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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Fergusson, Robert (1750-74)

2nd son of William Fergusson, accountant in the British Linen Company's Bank, Edinburgh, and his wife Margaret Forbes, like her husband, of Aberdeenshire descent. Robert was born in the Cap and Feather Close, Edinburgh, now partly occupied by North Bridge Street. He was educated at the High School, from where he went on a bursary to the Grammar School at Dundee. 2 years later, he proceeded, on a Fergusson bursary to the University of St Andrews, where his career was cut short by his father's death. He returned to Edinburgh and took an ill-paid job as a copyist in a legal office. His first Scots poem to be published appeared on 2nd January 1772, in Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement, where the majority of his best poems thereafter first appeared, until his early death in a mad house less than 3 years later. From the press of Walter and Thomas Ruddiman, in 1773, came Poems by Robert Fergusson.

Although Fergusson's prentice pieces were in somewhat stilted English, in 'the Daft Days', his first Scots piece, he showed himself the fitting recipient of the vernacular mantle laid aside by Allan Ramsay 14 years before. In quickmoving Scots, Fergusson wrote of Edinburgh scenes and Edinburgh people. Even more than his predecessor, Ramsay, he had a considerable influence on his successor, Robert Burns.

Burns used several of the staves adapted to Scots use by Ramsay and Fergusson. He inherited the form of the Verse Epistle, popularised, but not actually 'invented', by Ramsay. Most important of all, Burns developed the temper of Fergusson's colloquial comment, vastly increasing its range and pointedness. From the number of stanza and subject matter parallels, it is quite obvious that Burns, before writing his won satires and epistles, had deeply steeped himself in Fergusson's work. Thus, Fergusson's 'Caller Water' was the starting point for Burns's 'Scotch Drink': Fergusson's 'Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causey', the model for 'The Twa Dogs': 'Leith Races' for the 'The Holy Fair', and so on. Without in any way disparaging Fergusson's achievements, it would be true to say that Burns, with one exception, usually far out-stripped Fergusson in range and power. The exception is Fergusson's 'Farmer's Ingle', which is, as David Daiches says, 'both in inspiration and in integrity of feeling superior to Burns's 'Cotter's Saturday Night'.

But Burns was uncommonly generous in acknowledging his debts, both in prose and in verse. In the 'Epistle to William Simson', for instance he said:

"My senses wad be in a creel, [my head would be turned
Should I dare a hope to speel, [climb
Wi' Allan, or wi' Gilbertfield
The braes o' fame;
Or Fergusson, the writer-chiel,
A deathless name."

'Allan' was, of course, Allan Ramsay, and 'Gilbertfield' William Hamilton of Gilbertfield. Burns then went on:

"O Fergusson! Thy glorious parts
Ill suited law's dry, musty arts!
My curse upon your whunstane hearts,
Ye Enburgh Gentry [Edinburgh
The tythe o' what ye waste at cartes
Wad stow'd his pantry!" [would have filled

There is also the 'Aprostrophe to Fergusson, Inscribed Above and Below his Portrait':

"Curse on ungrateful man, that can be pleas'd
And yet can starve the author of the pleasure
O thou, my elder brother in misfortune,
By far my elder brother in the muse,
With tears I pity thy unhappy fate!
Why is the Bard unfitted for the world,
Yet has so keen a relish of its pleasures?"

These lines were inscribed in Burns's hand in a copy of the Second Edition of Fergusson's Poems, 1782, given by Burns to Rebekah Carmichael, on 19th March 1787. (in the dedication Burns describes her as a poetess. She published a book of verse in 1790). Henley and Henderson consider the dedication to have been written later than the lines of verse, the inference being that Burns gave Miss Carmichael his own copy. Edinburgh Central Library posses Burns's copy of the 1785 edition of Fergusson, with Burn's signature and a 3 stanza poem, the first of which also appears on the headstone over Fergusson's grave in the Canongate Kirk.

On 6th Febrary 1787, Burns wrote to the Baillies of the Canongate — who passed on his request to the authorities in charge of the Cemetry — for permission to put a stone on Fergusson's unmarked grave. Permission given, Burns commissioned an architect Robert Burn, to erect the stone, on which appeared the lines:

"No sculptur'd Marble her, nor pompous lay,
No storied Urn nor animated Bust;
This simple stone directs pale Scotia's way
To pour her sorrow o'er the Poet's dust."

The 2 additional stanzas were written in the Second Commonplace Book.

5 years later, Burns paid the bill. Enclosing the money to Hill, Burns wrote on 5th February 1792: 'I send by the bearer, Mr Clarke, a particular friend of mine... £5 10 per acct. I owe to Mr Robt Burn, Architect, for erecting the stone over poor Fergusson. He was 2 years in erecting it, after I commission him for it; and I have been 2 years paying him, after he sent me his account; so he and I are quits. He had the hardiesse to ask me interest on the sum; but considering that the money was due by one Poet, for putting a tombstone over another, he may, with grateful surprise, thank Heaven that ever he saw a farthing of it.'

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