WITHOUT Robert Burns he may well have been forgotten, but without Robert Fergusson, Burns may never have become Scotland’s national bard.
So claims award-winning author Andrew O’Hagan in a new BBC programme which examines the life of Edinburgh’s 18th century poet, Robert Fergusson.
Fergusson: Burns’ Forgotten Hero, which will be broadcast tomorrow, is the first documentary charting Fergusson’s rise from the slums of the Old Town through university to being a celebrated poet before his a tragic death in the city’s lunatic asylum.
In the programme O’Hagan declares Fergusson an “unsung literary genius” and suggests that even now – despite there being a statue of the poet on the Royal Mile – he is not held in high enough regard.
Visiting the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street he discovers that while portraits of Burns and Sir Walter Scott grace the walls, Fergusson’s portrait is hidden away.
“It is not to be seen alongside the great and the good,” he says. “The portrait was painted by his friend Alexander Runciman . . . it is overlooked and lives in the stores, in the dark, a bit like Fergusson himself.”
Yet it was Fergusson, says O’Hagan, who was the “great genius of city life” capturing the city like a documentary filmmaker in his “masterpiece Auld Reekie”.
And it was Fergusson who was responsible for Burns’ writing in the Scots tongue – despite both being educated to speak and write in English – and who also influenced the style and rhythms of Burns’ poetry. So great was Burns’ respect for Fergusson that he travelled two days by pony to visit the poet’s resting place in Canongate churchyard and then took five years to pay for a headstone after discovering none had been erected.
Born in 1750 in Cap and Feather Close in the Old Town – close by Mary King’s Close – Fergusson’s parents used what little money they had to ensure their son was schooled. He went to the Royal High School and then won a scholarship to the grammar school in Dundee, before going on to study at St Andrews University.
There, the documentary claims, he was regarded as a “libertine”. Professor Robert Crawford, a poet who lectures in English at St Andrews, says: “He got into trouble a lot. He had a wild time, he did some naughty things.”
It was while at university that he began to become obsessed with poetry and he delighted in Scots traditions.
Prof Crawford adds: “Like Burns he wrote in neo-classical English, but also like Burns wrote chiefly in the Scottish dialect. He was trained to comb Scots dialect out of his English, but Fergusson was bolshie and he liked to be true to the grain of Scots vernacular.
“He would have heard Doric from his parents, was schooled in Edinburgh and Dundee and at university would be surrounded by teenagers speaking Scots – he writes wonderfully, electrically energised poems in Scots full of quickness, vivacity and emotion.”
When Fergusson’s father died he returned to Edinburgh and took up a clerking job to support his family. Poetry was something he did in his spare time, a lot of it satirising Edinburgh life. He joined a literary drinking club, The Cape Club, and there met Runciman who went on to publish his works in a weekly magazine. His first book of poems made him £50 – a lot of money in 1773 – and it was this book which inspired Burns.
Historian Chris Rollie says that Fergusson’s influence on Burns is clear. “From phrases and imagery and the way of writing Scots . . . when Burns met Fergusson’s poems for first time it fired him up, you can see him shining through all of his [Burns] Kilmarnock poems.”
O’Hagan goes so far as to suggest that Burns “almost lifts” some of Fergusson’s work comparing part of Auld Reekie with the opening of Tam O’Shanter.
Asked if Fergusson gave Burns confidence to write in Scots, Mr Rollie agrees: “Here was somebody writing fantastic Scots the way Burns heard it spoken in the streets and it was celebrated in magazines.”
Fergusson, says O’Hagan, went from being unknown to being celebrated in Edinburgh. But things changed in 1773 when he stopped writing and withdrew from society.
“Suffering some sort of mental breakdown he burned his manuscripts. The only thing he was able to read was the Bible,” says O’Hagan.Then, on a rare evening out, Fergusson fell down a flight of stairs and hit his head. Violent and raving he was committed to Darien House, part of the Bedlam madhouse, where he died aged 24.
Professor David Purdie of the Royal College of Physicians now believes that Fergusson may have had a bipolar disorder, which was compounded by the fall, which “makes many of us think he had a subdural haematoma – bleeding outside the brain and pressing on it – a common misdiagnosis of insanity in the 18th century”.
But despite his success, Fergusson’s work was in danger of fading into oblivion. Then 12 years later Burns made his pilgrimage to the churchyard which led him to take steps to immortalise his name.
“It was Burns whom Fergusson taught to use his own voice in Scots, who taught that truth can lie on home turf,” says O’Hagan. “If it wasn’t for the heartfelt intervention of Burns the genius poetry of Fergusson might have been lost and forgotten. By the same token, if it hadn’t been for Fergusson we might never have had our national bard.”
Fergusson: Burns’ Forgotten Hero will be on BBC One Scotland tomorrow at 5.30pm.