Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

*    *    *    *    *

Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



Robert Fergusson [note] was born at Edinburgh, on the fifth of September, 1750. His father, William Fergusson, was an accountant in the British Linen-Hall; a situation of respectability, but of small emolument. He is said to have possessed some poetical talent; but no proofs of it are extant. Young Robert, who was destined to raise the name of Fergusson to a place among the first poets of his country, was, in infancy, of so very weakly a constitution, that little hopes were entertained of his arriving at manhood. By the tender care of his parents, however, he gradually acquired strength; and at the age of six years, was sent to an English school, where he attained a proficiency in reading and recitation, so rapidly, that before a year elapsed, he was transferred to the High School of Edinburgh, to study the Latin tongue. He remained at this seminary four years; and, notwithstanding frequent intermissions of attendance, occasioned by the infirm state of his health, he was able, not only to maintain an honourable competition with his fellows, but to excel most of them. For some reason or other, which does not appear, he was now removed to the grammar school of Dundee, where he continued two years, and then went to the university of St. Andrew's. A gentleman, of the name of Fergusson, had left bursaries, for the education of two boys of the same
name, at this university; and Mr. William Fergusson was fortunate enough to procure one of them for his son; the expense of whose future education was thus materially lessened.


At the university, Fergusson became, as at school, speedily distinguished for a quickness of parts, which superseded assiduity of application; united however, with a fondness for society and amusement, which presaged a wayward life. Frank, kind-hearted, and frolicsome, he gained the general esteem of his fellow-students, and in all their youthful follies bore a leading part. His exploits, on one of these occasions, were attended with rather an unfortunate issue. On the evening preceding the distribution of some annual prizes, the successful and disappointed combatants had a fierce encounter, in which, Fergusson was reported to have been one of the must forward combatants. The principal aggressors, including Fergusson, were formally expelled; but in consequence of their penitential submissions, were, within a few days, restored. The eccentric Dr. Wilkie, author of the Epigoniad, with whom Fergusson had become a great favourite, is said to have particularly exerted his interest on this occasion, in behalf of the young offender.


A place of favourite resort with the students, on winter nights, was the Porter's Lodge: which Fergssson has made the subject of some pleasing reminiscences, in his elegy on John Hogg, the Porter.

Say, ye red gowns that aften here
Hae toasted cakes to Katie's beer:
Gin 'ere thir days hae had their peer,
Sae blyth, sae daft;
Ye'll ne'er again, in life's career,
Sit half sae saft.

While pursuing his studies at St. Andrew's, Fergusson is said to have begun to direct his attention to poetry, and to have written many occasional pieces, which attracted the particular notice of the professors, as well as of his fellow-students. None of his published poems, however, can be referred to so early a period; all of them have the marks of long subsequent production. Dr. Irving [note] mentions, that some fragments of a dramatic cast, written with Fergusson's own hand, are to be found on the blank leaves of a book, which was in his possession while at St. Andrew's. The following verses are all that can be distinctly read; they are puerile, but from the period at which they were written, objects of curiosity.—

Therefore, 'tis meet, that Sisera [note] be crown'd
With all the honour worthy of his service:
And that this day for mirth be set apart,
To celebrate the deeds and valiant acts
Display'd by him in war.
Conquest alone, my liege, repays our toil;
But, since it is your sovereign inclination,
This day to grace us with a pompous triumph,
As swift as thought my deeds shall fly, to serve
In all your after battles.

He had, we are told, commenced, at this time, a tragedy, on the story of Sir William Wallace, [note] but relinquished it after finishing the first two acts, be-
cause he met with another drama on the same subject, and was apprehensive of being regarded as a copyist.


Fergusson's original destination was the church. To his name, on his class books, he used to add “Student of Divinity;” but it does not appear, that he ever entered on the actual study of divinity. After attending the preliminary courses of Humanity, Science, and Philosophy, which occupied the four years to which his bursary extended, he returned to Edinburgh. His father was now dead, and his mother in poor circumstances. He found it immediately necessary to have recourse to some employment, for the means of subsistence; and in the hope of being assisted in this object by a maternal uncle, Mr. John Forbes, a gentleman of opulence, who resided in Aberdeen, he paid him a visit. Mr. Forbes received him with kindness, and told him, to make his house his home for the present; but with an insensibility to his ultimate welfare, which shewed as much weakness of head as want of heart, he took no pains to put the youth in a way of providing for himself; and after the lapse of six months, the nephew's clothes beginning to assume rather a poetic appearance, he was no longer deemed a fit guest for his uncle's table; and, to the disgrace of that uncle's memory, was rudely turned out of doors. Poor Fergusson, stung to the quick at the harsh treatment which he had received, retired to a little solitary inn, that stood at a small distance, where he despatched a letter to his unfeeling relative, couched in the most indignant, but manly, terms. The letter appears to have produced a momentary impression of shame
on the uncle; he despatched a messenger after Fergusson, with a few shillings, to defray his expenses on the road to Edinburgh.—A pitiful boon, which, it is probable, Fergusson was not in circumstances to refuse. He travelled all the way on foot, and was so fatigued by his journey, and depressed in spirits, that he reached his mother's house extremely ill, and remained so for several days.


Dr. Irving, and other biographers of Fergusson, say, that when he began to recover strength, he composed two poems, in reference to his adventure in the north; the one, on The Decay of Friendship, and another, Against repining at Fortune. The applicability of the titles appears, however, to be the only authority for this statement. Neither of these pieces made their public appearance till some years afterwards. His visit to Aberdeen must have been made when he was about his eighteenth year, that is, in 1767 or 1768; but the Decay of Friendship was not published (in Ruddiman's [note] Weekly Magazine) till September, 1772; and the lines, Against repining at Fortune, not till 24th September, 1772. Besides, in neither of the poems is there any thing which can be supposed to have a direct reference to the conduct of his uncle, which would, doubtless, have been the case, had they been written in the first warmth of his resentment.


