Throughout his short life of just twenty-four years, Robert Fergusson achieved national literary acclaim, academic success and, most famously, revered admiration from fellow Scottish writer, Robert Burns, who considered Fergusson ‘my elder brother in the muse’.
Fergusson was born in 1750 and spent his early childhood in Edinburgh before receiving a bursary to study at Dundee High School. Whilst at school, it was soon discovered that Fergusson had a passion for writing poetry, particularly satire. Both his studies and writing continued to expand as he became a student at The University of St Andrews; both admirably and, often, mockingly his writings at this time focused upon St Andrews and Scotland as a whole, most notably seen in ‘Elegy on the Death of Mr. David Gregory’. However, his father’s unexpected death in 1768 forced Fergusson to end his studies at St Andrews and, unlike his vivacious student life, he became employed as a legal copy clerk for the Commissary Records Office in Edinburgh. As Fergusson became accustomed with Edinburgh culture and city life, he began to offer his poetry for publication and in 1771, Weekly Magazine (or Edinburgh Amusement) accepted his works; it was through this magazine that he gained widespread public readership and acknowledgment for his satirical pieces.
Throughout the majority of his short career, his works reflected fondly upon his time at St Andrews and he sometimes referred to or even dedicated poems to many of his professors he knew as a student, including John Hogg, who was, as Fergusson called, the ‘late Porter to the University of St Andrews’; and William Wilkie, the professor of Natural Philosophy who had also been a personal friend to the young Fergusson.
Despite Fergusson’s genius and success, his addiction to alcohol, and perhaps illness from various sexual diseases, caused his health to deteriorate at a rapid rate. As a result,, he took a heavy fall which caused a severe head injury, which eventually forced him to leave his job. The sadden turn in the last years of his life were filled with depression and multiple illnesses, and after being admitted to the Bedlam Institution next to the Edinburgh poorhouse in 1774, he died abruptly and tragically in an empty cell.
Fergusson’s personality and the popularity of his work has transcended the unfortunate nature of his premature death, serving as a reminder of his satirical wit and originality. His significance as a leading eighteenth century Scottish writer and as a student of The University of St Andrews is still remembered and celebrated by a statue of Fergusson on display in Gallery 2 at MUSA and a larger scale sculpture on the pavement by Canongate Churchyard, both of which commemorate Fergusson’s vitality and youth.
For more information about Fergusson’s life and works visit here: http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/robert-fergusson