Billy Kay reads The Ghaists by Robert Fergusson on his birthday.

“Robert Burns was moved to call Fergusson his ‘elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse’ when he commissioned a headstone in Canongate Churchyard, thirteen years after the poet had been buried there, a pauper in an unmarked grave.” More at SPL here.

 

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Fergusson’s life was cut tragically short. As Writing Scotland tells us:

“Towards the end of 1773, Fergusson was afflicted by depression, which beset him until his death. Biographers have described his condition as ‘religious melancholia’, an illness in which sufferers psychotically ponder religious doctrines. Whether or not this is the case, his disorder forced him to withdraw from his work.

Following a short recuperation, Fergusson experienced a violent and ultimately fatal blow to the head falling down a flight of stairs. After his fall, the poet was deemed ‘insensible’, and when his mother’s attempts to care for him failed, he was transferred to Edinburgh’s Bedlam madhouse. Probably as a result of his injury, Fergusson died, incarcerated, on 17 October, 1774, aged twenty-four.

The poet was buried in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard. In 1787, Robert Burns erected a monument at his grave, commemorating Fergusson as ‘Scotia’s Poet’.”

“Politically, Fergusson was a nationalist with Jacobite sympathies, and in ‘The Ghaists’ (1773), the poet is at his most jaggedly opinionated. In this graveyard dialogue between two Edinburgh ghosts, Fergusson bemoans the political present under the Union, and offers his most explicit statement on the ‘United Kingdom’: ‘Black be the day that e’er to England’s ground/Scotland was eikit by the Union’s bond’. The Scotland that Fergusson champions throughout his work is the ‘Caledon’ of the past, the Stuart Scotland ‘Whan royal Jamie sway’d the sovereign rod’. In works including ‘Elegy, on the Death of Scots Music’ (1772), ‘The Rivers of Scotland’ and ‘To the Principals and Professors of St. Andrews University, on their superb treat to Samuel Johnson’ (both 1773), Fergusson’s political mind is at the fore – glorifying Scotland’s illustrious past, he mourns what he sees as the nation’s subjugated state in Great Britain.

Fergusson’s masterpiece is his panoramic ‘Auld Reikie, A Poem’ (1773), which surveys a day in the life of Edinburgh in spectacular fashion. In a work which refuses to shy from either the grandeur or the depravities of Edinburgh life, Fergusson demonstrates a relationship with his native city comparable to Gay’s London or Villon’s Paris. Auld Reikie is the ‘wale o’ ilka Town’, a centre for conviviality, a place of beauty and chaos, immorality and poverty. It is a town of atrocious ‘morning smell’, where a prostitute makes ‘Vice her end’ and, at the same time, a place where we may glimpse a ‘fav’rite keek o’ glore and heaven’. While irony is not absent from his poem, Fergusson depicts Auld Reikie in an unflinchingly stunning poetic landscape which encapsulates its filth, beauty, decay and glory.

Fergusson is often remembered as a forerunner of Robert Burns, as Burns’s ‘elder brother in the muses’. It is undoubtedly true that without Fergusson, Burns is unimaginable. However, to remember him simply as a rehearsal for Scotland’s national poet is to belittle his achievement. Fergusson stands as one of Scotland’s most original, spirited and scholarly poets.”

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