Fergusson was now reduced to such necessitous circumstances, that he was content to submit to the drudgery of copying papers in the office of the commissary's clerk, and afterwards, in that of the sheriff's clerk, for the means of subsistence; an occupation, to which it was his unfortunate lot to remain chained for the rest of his life.


The editor of the first collection of his poems asserts, that he commenced the study of the law, as a profession; but made no progress in it, on account of the sprightliness of his genius, which rose superior to so dry and sedentary a pursuit. The assertion is without foundation. He copied law papers for bread, like the English Chief Justice, Saunders;* [note] and might, possibly, have picked up enough of law knowledge, in the course of time, to become even a Chief Justice; but beyond that very vague chance, neither his hopes nor plans extended. The editors of the Enc. Brit. in their article on Fergusson, embrace the opportunity of making some very sensible

* Sir Edmund Saunders, Lord Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, towards the close of the seventeenth century, was originally, a strolling beggar about the streets, without known parents or relations. He came often to beg scraps at Clement's inn, where his sprightliness and diligence made the society desirous to extricate him from his miserable situation. As he appeared desirous to learn to write, one of the attornies fixed a board up at a window, on the top of a staircase, which served him as a desk, and there the beggar-boy sat, and wrote after copies of court and other hands, in which he at length acquired such expertness, as in some measure to set up for himself, and commence hackney writing. He also took all opportunities of improving himself, by reading such books as he could borrow; and in the course of years became an attorney, counsel, and ultimately Chief Justice.— Biog. Dict. [note]
observations on the pretended incompatibility of the study of the law, with such liveliness of genius as Fergusson possessed. “We might instance,” they say, “different lawyers at our own bar, who, with great poetical talents in their youth, have risen to the summit of their profession; but, to avoid personal distinctions at home, we shall take our examples from England. The genius of the late Earl of Mansfield
[note] was, at least, as lively as that of Mr. Fergusson; and if he had pleased, he could have been equally a poet; yet he submitted to the drudgery of studying a law, still drier than that of Scotland. To the fine taste of Atterbury, [note] Bishop of Rochester, and to his classical compositions, both in prose and verse, no man is a stranger, who is at all conversant in English literature: yet, that elegant scholar and poet, after he had risen to the dignity of Dean of Carlisle, submitted to the drudgery of studying, through the medium of barbarous Latin, the ecclesiastical law of England, from the earliest ages; and declared, that by dint of perseverance, he came, in time, to relish it as much as the study of Homer [note] and Virgil. [note] Whatever may be thought of Milton's [note] political principles, no man can read his controversial writings, and entertain a doubt, that he also could have submitted to the drudgery of studying the law. The truth is, that a man of real vigour of mind may bring himself to delight in any kind of study which is useful and honourable. Such men were Lord Mansfield, the Bishop of Rochester, and Milton. But whether through some radical defect in his nervous system, or in consequence of early dissipations, Mr. Fergusson, with many estimable
qualities, was so utterly destitute of mental vigour, that, rather than submit to what his friends call drudgery, he seemed to have looked with a wistful eye to some sinecure place.”


The last observation will, perhaps, be regarded an exception to the good sense and feeling, which pervade the rest of this passage. It is, surely, a very false supposition, to imagine that Fergusson, who could bend himself to the drudgery of being a mere copying machine, could not muster determination enough, to submit to the mental labour of studying any science which would have conducted him to an honourable independence. The truth is, that poor Fergusson had neither the opportunity, nor the means, of following the law, as a profession. The bar was too remote an aim, for one so destitute: and the inferior branches of the profession were not to be attained except through a servitude, unsuitable to the period of life at which he had arrived. Fergusson was glad to commence copying papers for his daily bread; and, like others, whom accident has thrown into a course of life contrary to their inclination, was prevented by the pressure of daily necessity from adventuring on a better.

“Alone, the oar he plied; the rapids nigh;
To pause, but for a moment, was to die.”

Some friendly hand might have interposed its aid, to give a happier direction to his fortunes; but none such was held forth. Let it not, therefore, be imputed to Fergusson as a fault, that he but yielded to a tide of events, which he could not controul.


The writer in the Encyclopedia has hinted at the probability, that “early dissipation may have contributed to that want of mental vigour,” which he makes the source of Fergusson's declension in life. But the dissipation of Fergusson had not commenced at the time he was under the necessity of betaking himself to the mean employment, in which he continued till the close of his days. Having been, for many years, absent from Edinburgh, he returned to it almost an entire stranger; and it was not till the publication of the poetry, with which he solaced his leisure hours, had brought him into notice about two years after, that he acquired friends and companions, and was drawn by them into the vortex of pleasure. When Fergusson came back from Aberdeen, he could not have passed his nineteenth year; but it was not till 1771, when he was in his twenty-first year, that his pieces began to make their appearance, in Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine. *


That Fergusson, at last, plunged into a course of dissipation, hostile to all steadiness of purpose, and calculated, artificially, to increase the difficulty of emancipating himself from the low condition of life into which he had fallen, must, with feelings of sorrow, be allowed. Possessing great powers of fasci-

* Dr. Irving [note] says, that “ before he reached the twentieth year of his age, many of his little poems made their appearance in Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine. ” But this must be a mistake. The Magazine only commenced in July, 1768, when Mr. Fergusson was in his nineteenth year: and in the first four volumes, there is not an acknowledged line from his pen.
A. S.
nation in company; the broadest humour with the keenest wit; singing, mimicry, and story telling, each in an unrivalled degree; an open heart, for ever overflowing with fine and generous emotions; his company became eagerly courted by persons of all classes in life. Fergusson obeyed the call of pleasure with too unreserved an alacrity; and was but too often led into the company of men, who, simply ambitious of partaking in the excesses of genius, cared not to what extremes of folly they urged him on; and who, unfortunately, could make no compensation, when the hour of revelry was past, for the sacrifices of time and character which their selfish feelings had exacted.


The mind of Fergusson would often return, with sadness, to the bright hopes which shed a radiance over his earlier years; for, though no unwilling votary of pleasure, he was sufficiently conscious of the profitless nature of the round of dissipation in which it had now involved him. It was, probably, on some occasion of this kind, that he wrote the elegy on the Decay of Friendship, which has been ascribed to so much earlier a period. It abounds in circumstances which can only have reference to this day of merriment and glee.

Flattery! alluring as the syren's lay,
And as deceitful, thy enchanting tongue;
How have ye taught my wav'ring mind to stray,
Charm'd and attracted by the baneful song.
*    *    *    *    *    *
To wake emotions in the youthful mind,
Strephon, with voice melodious, tun'd the song;
Each sylvan youth, the sounding chorus join'd,
Fraught with contentment 'mid the festive throng.
*    *    *    *    *    *
But all these youthful sportive hours are fled;
These scenes of jocund mirth are now no more:
No healing slumbers 'tend my humble bed;
No friends console the sorrows of the poor.
And what avail the thoughts of former joy
What comfort they in the adverse hour?
Can they the canker-worm of care destroy,
Or brighten Fortune's discontented lour?
*    *    *    *    *    *
To the lone corner of some distant shore,
In dreary, devious pilgrimage I'll fly,
And wander pensive, where Deceit no more
Shall trace my footsteps with a mortal eye.
There, solitary, saunter o'er the beach,
And to the murm'ring surge my grief disclose;
There, shall my voice, in plaintive wailings, teach
The hollow caverns to resound my woes.
*    *    *    *    *    *
Adieu! ye fields, where I have fondly stray'd:
Ye swains, who once the fav'rite Damon knew:
Farewell, ye sharers of my bounty's aid;
Ye sons of base ingratitude, adieu!

The fits of repentance and amendment, which
such reflections produced, were, however, but of momentary duration; lasting, generally, only till some new allurement invited him to a new oblivion of his cares. His mind was of a cast which sought rather for circumstances of consolation under misfortune, than for the means of overcoming it; turning into an affectation of philosophic indifference, what was, after all, no better than a tame submission to things as he found them. This is strikingly pourtrayed, in his verses
Against repining at Fortune, which may be received as a synopsis of a specious process of reasoning, but too familiar to all dissolute sons of genius. After complaining of Fortune, the author thus apostrophizes Nature:—

*    *    *    *    *    *
Nature, thou look'st with more impartial eyes:
Smile then, fair Goddess on my sober lot,
I'll neither fear her fall, nor court her rise.
When early larks shall cease the matin song;
When Philomel at night resigns her lays;
When melting numbers to the owl belong;
Then shall the reed be silent in thy praise.
Can he, who with the tide of Fortune sails,
More pleasure from the sweets of Nature share;
Do Zephyrs waft him more ambrosial gales,
Or do his groves a gayer liv'ry wear?
To me, the heav'ns unveil as pure a sky;
To me, the flow'rs as rich a bloom disclose;
The morning beams as radiant to my eye;
And darkness guides me to as sweet repose.

The genuine sincerity of such reflections can in no way be better illustrated, than by the very next verses which Fergusson published in his poetical Itinerary, Ruddiman's Magazine. They are entitled, “Braid Claith.”

Ye, wha are fain to hae your name
Wrote in the bonny book of fame;
Let merit nae pretension claim
To laurel'd wreath:
But hap ye weel, baith back and wame,
In guide braid claith.
*    *    *    *    *    *
Braid claith lends fouk an unco heeze;
Makes mony kail-worms, butterflees;
Gies mony a doctor his degrees,
For little skaith:
In short, you may be what you please
Wi' gude braid claith.
For thof ye had as wise a snout on,
As Shakespeare,
[note] or Sir Isaac Newton, [note]
Your judgment, fouk wad hae a doubt on;
I'll tak my aith;
Till they could see ye wi' a suit on,
O gude braid claith.

Fergusson, unable to resist the temptations which the town daily, or rather nightly, presented, had conceived the determination of flying from them. He took lodgings at a small distance from town; made frequent excursions into the country; and at last, finding that the syren pleasure still waylaid him
wherever he roved on Scottish ground, thought of going to sea, to try his fortune. All this shews, if not much resolution, at least, much good intention; a dread of the abyss to which he was hastening, but so unhappy inability to escape it.


While on one of these country rambles, a clergyman discovered him, wandering, in a pensive mood, through the church-yard of Haddington. The worthy divine, though unacquainted with Fergusson, appears to have known his person and character; and entering into conversation with him, took advantage of the many memorials of human mortality scattered around them, to touch with energy and feeling, though without the seeming of any personal allusion, on the madness of those, who, heedless of the awful account which they must render at last, waste the precious moments of this life in a ceaseless round of gaiety and licentiousness. The applicability of this casual lesson to his own situation, and to his train of feeling at the moment, sunk deep into the mind of Fergusson, and he returned to Edinburgh, fully resolved to enter upon an amended course of life. This, like most of his resolutions, however, quickly yielded to new seductions, and had become almost forgotten, when an incident, of somewhat a romantic cast, recalled forcibly to mind the lessons of his church-yard monitor. In the room adjoining that in which Fergusson slept, a starling was kept. One night, a cat, having found its way down the chimney, seized the starling, which awoke Mr. Fergusson by the most alarming screams. He rose, and discovered the cause of the alarm, but too late to save the poor bird. The circumstance gave rise to reflec-
tion, which banished sleep from his pillow for the rest of the night. How truly had the often-recited lesson of his youth been exemplified.— “He shall come upon thee in the night, as a thief cometh, and thou shalt not know when he cometh!” How terrible had been the fatal stroke, to a sinless and unaccountable creature! Could it be less so, to one who shared of the sinfulness common to humanity; who might be seized in the midst of sins unnumbered and unrepented; and to whom death was not oblivion, but the passage to a state of eternal misery or happiness? Indulging in this train of thought, rendered more awful by the solemn stillness of the night, day light found him wrought up to a pitch of remorse, bordering on despair. He rose, not as he was wont, to mix again with the social and gay, but to be a recluse from society, devoured by the remembrance of follies past. All his vivacity had forsaken him; those lips, which never opened but to impart delight, were closed as by the hand of death; and “on his countenance sat horror plumed.”


