For a long time Robert Fergusson has been interesting to us more for his influence on Robert Burns than for his own work, and even still he tends to live in his shadow. When we read Fergusson it was to deepen our understanding of Burns who famously wrote about him: “O thou, my elder brother in misfortune/ By far my elder brother in the muse”. Indeed, it was reading Fergusson’s work that inspired Burns to take up writing poetry. He died in 1774, when Burns was 15. Fergusson himself was only 24 when he died and we can only look back with profound regret at the keen friendship that might have developed between them had he lived.
Now, though, the balance of favour has turned in Fergusson’s direction again and we see him as a great talent in his own right. Neglected for a long time by Edinburgh, the city he loved, lived in and wrote about, his story is a deeply tragic one and we wonder what effect he would have had on Scottish literature if he had lived to fulfil the tremendous skill and talent he showed in the three years of his writing career.
He was a well-educated man, having studied at the University of St Andrews. There he received a wide-ranging education in the arts, and in particular studied the major English literary texts – Shakespeare, Pope, Chaucer etc. When his father died, he left university and went to Edinburgh to support himself and his mother by copying legal documents in a commissary clerk’s office – gruelling, laborious work which paid very little.
Like many people these days in grim, mind-numbing employment Fergusson lived for the weekends and the holidays. Things may have changed a lot in 300 years – but not that much. The world he describes may differ in a few details but in a good many of his poems we can easily identify with his descriptions of the many fairs and festivals in the Edinburgh calendar. Poems like Hallow Fair, Caller Oysters and The Leith Races describe the relief and joy that holidays bring, followed closely by the first taste of alcohol, then the merriment and singing and flirting that goes with the consumption of a few drinks – until, inevitably, excess clouds the senses in a haze of violence, abuse and, occasionally, drunken sex, the Polis get brought in and everybody wakes up sore the next day. A ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality, you could say.
Fergusson is regarded as an Edinburgh poet in much the same way as Burns is viewed as a poet of the countryside. He wrote about the people there, from all walks of life. You could say he walked it like he talked it. In several of his poems, like Mally Leigh, he conjures up a picture of a city filled with life and vivid characters. Auld Reekie is his most celebrated poem which is itself a celebration of Edinburgh street life and a pungent evocation of the time. It is widely considered to be Scots vernacular poetry at its best.
By no means, however, did Fergusson restrict his subject matter to the streets of the capital. The Farmer’s Ingle colourfully and loving describes country life. Elegy On the Death of Scots Music is a heartfelt lament for the death of Edinburgh musician William MacGibbon – and the demise of Scottish culture in general – and shows Fergusson’s command of the Scots language and classical poetic form.
We like that about Fergusson. His is an uncomplicated, unpretentious but highly artful poetry. In his poems lawyers and clerks rub shoulders with fisherfolk and market-traders – all flung together in the great democratic institution that is the pub. Everybody is equal when looked at through the bottom of a tumbler, characters we could (snobbishly) describe as “low-life” are exalted in the beauty of his art.
Fergusson chose to write in Scots – despite many, including his professor of Rhetoric at St Andrew’s University, being very much against the vernacular tradition – and he proved himself to have a natural ability in it. It is useful to remember here that although the Scots have always been a literate (and literary) nation, not all people could read and write the way we do now. Scots was largely a spoken language, not often written down, but it was the language of the people: the language they laughed and sang and argued in. Now, with the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 a lot of people thought it was improper or impolite or unseemly to use that language, and the language of England was the thing. 1707 had given the Scots something to be deeply angry about – since it happened without the consent of the people – and also something to argue with each other about. This argument fuelled a great revival in the arts in Scotland – sometimes called the Enlightenment – and Fergusson played a significant part in that. Since 1707 choosing to write in Scots had become a political act – and so it has remained right up to the present day. By choosing to write in Scots you were saying No! to the domination of English (language) culture and Aye! to your own.