2007 - 2021

The Ghaists

Billy Kay reads The Ghaists by Robert Fergusson on his birthday.

“Robert Burns was moved to call Fergusson his ‘elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse’ when he commissioned a headstone in Canongate Churchyard, thirteen years after the poet had been buried there, a pauper in an unmarked grave.” More at SPL here.



Fergusson’s life was cut tragically short. As Writing Scotland tells us:

“Towards the end of 1773, Fergusson was afflicted by depression, which beset him until his death. Biographers have described his condition as ‘religious melancholia’, an illness in which sufferers psychotically ponder religious doctrines. Whether or not this is the case, his disorder forced him to withdraw from his work.

Following a short recuperation, Fergusson experienced a violent and ultimately fatal blow to the head falling down a flight of stairs. After his fall, the poet was deemed ‘insensible’, and when his mother’s attempts to care for him failed, he was transferred to Edinburgh’s Bedlam madhouse. Probably as a result of his injury, Fergusson died, incarcerated, on 17 October, 1774, aged twenty-four.

The poet was buried in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard. In 1787, Robert Burns erected a monument at his grave, commemorating Fergusson as ‘Scotia’s Poet’.”

“Politically, Fergusson was a nationalist with Jacobite sympathies, and in ‘The Ghaists’ (1773), the poet is at his most jaggedly opinionated. In this graveyard dialogue between two Edinburgh ghosts, Fergusson bemoans the political present under the Union, and offers his most explicit statement on the ‘United Kingdom’: ‘Black be the day that e’er to England’s ground/Scotland was eikit by the Union’s bond’. The Scotland that Fergusson champions throughout his work is the ‘Caledon’ of the past, the Stuart Scotland ‘Whan royal Jamie sway’d the sovereign rod’. In works including ‘Elegy, on the Death of Scots Music’ (1772), ‘The Rivers of Scotland’ and ‘To the Principals and Professors of St. Andrews University, on their superb treat to Samuel Johnson’ (both 1773), Fergusson’s political mind is at the fore – glorifying Scotland’s illustrious past, he mourns what he sees as the nation’s subjugated state in Great Britain.

Fergusson’s masterpiece is his panoramic ‘Auld Reikie, A Poem’ (1773), which surveys a day in the life of Edinburgh in spectacular fashion. In a work which refuses to shy from either the grandeur or the depravities of Edinburgh life, Fergusson demonstrates a relationship with his native city comparable to Gay’s London or Villon’s Paris. Auld Reikie is the ‘wale o’ ilka Town’, a centre for conviviality, a place of beauty and chaos, immorality and poverty. It is a town of atrocious ‘morning smell’, where a prostitute makes ‘Vice her end’ and, at the same time, a place where we may glimpse a ‘fav’rite keek o’ glore and heaven’. While irony is not absent from his poem, Fergusson depicts Auld Reikie in an unflinchingly stunning poetic landscape which encapsulates its filth, beauty, decay and glory.

Fergusson is often remembered as a forerunner of Robert Burns, as Burns’s ‘elder brother in the muses’. It is undoubtedly true that without Fergusson, Burns is unimaginable. However, to remember him simply as a rehearsal for Scotland’s national poet is to belittle his achievement. Fergusson stands as one of Scotland’s most original, spirited and scholarly poets.”

*We really need your support to develop though and we’d like to ask you to support us by donating to us here.

We’ve got big plans to launch our new site, to launch new publishing and events projects, and to extend our platform of writers – but all of this needs your support.

Bella Caledonia remains free (and ad-free) and takes me hundreds of hours a month to research, write, commission and edit. If you value what I do, please consider supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing. GoCardless to set up a small monthly donation to support independent journalism in Scotland.


Go here to subscribe for free and get each Bella article sent to your email
Go here to follow us on Twitter @bellacaledonia
Go here to follow us on Instagram
Go here to join our Facebook Group
Go here to follow us on Spotify
Go here to write for us

Comments (5)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Stewart Bremner says:

    Dammit. I really need to learn Scots.

    1. Ally Heather says:

      I’ll pit subtitles oan the neist ane, so’s ye can follae it mair easily

    2. Alf Baird says:

      Yer nae alane, Stewart, aw Scots fowk shuid hae cant tae lairn thair ain mither tung. But first we need to break free from the UKs ‘Russianization’ approach.

  2. Billy Kay says:

    Maybe a guid idea tae hae the text o the poem available alangside the video.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      Aye nae sign aboot ony Chair o Scots Langage at ane o oor braw tap ‘Scottish’ varsity’s, whit yer the fellae at’s gey weel fittit fer sic a poseetion Billy, in ma hummle opeenion. Thon Scots langage disnae hiv ony mense at aw in oor ain laund. Nae Scots Language (Scotland) Act aither. Affront. Tho de rigueur in ony doon-hauden colonie A daursay; thon’s aw Scotlan is efter thon brexit/supreme court deceesion pruived thare’s nae ‘union’ at aw, yon’s a sleekit three hunder year poleetical jouk aye gaun strang.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.