Even this impression, however deep and appalling it was, vanished in the course of time. Fergusson's nature was of too social a cast to resist the attractions of pleasure long. Yielding to one kind importunity after another, he gradually relapsed into his old course of gaiety and dissipation. Happily, however, for the interests of poetry if not for his own, he still laboured with assiduity in the service of the Muses. During the years 1772 and 1773, which embrace the worst periods of his dissipation, scarcely a week elapsed without some valuable contribution to Ruddiman's Magazine. His poetic fervour, indeed, seemed always greatest when he was new
from the inspirations of the festive circle; and most of his pieces bear obvious marks of having been the rapid result of passing suggestions and occurrences.


In August, 1773, he published a poetical account of the expedition to Fife and the Island of May on board the Blessed Endeavour of Dunbar, Captain Roxburgh Commander. The party appear to have been inhospitably received on the Fifan shore, and Fergusson thus pours out on it the vials of a poet's wrath.

“To Fife we steer, of all beneath the sun
The most unhallow'd mid the Scotian plains!
And here, sad emblem of deceitful times,
Hath sad Hypocrisy her standard borne.
Mirth knows no residence, but ghastly Fear
Stands trembling and appal'd at airy sights.
Once only, only once, (reward it, O ye powers!)
Did Hospitality, with open face
And winning smile, cheer the deserted sight,
That else had languish'd for the blest return
Of beauteous day to dissipate the clouds
Of endless night and superstition wild,
That constant hover o'er the dark abode.”

This reproach gave such offence to the swains of Fife, that one of them, in that true spirit of locality which led Captain Forbes to challenge Wilkes, [note] sent a similar message to Fergusson;

“Some canker'd, surly, sour-mow'd carline
Bred near the Abbey o' Dunfarmline.”

Instead of accepting the invitation, however, the bard treated it with the ridicule which it deserved.


In the course of the same year, Fergusson took a ramble to Dumfries, to visit an old poetic companion,
of the name of
Charles Salmon, * who had left Edinburgh, to follow the business of a printer with Mr. Jackson, [note] the publisher of the Dumfries Weekly Magazine. He was accompanied by a Lieutenant Wilson of the navy; the son of a Mr. Wilson, [note] well known at one time as a lecturer on elocution in Edinburgh, and the author of several occasional pieces of poetry, which appeared in the public journals with the signature of Claudero. Fergusson presented himself to the curious gaze of the Dumfries wits, in rather a strange plight. His person and dress were in the greatest disorder: he wore, instead of a coat, a short white flannel jacket; and having performed the journey on foot, was all over dust. He seemed for all the world like a recruit after a long march, instead of the gay minstrel, “on pleasure bent.” He apologized for his dishabille by saying, that his friend and himself had taken rather sudden leave of “Auld Reikie;” they had been carousing together the preceding night, and after leaving the tavern at peep of morn, had indulged in some such pranks as those so pleasantly related in the epilogue spoken by Mr. Wilson, in the character of an Edinburgh Buck.

“———for valour's dazzling sun
Up to his bright meridian had run,
And like renowned Quixote and his squire,
Sports and adventures were our sole desire.
*    *    *    *    *    *
Now had they borrow'd Argus' eyes, who saw us,
All was made dark and desolate as chaos;

* See Memoir of Salmon in Part III.
Lamps tumbled after lamps, and lost their lustres,
Like doomsday when time stars shall fall in clusters.
Let fancy paint what dazzling glory grew,
From christal gems, when Phœbus came in view:
Each shatter'd orb ten thousand fragments strews,
And a new Sun in every fragment shews.”

To end their frolic, or, perhaps, to escape its consequences, Fergusson proposed, that without going home, they should start off to Dumfries, on a visit to their old friend Charlie Salmon. The challenge was readily accepted, and away they hied. Salmon, proud of his visitor, introduced him to all the admirers of genius about Dumfries, in whose society he found quite another Edinburgh, of high delight and ruinous excess. His reminiscence of the banks of the Nith was however of a different sort from that of the Fifan plains; for in the hour of parting, being pressed to leave some memorial of his Nithsdale excursion, he wrote on the instant (as he did most of his pieces) the following complimentary verses: they have not appeared in any collection of his works, nor indeed in print, unless it may have been in the Dumfries Weekly Magazine, which the writer of the present memoir has no opportunity of consulting. He is now indebted for them to a manuscript copy taken at the time, by one who had the pleasure of seeing Fergusson, when on this poetic ramble.*

* And the honour of following closer on his footsteps, than any one of all the Scottish bards who intervened between him and Burns. Mr. Scott, [note] in his notes to the Lady of the Lake, speaking of the ceremony of shoot-
Verses on visiting Dumfries.
The gods, sure, in some canny hour,
To bonny Nith ha'e ta'en a tour,
Where bonny blinks the cawler flow'r,
Beside the stream;
And, sportive, there ha'e shawn their pow'r
In fairy dream!
Had Kirkhill * here but kent the gaet,
The beauties on Dumfries that wait,
He'd never turn'd his canker'd pate,
O' satire keen,
When ilka thing's sae trig and feat
To please the een.
I ken, the stirrah loo'd fu' weel
Amang the drinking loons to reel;
On claret brown or porter sweel,
Whilk he cou'd get;
After a shank o' beef he'd peel,
His craig to whet.
Marshals and Bushbys † then had fund
Some kitchen gude to lay the grund,
And Cheshire mites wi' skill to hund,
And fley awa
The heart-scad, and a scud o' wund
Frae stamack raw!

