Continuing my occasional series looking at some of the particular features of Edinburgh's graveyards and burial grounds (part I, part II, part III) - this entry focuses on one grave in particular. It's known locally as the grave of the three Roberts - but I'm going to make the case for why I think that's numerically inaccurate, and why at least one more Robert should be associated with it...
The grave is in the Canongate Kirkyard, one of the five major burial grounds within Edinburgh's UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll find it to the left hand side of the Canongate kirk, under a cherry tree, and with roses growing in front of it.
Here's the story of its three (or more) Roberts...
THE FIRST ROBERT
The first Robert associated with the grave is the one actually buried in it. Robert Fergusson was a young poet, born in Edinburgh on 5 September 1750. He was educated at St Andrews University and by 1768, at the age of 18, was back in Edinburgh and responsible for looking after his mother, following the death of his father.
Mixing with the social classes of Edinburgh at that time, Fergusson found favour with actor and theatre manager William Woods who gave him regular access to the Edinburgh's theatres, and the attendant community of writers and poets who plied their trade in the Old Town.
Fergusson began contributing satirical poems to the Weekly Review, and acquired a reputation for his use of Scots, the language of Scotland which had fallen out of favour during the middle of the eighteenth century. By 1773 he had published his first collection, in an edition of 500 copies which rapidly sold out.
During 1774 Fergusson fell into a melancholic state, experiencing what we might today recognise as symptoms of severe depression, and his writing became similarly maudlin. Whether it was merely fear or a premonition, he began to obsess about the prospect of dying in an asylum, after hearing about (and writing a poem for) the poet John Cunningham who had died in a Newcastle hospital in 1773.
Perhaps Fergusson turned to alcohol as a means of alleviating the symptoms or the experience of his illness, as he was believed to have got drunk one evening and fallen down one of the staircases of Edinburgh's Old Town. In the process he suffered a brain injury which saw him taken to Darien House, which was the official name of the city's asylum... The building stood near where the Bedlam Theatre building is today - the name of the theatre taken from the Bethlehem Hospitals for the insane, which gives us the meaning of bedlam (for disordered or chaotic).
It was at the asylum that Fergusson died, on 16 October 1774. He was just 24 years old.
THE SECOND ROBERT
The second Robert associated with the grave is Robert Burns, who at the time that Fergusson was writing was beginning to write poetry himself. He was writing in English originally, but was inspired by Fergusson's writing to experiment in Scots - the language had a different meter, a different rhythm, more musicality...
Robert Burns would later become celebrated as the national poet of Scotland, and is today one of the most iconic Scots figures with global recognition of his work. There are more statues of Robert Burns around the world than any other writer except William Shakespeare.
After Fergusson's death Burns was always keen to ensure that people knew he was only a poet because of Fergusson's influence. He never tried to deny the impact Fergusson's writing had had on his own, and modern scholars have even suggested that Fergusson may have developed into a better poet even than Burns - what Fergusson was writing in his twenties was at least as good as what Burns was writing by the time he died.
So if he had lived, today we might have been celebrating Robert Fergusson as Scotland's national poet, instead of Robert Burns...
Thirteen years after Fergusson's death Burns commissioned a stone to mark the site of Fergusson's burial, which had originally been an unmarked grave in the Canongate kirkyard, and he wrote the four line epitaph on the grave stone itself.
THE THIRD ROBERT
The third Robert associated with the grave is Robert Louis Stevenson, another writer who was born in Edinburgh and used the city as inspiration for much of his own writing.
Born in 1850, a full century after Fergusson, