A couple of years ago I was cantering around Edinburgh when I came across a statue outside the Canongate Kirk. It’s a statue that I may or may not have walked past before but it was only erected on October 17 2004. It is the statue of Robert Fergusson, born September 5 1750 and died October 16 1774 aged only 24.
Robert Fergusson was born in Edinburgh to parents who hailed from Aberdeenshire. He was educated at Royal High School and then at the High School of Dundee. He then spent some time at the University of St Andrew’s. His time spent at university opened up the chance to proceed into occupations that included law and medicine but instead he chose to follow in his (by then deceased) fathers footsteps and he became a copyist. He returned to Edinburgh to take care of his mother.
Fersusson began to write poetry while he was a student and his first poem was entitled Elegy on the Death of Mr Daid Gregory, late Professor of Mathematics in the University of St Andrews. Fergusson would go on to write many poems about Edinburgh life and he was regularly published in the magazines The Weekly Magazine and Edinburgh Amusement.
Fergusson wrote many poems including the lengthy Auld Reekie and poems that would be read by one Robert Burns. These poems included Hallow’s Fair, The Leith Races, The Farmer’s Ingle and On Seeing a Butterfly in the Street. These were the poems that would inspire Burns to write poetry himself.
Fergusson would never really know how much of an inspiration he was to Burns as he died when Burns himself was only 15.
It’s Fergusson’s last year of life that brings about the second great influence he had made in his life, again, perhaps without really knowing it. In that last year he became very melancholy. He had heard about the death of John Cunningham and wrote Poem to the Memory of John Cunningham. John Cunningham had died in an asylum in Newcastle and Fergusson feared he would end up the same way.
His fears were founded. In 1774, after suffering a severe head injury – the cause of which remains largely unexplained – Fergusson was admitted to Darien House, otherwise known as Bedlam, he would die there weeks later not long after turning 24.
It was during this time in Darien House that Robert Fergusson would be visited by Dr Andrew Duncan. During these visits to the traumatised Fergusson, Dr Duncan became more and more appalled by the treatment of patients, particularly Robert Fergusson, in the disgusting condition of “Bedlam”.
After Fergusson’s death in October 1774 Dr Duncan began to fight for a more appropriate institution for the care of people with mental illness. In 1807 approval was given to build the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum in Morningside, Edinburgh. It would be known as East House. Although that itself was demolished in 1896 the site itself had grown into what is now known as Royal Edinburgh Hospital and remains there today, also housing the Andrew Duncan Clinic which opened in 1965.
He may have only lived for 24 years, the last of which was traumatic, but those 24 years inspired a poet who is Scotland’s best known, and a doctor who’s work paved the way for better treatment of people with mental health illnesses.
Of Fergusson, Burns wrote, “O thou, my elder brother in misfortune/ By far my elder brother in the muse”.
Taken from my own article: Edinburgh’s unknown Robert Fergusson, Burns’ biggest influence published on July 24 2011 at Digital Journal.