ing for the silver gun at Dumfries, says, “it is the subject of an excellent Scottish poem, entitled the Siller Gun, 1808, by Mr. John Mayne, [note] which surpasses the efforts of Fergusson and comes near those of Burns.
* Churchill [note] the satirist.
† The chief innkeepers in Dumfries.
Had Horace [note] liv'd, that pleasant sinner,
Who loo'd gude wine to synd his dinner,
His muse, though dowf, the deil be in her,
Wi' blithest sang,
The drink wad round Parnassus rin her
Ere it were lang!
Nae mair he'd sung to auld Mecænas
The blinking een o' bonny Venus;
His leave at ance he wud ha'e ta'en us
For claret here,
Which Jove and a' his gods still rain us
Frae year to year!
O! Jove, man! gie's some orro pence,
Mair siller, and a wee mair sense,
I'd big to you a rural spence,
And bide a' simmer;
And cauld frae saul and body fence
Wi' frequent brimmer!
R. Fergusson.

Towards the end of 1773, Fergusson published a collection of his poems, including such pieces as had appeared in Ruddiman's Magazine, and a few others.


“Auld Reikie,” the first canto of an intended poem of some length, followed; it was dedicated to Sir William Forbes, [note] the friend and biographer of Dr. Beattie, but, as Dr. Irving [note] tells us, that worthy Baronet despised

“The poor ovations of a minstrel's praise.”

He was even, it seems, offended at the liberty which Fergusson had taken, in dedicating it to him without permission.


The dissipated course of life which had now so long been habitual with Fergusson, began, at length, to hasten towards its natural termination. His bodily frame, never very strong, became broken and emaciated; his mind lost all coherence, and sunk from weakness into a state of utter lunacy: fears of the future returned and usurped entire dominion over his disordered intellects. Religion was now his only theme, and the Bible, as with Collins, [note] his constant companion.* The few unpublished manuscripts which he had in his possession he committed to the flames, and the only consolation which the recollection of his poetry seemed to afford him, was, that it had never been prostituted to the service of vice or irreligion.


From this afflicting state of mental alienation, he experienced a temporary relief and began again to visit his friends. One night however he had the misfortune to fall from a staircase, and was carried home in a state of insensibility. Frenzy ensued, and as his poor mother was not in circumstances to command the attendance requisite, in her own house, she was under the painful necessity of removing him to the public Asylum. A few of his most intimate friends, having watched a proper opportunity, found means to convey him thither, by decoying him into a chair, as if he had been about to pay

* “He had withdrawn from study, and travelled with no other book than an English Testament, such as children carry to the school, when his friend took it into his head, out of curiosity, to see what companion a man of letters had chosen. ‘I have but one book,’ said Collins, ‘but it is the best.’”
Johnson's Life of Collins.
some evening visit. When they had reached the place of their destination, all was wrapt in profound silence. The poor youth entered the dismal mansion; he cast his eyes wildly around and began to perceive his real situation: the discovery awakened every feeling of his soul. He raised a hideous shout, which being returned by the wretched inhabitants of every cell, echoed along the vaulted roofs, and produced in the minds of his companions sentiments of unspeakable horror.*


When he was afterwards visited by his mother and sisters, they found him lying in his cell, calm and collected. He expressed a perfect knowledge of his melancholy condition; recalled to their recollection a presentiment which he had often felt, of thus ending his days; but endeavoured to comfort them with assurances of his being humanely used in the Asylum. At parting, he entreated his sister to come and frequently sit by him, in order to dispel the gloom which overcast his mind. But, alas they parted never to meet again. A few days after, the melancholy tidings came, that poor Fergusson had breathed his last. He died on the 16th of October, 1774, in the twenty-fifth year of his age. His remains were interred in the Canongate church-yard.


In a poetical will and codicil, which Fergusson published the year before his death, he had confided the task of writing his epitaph to one of his most intimate companions, William Greenlaw.

* Irving. [note]
† The following notice of Greenlaw appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine and Review, a few weeks after his death.
“Let honest Greenlaw be the staff,
On which I lean for epitaph:
And that the Muses, at my end,
May know I had a learned friend,

“Died, at Edinburgh, Mr. William Greenlaw, preacher of the gospel, in the sixty third year of his age. Though he followed not the profession to which he was bred, he was deeply skilled in theology: the few discourses he composed, discovered an abundance of matter that would have sparkled through entire volumes of modern sermons. His views also in astronomy and all the branches of mathematics were profound and uncommon, but he meant chiefly to distinguish himself by his knowledge of the learned languages: the study of them was the great object of his life, and the progress he made in them was proportioned to his acuteness and assiduity. He taught them privately in Edinburgh, above twenty years; and there was so little jealousy in his nature, that he freely bestowed his knowledge on those teachers who wished to profit by his communications. What peculiarly distinguished him, was a flow of inoffensive humour; a gift rarely possessed by the natives of Scotland. His heart was warm and open, his social spirit unbounded. Of money he professed a contempt, and he refused a living, which his friends would have pressed upon him. With an ambition to excel, he was yet careless of his reputation; conscious of his own merit, he allowed men to judge of him as they pleased. His manners were simple, his figure ungainly. In a licentious age he made a vow of chastity, and what is more surprising,
Whate'er of character he's seen,
In me thro' humour or chagrin;
I crave his genius may narrate in
The strength of Ciceronian Latin.”

Greenlaw, however, died without performing the friendly office thus bequeathed to him. The loss of Fergusson was, indeed, not unlamented by his poetical contemporaries. The press teemed with affectionate tributes to his memory. One of the best of these, written by Mr. Tait, [note] author of the Cave of Morar, is commonly appended to the editions of Fergusson's works. Mr. Wood, [note] the respectable comedian of the Edinburgh theatre, who ranked among the most esteemed friends of Fergusson, tendered some lines which might have supplied “honest Greenlaw's” omission; but though of considerable merit, they have been hitherto passed unnoticed by all Fergusson's biographers.

Epitaph intended for the late Robert Fergusson.
Mild Nature smil'd upon her sportive bard,
But Fortune from his sight her blessings hurl'd,
His spirit maddened at the lean reward,
Burst from its bonds, and left th' ungrateful world.
W. Woods.

Fergusson has thus commemorated his regard for Mr. Woods, in his will:—

he kept it. The last years of his life were rather unfortunate; the constant use he had made of his faculties seems to have impaired them. But he had not the misery to survive their extinction; death came to him when his friends wished for it.”
“To Woods, whose genius can provoke
His passions to the bowl or sock,
For love to thee, and to the nine,
Be my immortal Shakspeare
[note] thine:
Here may you thro' the alleys turn,
Where Falstaff laughs, where heroes mourn,
And boldly catch the glowing fire,
That dwells in raptures on his lyre.”

Of all the poets, however, who have attempted to do justice to the memory of Fergusson, none has performed the task in a more feeling or discriminating manner than Dr. Geddes, in his “ Epistle to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, on being chosen a correspondent member.”

“Whare now the nymphs that wont to feed
Their flocks upon the banks o' Tweed,
An' sang sa mony a winsom air
About the bus aboon Traquair?
Waes me! sin'
Ramsay disappear'd.
Their tunefu' voice is na mair hear'd:
Nor ha' their charms sin syne been shown,
Except to Fergusson alone.
Ill-wierdet wight! wha wud prefer
A reaming bicker o' Bell's beer,
To a' the nectar that distills
Fre Phœbus' munt in sucar't rills;
And loo'd Ald Reikie's boussom lasses,
Mair than the maidens o' Parnassus;
Yet he had ilka art to please,
And win the dortiest een of these:
His was the reed, sae sweet and shrill,
That sang The lass of Patie's Mill;
That temper't Hammy's native fire;
And Forbes' fife, sa feat and trim
Was left, but ony doubt, to him;
But nowther reed, nor lyre, nor fife,
Regarded he, but drank thro' life,
And leugh until the cald o' death
Chill't his heart-blude, and stop't his breath;
He died, puir saul! and wi' him died
The relict Muse, o' Mither-Lied.”*

The spot, which contained the ashes of poor Fergusson remained for a long time without any monument to mark it out to the eye of the inquiring stranger. It was reserved to the kindred spirit of Burns to repair this national neglect. “In relating,” says Dr. Currie, [note] “the incidents of our poet's life in Edinburgh, we ought to have mentioned the sentiments of respect and sympathy with which he traced out the grave of his predecessor, Fergusson; over whose ashes, in the Canongate church-yard, he obtained leave to erect an humble monument; which will be viewed by reflecting minds with no common interest; and which will awake in the bosom of kindred genius, many a high emotion.” On one side of the stone, he caused the following epitaph, of his own composition, to be engraven:

“No sculptur'd marble here, nor pompous lay!
No storied urn, nor animated bust!
This simple stone directs pale Scotia's way
To pour her sorrows o'er her poet's dust.”

The other side bears this inscription:

* Mother tongue.
“By special grant of the Managers
To Robert Burns, —who erected this stone,
This burial-place is ever to remain sacred to the
memory of
Robert Fergusson.”

How fondly Fergusson was beloved by his friends, was evinced in a very remarkable manner by a circumstance which occurred shortly after his death; and which shews, that though he must ever be ranked amongst the neglected sons of genius, those who shared his intimacy are least to be reproached with that neglect. Among his numerous gay associates, many, doubtless, were unprofitable through utter heedlessness; but there were others, who only wanted the power, to have made the greatest sacrifices for the sake of their ingenious friend. There was one who lived to have that power, and he exercised it nobly. He was a young gentleman of the name of Burnet. Having gone out to the East Indies, he soon found himself on the road to affluence; and remembering the less fortunate situation of the friend whom he admired above all others, he sent Fergusson a cordial invitation to come over to India; pointed out the mode by which the requisite permission might be obtained; and at the same time, enclosed a draught for one hundred pounds, to defray the expenses of his outfit. A generous deed! But alas! it came too late—It fell “as a sunbeam on the blasted blossom.” Before the letter arrived, poor Fergusson had breathed his last. Deeds, like this, are rare in the history of youthful attachments; unexampled, perhaps, in the chances of humble genius.
Mr. Burnet's benevolent intentions were, indeed, frustrated by the stroke of death, but they will have their reward in an honourable fame; for, while the name of Fergusson lasts, that of Burnet can never be forgotten.


Of the fascinating charm which Fergusson carried with him into society, scarcely any description can convey an adequate idea. A gentleman, who had felt and owned its power, speaks thus of it, in a letter to Burns. —“While I recollect with pleasure his extraordinary talents and many amiable qualities, it affords me the greatest consolation, that I am honoured with the correspondence of his successor in national simplicity and genius. That Mr. Burns has refined in the art of poetry, must readily be admitted; but notwithstanding many favourable representations, I am yet to learn that he inherits his convivial powers. There was such a richness of conversation, such a plenitude of fancy and attraction in him, that, when I call the happy period of our intercourse to my memory, I feel myself in a state of delirium. I was, then, younger than him by eight or ten years; but his manner was so felicitous, that he enraptured every person around him, and infused into the hearts of the young and old, the spirit and animation which operated on his own mind.*


It is but too true, that these great social qualifications alienated him from habits of temperance and sobriety, “without which,” as one of his biographers justly remarks, “no character can be proposed as an

* Currie's Life of Burns.
example worthy of imitation.” Yet, much allowance surely most be made for the unfortunate circumstances in which Fergusson was placed, which left him, at an age which is a crisis in the lives of all men, without any fixed object of honourable pursuit—as a ship without a rudder, to be tossed to and fro by every passing wind; much allowance, too, for the sovereign powers of that juice, of which Fergusson has sung as he felt:—

“———whose care-controuling pow'rs
Could ev'ry human misery subdue,
And wake to sportive joy the leisure hours,
That to the languid senses hateful grew.”

