THE MAKAR FERGUSSON Alexander Scott
Whan the makar Robert Fergusson dee’d on 16th October, 1774, he was that puir that his lair i the Canongait kirkyaird gaed unrecordit, and it was left til the greatest o ‘s disciples, Robert Burns -that learnit mair frae Fergusson nor frae onie ither Scots scriever to pey for the heidstane that stan.ds abune it nou. Burns had gotten the siller for thon frae the sale o the 1786 Kilmarnock edition o’s poems, a beuk that micht never hae seen the licht o day gin Fergusson’s example hadna sharn the younger makar the richt wey o makkin guid in “guid black prent.”
Fergusson himsel first saw the lioht o day in Embro – whaur his faither, an Aiberdeenshire man, was dargan as a clerk for £20 a year – on 5th September, 175O. Bursaries peyed him intil the grammar schule in Dundee and the University o St Andras, whaur he studied for the ministry, but his faither’s daith :i.n 1767 pit an end til student days. In 1769 he becam a clerk (or “writer” ) in an Embro law office, and thon was aye his wark at the time o his last illness five year later on, whan he was nae mair nor twentyfowr year auld. Aye delicat, Fergusson hadna the strength to stand the life o auchteenth-century Embro, whaur the darg was hard and the play wis even harder, wi heich thinkin and heich drinkin aye gaun hand in hand (and gless for gless). For the last five year o his life, Fergusson had to thole lang hours o dreich task-wark makkan copies o legal papers, wi the howff his only “hous o refuge”, while at the ae same time he was pittan oot a his virr on the poems that were to gie him fame – he published near on a hunder atween Februar, 1771 and December, 1773. Smaa ferlie that he bruken ablow the weicht o siccan a life. Tynan his wits, he dee’d in the Schelles, the common bedlam.
The poems in Scots that Fergusson is nou minded on for scrievin were · maistly published i the Embro Weekly Magazine at the time he was warkan in his hame toun, but he seems to hae stairted the scrievin a pucklo year aforehand, wi a short translation o the Latin makar Horace and a blythesome elegy on Professor Gregory o St Andras – baith in Scots, and baith in the style o Allan Ramsay, whas Scots versions o Horatian odes and lauchable elegies on kenspeckle Embro worthies had taen the lugs o the toun earlier on i the century. But yet, whan Fergusson first begoud to publish i. the Weekly Magazine in 1771, it was the Sassenach verse tradition he scrievit in and no the Scots. For aa that it cam frae furth o Scotland, the “classical” style o auchteenth-century Suddron poetry that stuid on stilts and wure steys, was the heicht o fashion i the Scottish capital whan Fergusson stairted to seek prent, and aiblins he hadna onie option but to try his hand at makin i the “polite” Sassenach menner. The verses i the English leid that Fergusson pit his name til i the Weekly Magazine were nae waur nor ither wark o auchteenth-century Scottish scrievers that socht to hap their Caledonian hurdies in breeks frae south o the Border, but they didna suit his style, and he sune saw that he had made a fause stairt. Eftir a while whan he usit the fashionable Suddron style to scrieve burlesques and parodies whaur the style itsel was made a mock o (alang wi them that practised it) he bruke free o English aathegither and gaed back til the Soots that was his ain bairn-tongue. The first o’s Scots poems to see prent was “The Daft Days” a celobration o the “social joys” o an Embro winter, published i the ,Weekly Magazine in Januar 1772, and atween then and December o the neist towrnond he brocht out mair nor a score o poems in Scots. The fowk likit them weel, and a ‘beuk o Fergusson’s poems that was published in 1773 won him siller as wool as fame.
Fergusson is less taen up wi himsel, and mair taen up wi ither fowk, nor onie o the makars sen the Union. When we see Fergusson in his ain poems, it’s through the reflection o what he sees o the warld roun about him. First and foremaist he is a tounsman – for aa that he maks fun o kintra fowk in a Scots eclogue and praises kintra virtue in “The Farmer’s Ingle,” it is whan he scrieves anent the toun, the burgh that he cried “Auld Reikie,” that he finds the maist to say and the maist mindabe weys to say it. The poem that is itsel cried “Auld Reikie” is the widest wark o aa wi its picturs o Embro at ilka time o the day and nicht and ilka season o the year waein a dizzen different weys o daein – the servent-lassies toom oot their slops on the causeys, the houswives c1aikan, the lawyers speechifyan at the toun cross, the limmors shawan theresels aff anenth the streetlamps eftir daurk, the bruiser breengan out o the howff and the drucken dandy- or “macaroni,” as he was cried then – gaun tapsalteerie i the siver, the clubmen gaitheran thegither for claret and a sang and converse, the young chiels and the quines stravaigan out intil the kintraside on a Sabbath efternune – aa this and muckle mair, is shawn til the life, and aa lit wi the lifiest o guid humour.
Abilins Fergusson could be a wee bittie o a prig whiles – his “nature” poems, his odes til the bee and the gowdspink hae ower muckle auldfarrant moralisin that speaks mare frae the umquhile divinity student nor the makar. But prig or no, he was fond o fowk, like Ramsay afore him and Burns eftir him, and to see fowk takkan delyte in their pleisures gaed the greatest o pleisure til him. He cries up the fowk-festivals o the time in poem eft:ir poem. “Hallow Fair” is aiblins the graund exemplar i the heichest o spreits, fou o the steer and the stew and the stramash o the occasion and “Leith Races”, “The King’s Birthday in Edinburgh, ” and “The Election” are aa i the same menner, wi a lauch in near hadl ilka line. In aa thae warks in the places and the on-gauns thondor are pentit in wi bauld, bricht straiks, and the notion o fowk in action comes ower til the reader wi bonnie virr. Yet. they arc aa “exteriors” – in mair senses nor iust the t’ane. While Fergusson taks pleisure i the wey his Embro fowk look and cairry-on i lattan us see them “tickan-owre” as ‘twer he daesna try to spair at what micht “mak them tick” the happit springs o character. There is fient the “character-study” i the hail o his wark, naething that micht stand aside Burn’s “Holy Willie’s Prayer.” In “Braid Claith” alanerlie daes he scrieve a satirical raither nor a guid-humoured poem on Embro life, and even thonder, whaur he maks a mock o the wey things look insteid o delytan in them as the case is wi his ither poems, the satire is gey couthie. Fergusson looed Embro, the fowk as weel as the toun, and loo’d them baith owre weel no to forgie their fauts.
Whaur Ramsay had scrievit anent ane or twa burgh worthies, Fergusson gaed furder and sang o the hail clanjamfrie o the tounsfowk. Nae ither makar had ever dune thon afore him, and nane hae dune it sinsyne, or the wark o Robert Garioch (and anither that maun be nameless here) in our ain time. Thon is a meisure o hou original Fergusson was and is. But as wee1 as bein the makar o the toun, he was the makar frae the university, wi a scholar’s wey o airtan the rin o’s linos and o lauchan at his ain learnin. When the Yankee critic Lowell said that the bonniest wey o scrievin cam frae “the tongue of the people in the mouth of the scholar,” he micht hae haen Fergusson in mind. But owre and abune aa thon is the fact o Fergusson’s fine feelin for fowk and his guid humour. He was a makar that fand delyte i the life he saw aroun him, and his gledsome picturs o thon life hae aye the pouer to gie delyte til aa that read him.