A group of writers in Chichester coming together once a month for inspiration, collaboration and sensation

Happy Birthday Robert Fergusson

Happy Birthday to Scottish poet Robert Fergusson (5 September 1750 – 16 October 1774)

Fergusson is considered a Makar which is Scots for a maker. A Makar is a poet who is considered an exemplar of their craft and a champion of the language. Fergusson was clearly someone not to be swayed by the crowd. In the decades following the union, Scottish people rushed to curry favour with the new English masters. Upper class Scots took lessons to ‘rid’ themselves of ‘scotticisms’.

Scots which had previously been the language of kings, a language to rival the prestige of Latin and French, became considered a mere dialect.Scots became seen as poor English, as the speech of the gutter, the clackings of the lower classes(prejudices which sadly are still in existence today) Fergusson bucked this trend. Fergusson took up his pen and wrote in the tongue he was most familiar with in his day to day life- Scots.

Robert Fergusson’s stone in the Makars court.

While writing also in English, it was in Scots that Fergusson shined. He set a precedent for future writers and poems in scots. Robert Burns would later repeatedly praise Fergusson in prose and verse. He spoke of him as ‘elder brother in the muses’ and dedicated many a stanza to him. For example , in the ‘Epistle to William Simson’, for instance he said:

“O Fergusson! Thy glorious parts
Ill suited law’s dry, musty arts!
My curse upon your whunstane hearts,
Ye Enburgh Gentry
The tythe o’ what ye waste at cartes
Wad stow’d his pantry!”

and after commissioning a costly gravestone to be erected to Fergusson, Burns contributed lines to be written upon it:

“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.”

Fergusson’s Grave, Canongate kirkyard

Fergusson was unfortunate in being so talented but dying so young. Yet even his last years proved his lasting influence. Fergusson took a fall down some stairs and in receiving a blow to the head, began having religious delusions such that he was committed to Darien House(Aka Bedlam) Mental illness being treated as it was in those days, he was chained and put in a room to lay on straw. Little more care was given to him. His mistreatment would provoke a change in attitude among medical practitioners.

Why is Fergusson relevant today? He was very modern in a sense in that he looked at what he saw around him and immortalized it on the page. He took the vibrancy -good and bad- of the Edinburgh of his time and recorded it for posterity. His words ring with life and with passion. He languished in obscurity for a number of years before a massive revival and interest. Robert Garioch was one such person who took an interest.

Robert Garioch was a poet of the 1960s who was born and grew up in Edinburgh.He was influenced by the modernist movement in Scottish literature called ‘The Scottish Renaissance’. One of its central tenets was to evolve beyond Burns to a fuller more diverse literature. “Back to Dunbar” was the slogan. It wished to base itself on an older medieval tradition seen in William Dunbar while using forms of modernists such as those in America and elsewhere. Some extremists almost seemed to dismiss Burns altogether. Garioch was not so strict but looked to Fergusson instead. He took the paths laid by Fergusson and fleshed them out,modernising them for a new era. Garioch, like Fergusson, wrote Scots poems on what he saw around him describing the early days of the Festival, paying tribute to his hero and with a very Scottish humour, pierced hypocrisy and arrogance.

Here’s some of Garioch’s praise of Fergusson:

To Robert Fergusson

“Fergusson, tho twa-hunder year

awa, your image is mair clear
nor monie things that nou appear
in braid daylicht.
What gars perspective turn sae queer?

What ails my sicht?”


“But this I’ll say: while there’s a still
in Scotland, or a pint of yill,
houever washie, fi t to swill
atween the tide
at Leith Port and the Blackford Hill,

your fame sall byde.”
ending with,

“Syne trauchlan up the brae yince mair,
frae Canongait, I leave ye there,
whar wee white roses scent the air
about your grave,
and til some suburb new and bare

gang wi the lave.”

It’s taken some years but Fergusson finally has the credit he deserves with Edinburgh council erecting a statue of him in his old stomping grounds. Now a stone Fergusson strides the Canongate facing down the Royal mile. He is also commemorated in the Makars court in Edinburgh which has a stone for each famous Scottish writer it covers covering prose and poetry in English, Scots and Gaelic.

Robert Fergusson’s Statue.

Here’s the man himself:

Caller Oysters

Of a’ the waters that can hobble

A fishin yole or salmon coble,

And can reward the fisher’s trouble,

Or south or north,

There’s nae sae spacious and sae noble

As Firth o’ Forth.

In her the skate and codlin sail,

The eel fou souple wags her tail,

Wi herrin, fleuk and mackarel,

And whitens dainty:

Their spindle-shanks the labsters trail,

Wi partans plenty.

Auld Reikie’s sons blyth faces wear;

September’s merry month is near,

That brings in Neptune’s caller cheers,

New oysters fresh;

The halesomest and nicest gear

Of fish or flesh.

O! then we needna gie a plack

For dand’ring mountebank or quack,

Wha o’ their drogs sae bauldly crack,

And spred sic notions,

As gar their feckless patient tak

Their stinkin potions.

Come prie, frail man! for gin thou art sick,

The oyster is a rare cathartic,

As ever doctor patient gart lick

To cure his ails;

Whether you hae the head or heart-ake,

It ay prevails.

Ye tiplers, open a’ your poses,

Ye wha are faush’d wi plouky noses!

Fling owr your craig sufficient doses,

You’ll thole a hunder,

To fleg awa your simmer doses,

And naething under.

Whan big as burns the gutters rin,

Gin ye hae catcht a droukit skin,

To Luckie Middlemist’s loup in,

And sit fu snug

Owr oysters and a dram o’ gin,

Or haddock lug.

When auld Saunt Giles, at aucht o’clock,

Gars merchant louns their chopies lock,

There we adjourn wi hearty fock

To birl our bodles,

And get wharewi to crack our joke,

And clear our noddles.

Whan Phoebus did his winnocks steek,

How aften at the ingle cheek

Did I my frosty fingers beek,

And taste gude fare!

I trou there was nae hame tae seek

Whan steghin there.

While glaikit fools, owr rife o’ cash,

Pamper their weyms wi fousom trash,

I think a chiel may gayly pass

He’s no ill boden

That gusts his gab wi oyster sauce,

And hen weel soden.

At Musselbrough, and eke Newhaven,

The fisher-wives will get top livin,

When lads gang out on Sunday’s even

To treat their joes,

And tak of fat pandours a prievin,

Or mussel brose.

Than sometimes ere they flit their doup,

They’ll aiblins a’ their siller coup

For liquor clear frae cutty stoup,

To weet their wizzen,

And swallow owr a dainty soup,

For fear they gizzen.

A’ ye wha canna stand sae sicker,

Whan twice you’ve toomed the big-ars’d bicker,

Mix caller oysters wi your liquor,

And I’m your debtor,

If greedy priest or drouthy vicar

Will thole it better.


One comment on “Happy Birthday Robert Fergusson

  1. Helen J Beal
    October 24, 2012

    Happy birthday indeed! I am a little late 😦
    I’ve never wanted to try oysters before but was almost tempted reading that poem!

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This entry was posted on September 4, 2012 by in Featured Writer and tagged , , .
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