It is also due to the character of Fergusson, to observe, that whatever sacrifices his habits of dissipation involved, that of a spirit of independence was not among the number. “He never disgraced his Muse with the servile strain of panegyric; he flattered no illiterate peer, nor sacrificed his sincerity, in order to advance his interest.” Such is the language of a writer, [note] whose testimony, on the subject, I quote the more willingly, that it may serve to counteract a harsh and extremely inconsistent assertion of his own, in another place, that Fergusson, when his funds were in an exhausted state, “had recourse to mean and despicable shifts.” Had there been even some colour of pretence for the imputation, we might again say to this writer, in his own words,—“ Yet over his frailties, let humanity drop a tear;

* Irving. [note]
let his virtues only be remembered, let his vices sink into oblivion.*”


In appreciating the poetical genius of Fergusson, “it ought to be recollected,” says Dr. Currie, [note] very justly, “that his poems are the effusions of an irregular, though amiable, young man,” who “wrote for his amusement, in the intervals of business or dissipation.” They were all, with very few exceptions, short as the impulses which gave rise to them were momentary; hit off at once, and sent for publication in the unpolished state in which they first came from his pen. Auld Reikie, the longest of his poems, is almost the only one which was begun on an extended plan. It was originally offered as a first Canto; but never received any important additions.


Although, therefore, we must expect to meet, in Fergusson's works, with many instances of crude thought and faulty expression, and, perhaps, with little of that reach of imagination which belongs to vigorous and continued exertion; yet, if we would describe Fergusson by those qualities by which he will be best recognized by his admirers, we must speak of the ease and sprightliness of his manner, the fidelity of his delineations of men and manners, the fancy with which he has embellished, and the just observation with which he has enriched, them.


His best poems are those in the Scottish language. If we except his Last Will and the Codicil, his Epilogue of the Edinburgh Buck, and Verses written at the Hermitage of Braid, none of his English productions rise

* Life of Fergusson. —Original Edition, p. 35.
above mediocrity. It would seem, however, that this arose less from a want of a perfect acquaintance with the English language, as many passages which may rank with the purest specimens of English classic poetry serve to shew; than from his having preferred his native tongue for most of his happier themes, and particularly those which related to Scottish life and manners.


“The popularity of his Scottish poems,” says Irving, [note] “is a strong proof of their intrinsic merit.” A stronger could not be wished. “In that part of the island,” he adds, “where their beauties can be properly understood and relished, few productions of a similar description have been so universally admired; they are read by people of every denomination.”


Dr. Currie, and Dr. Irving after him, consider “The Farmer's Ingle” as the “happiest of all Fergusson's productions.” It possesses indeed superior merit, and acquires an additional interest from having undoubtedly suggested to Burns, the subject of his admirable poem of the Cotter's Saturday Night. The distance between the two poems is, however, great; and one may be excused for seeking a better corner-stone for Fergusson's poetical reputation, than “The Farmer's Ingle.” Burns has surpassed Fergusson in his delineation of the rural fireside, for one reason among others, that he knew it better. Fergusson, who had lived about town and college from his infancy, was at home in describing the incidents of a town life, such as the Daft Days, the King's Birth Day, the Election, Leith Races, and The Hallow Fair; but he went from it, when he took a ramble infancy to “The Farmer's Ingle,” where he had never been but a passing visitor. Perhaps no better proof of this could be adduced than
the fact, that Fergusson, in attempting a picture of the incidents which fill up the evening hours under the roof of a Scottish farmer, should have omitted a circumstance so peculiarly characteristic of this walk in life, and of which Burns has made so sublime a use, as the performance of evening worship. This pious and excellent practice had began to be much neglected in our towns, even in Fergusson's time; but was then, as it is now, very generally observed by the inhabitants of the country, particularly those of the western counties.

“O Scotland! much I love thy tranquil dales;
But most on Sabbath eve, when low the sun
Slants through the upland copse, 'tis my delight,
Wandering, and stopping oft, to hear the song
Of kindred praise arise from humble roofs.”

Had Fergusson often passed his nights under such roofs, it is scarcely conceivable that this “simple service,” the source of so many pleasing and poetic reflections, would not have found a place among his reminiscences: the want of it forms a great deficiency in the poem, and would alone be a sufficient reason for not regarding “The Farmer's Ingle” as “the happiest of all his productions.”


“Hame Content,” a satire, and “Leith Races,” are either of them well entitled to take the precedence of “The Farmer's Ingle.” They surpass it both in melody of numbers and in gaiety of fancy, and are not inferior to it in circumstantiality of painting. In all his works, Fergusson has nothing finer than the
concluding verses of the one poem, and the initial stanzas of the other.


