress that his uncle bade him leave the room, whereupon the poet indignantly took himself from the house. Presently he obtained a situation as copying clerk in the office of Charles Abercrombie, the Commissary Clerk of Edinburgh. His work there was the merest drudgery, and his pay was wretched, but presently he made acquaintance with some of the players and singers of the Edinburgh stage. Among these boon companions his wit and spirits rendered him highly acceptable, and thenceforth his evenings became as gay and convivial as his days were dull and uninteresting.
Then began his poetic career. At college he had written a dramatic fragment and a satiric"Elegy on the Death of Mr. David Gregory, and since returning to Edinburgh he had furnished Tenducci with three songs of no great merit, set to Scottish airs. But in 1771 he began to contribute to Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine, and in 1773 a collection of his pieces, which he put forth in volume form, succeeded so well as to bring him the sum of fifty pounds. The merit of his poetry gained him also the friendship of David Herd, through whom he became a member of the convivial Cape Club, and made the acquaintance of a circle of country lairds and congenial wits.
The fashion of Edinburgh at that time lent itself to much deep drinking; and between his own pleasure in merry company, and the fact that his poetic reputation and natural humour made him a most desirable companion, he was tempted to overtax a constitution at no time strong. On his sensitive and nervous mind the life of dissipation soon told. His nights of merriment were followed by mornings of remorse; some solemn words of warning and advice by the Rev. John Brown, great-grandfather of the author of Rab and his Friends, to which he listened in Haddington kirkyard, sank deep into his thoughts; and presently, so shaken were his nerves, that the death of a pet canary threw him into a religious melancholy, in which he burned his manuscript poems. When he was just recovering from this attack, he slipped on a stair and fell, receiving injuries which affected his brain. In their poverty his friends had no choice but to place him in the city madhouse. As they were conducting him over the threshold, it is said he suddenly realised his fate, and shrieked aloud, and his cry was answered by a shout from the other inmates of that fearful place which those who were with him never forgot. His end was not far off. On the last night of his life his mother was with him, and when the hour came for locking up he begged her with wild apprehension not to leave him. A few hours later he died in the darkness, alone. It was the 16th of October, 1774.
It is a tragic circumstance that immediately after his death a letter came from a former schoolfellow settled in India, enclosing a cheque for one hundred pounds, and inviting Fergusson to come out to a lucrative situation.
Some thirteen years afterwards a stone was placed at the grave of the dead poet in Canongate churchyard by Robert Burns, which still marks the spot.
In 1779 a second collection was published of the poems which Fergusson had contributed to Ruddiman's Magazine; and of his complete works there have been several later editions, the most recent being one published at Edinburgh in 1895 by W. H. White & Co. The poet's biography has been written by Dr. Grosart.
In Fergusson's case it is unnecessary to make allowance for his youth: he was but twenty-three when he died. Had he lived longer, it is true, his genius might have developed higher imaginative power, and experience might have given him more artistic resource. But the fact remains that in the fields of Scottish poetry which he essayed he has been surpassed only by two or three competitors. Leith Races, and Hallowfair present pictures almost as racy and realistic, if indeed not so boisterous, as their great prototypes, King James's Christ's Kirk on the Green and Peblis to the Play. The same pieces, with The Election and The Sitting of the Session, afford the most graphic impression extant of the Edinburgh life of his day. His Elegies, Braid Claith, Hame Content, and Tron Kirk Bell were masterpieces in a rich vein of satiric humour. And his Gowdspink and his Farmer's Ingle depicted fields of homely charm in which Fergusson has been improved upon only by Burns himself. The indebtedness of Burns to the Edinburgh poet, indeed, is hardly to be estimated. It is a well-known matter, and was generously acknowledged by Burns himself. The later singer borrowed not only countless expressions, suggestions, and turns of style from his prototype; but whole pieces, and these amongst his best, such as The Cottar's Saturday Night, The Holy Fair, and The Twa Brigs, remain avowedly little else than improvements on similar compositions by Fergusson.
The same commendation cannot be given to Fergusson's English poems, which comprise more than half his work. These are written for the most part in the affected and conventional taste of much of the Scoto-English verse of the time. But his pieces in the rich Lowland-Scottish dialect-pieces which were eagerly read by the common people everywhere in his own day remain enough to furnish reputations for half a dozen poets.