In “Hame Content,” the author, after ridiculing those who fly to foreign climes in quest of pleasure, breaks out into the following delightful vindication of the poetical and rural charms of his own beloved Scotia:

“The Arno and the Tiber, lang
Hae run full clear in Roman sang;
But, save the rev'rence of the schools!
They're baith but lifeless dowy pools.
Dought they compare wi' bonny Tweed,
As clear as ony lammer-bead?
Or are their shores mair sweet or gay
Than Fortha's haughs, or banks o' Tay?
Tho' there the herds can jink the show'rs,
'Mang thriving vines and myrtle bow'rs,
And blaw the reed to kittle strains,
While echo's tongue commends their pains;
Like our's, they canna warm the heart
Wi' simple saft bewitching art.
On Leader haughs and Yarrow braes,
Arcadian herds wad tyne their lays,
To hear the mair melodious sounds
That live on our poetic grounds.
Come, Fancy, come and let us tread
The simmer flow'ry velvet bed,
And a' your springs delightfu' lowse,
On Tweeda's banks, or Cowden knows,
That, taen wi' thy enchanting sang,
Our Scottish lads may round ye thrang,
Sae pleas'd, they'll never fash again
To court you on Italian plain;
Soon will they guess ye only wear
The simple garb o' Nature here;
Mair comely far, and fair to sight,
Whan in her easy cleething dight,
Than in disguise ye was before
On Tiber's or on Arno's shore.
O Bangour!* now the hills and dales
Nae mair gie back thy tender tales!
The birks on Yarrow now deplore
Thy mournfu' muse has left the shore:
Near what bright burn or crystal spring,
Did you your winsome whistle hing?
The muse shall there, wi' wat'ry e'e,
Gie the dunk swaird a tear for thee;
And Yarrow's genius, dewy dame!
Shall there forget her blude-strain'd stream,
On thy sad grave to seek repose,
Wha' mourn'd her fate, condol'd her woes.”

In the poem of “Leith Races,” as well as that of “The Farmer's Ingle, Fergusson has the honour of having Burns for an imitator. The commencement of the Holy Fair is as close a copy of the opening stanzas of “Leith Races, ” as can well be conceived; indeed, none but a genius, bold in its own strength, could have ventured on such an appropriation. Fergusson thus commences:

“In July month, ae bonny morn,
Whan Nature's rokelay green
Was spread o'er ilka rigg o' corn,

* Hamilton of Bangour.
To charm our roving e'en;
Glowring about, I saw a quean,
The fairest 'neath the lift,
Her een were o' the siller sheen,
Her skin like snawy drift,
Sae white that day.”

The Nymph having accosted him, he thus rejoins:

And wha are ye, my winsome dear,
That takes the gate sae early?
Whare do ye win, gin ane may speir?
For I right mickle ferly,
That sic braw buskit laughing lass,
Her bonny blinks should gie,
An' loup, like Hebe, o'er the grass,
As wanton and as free,
Frae dule this day.
“I dwall amang the caller springs,
That weet the Land o' Cakes,
An' aften tune my canty strings,
At bridals and late wakes.
They ca' me Mirth; I ne'er was kend
To grumble, or look sour;
But blyth wad be a lift to lend,
Gif ye wad sey my pow'r,
An' pith, this day.”
“A bargain be 't, and by my fegs,
Gif ye will be my mate,
Wi' you I'll screw the cheery pegs,
Ye shanna find me blate;
We'll reel and ramble thro' the sands,
And jeer wi' a' we meet,
Nor hip the daft and gleesome bands,
That fill Edina's sheet,
Sae thrang this day.”

The following is the exordium of the “ Holy Fair:”

“Upon a simmer Sunday morn,
When Nature's face is fair,
I walked forth to view the corn,
An' snuff the caller air.
The rising sun o'er Galston muirs,
Wi' glorious light was glintin;
The hares were hirplin down the furs,
The lav'rocks they war chantin,
Fu' sweet that day.
As lightsomely I glowr'd abroad,
To see a scene sae gay,
Three hizzies, early at the road,
Cain skelpin up time way;
Twa had manteeles o' dolefu' black,
But ane wi' lyart lining,
The third that gaed a wee a back,
Was in the fashion shining,
Fu' gay that day, &c.”

Nor can it be said, that, in this instance, Burns has improved on his model; the superiority lies decidedly with Fergusson.


The “Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causeway,” another piece of great merit by Fergusson, appears also to have given Burns the idea of his poem of the Twa Brigs. The manner in which he
establishes the personification of the two imaginary interlocutors, presents a happy specimen of his facility of invention, and that satirical humour which more or less pervades all his poems.

“Since Merlin laid Auld Reikie's causeway,
And made her o' his wark right saucy,
The spacious street and plainstanes,
Were never heard to crack but anes,
Whilk happened in the hinder night,
Whan Fraser's ulie tint its light
Of Highland sentries, nane were waukin,
To hear their cronies glibly taukin:
For them this wonder might hae rotten,
And, like night robb'ry, been forgotten,
Had na a cadie, wi' his lanthorn,
Been gleg enough to hear them bant'rin,
Wha cam to me neist morning early,
To gie me tidings o' this ferly.
Ye tauntin loons, trow this nae joke,
For anes the ass of Balaam spoke,
Better than lawyers do forsooth,
For it spake naething but the truth;
Whether they follow its example,
You'll ken best whan you hear the sample.”

That Burns should have taken the works of Fergusson so often for his guide, is as high a tribute as perhaps ever was paid to their merit. The Bard of Coila has indeed candidly acknowledged, in a letter to Dr. Moore, [note] that he had nearly abandoned poetry, when, in his twenty-third year having become acquainted with the works of Fergusson, he “strung anew his wildly-sounding lyre, with emulating vigor.”


It has been observed as somewhat remarkable, that Fergusson, though peculiarly distinguished for the harmony of his voice and the delicacy of his ear, never paid any serious attention to song writing.— Burns was the favorite child, for whom the Muses had reserved this department; and Fergusson, in sympathetic obedience to their decree, attempted not to trespass upon it. His mind was probably of too quick and epigrammatic a turn to fall into that simple flow of impassioned feeling which constitutes the essence of song writing.


In all the works of Fergusson, indeed, the effect aimed at and produced, is rather to please the fancy than touch the heart. In his Ode to the Bee, he has himself supplied us with the genuine character of his Muse:

“Like thee, by fancy wing'd, the Muse
Scuds ear' and heartsome o'er the dews,
Fu' vogie and fu' blyth to crap
The winsome flow'rs frae Nature's lap;
Twining her living garlands there,
That lyart time can ne'er impair.”
D. C.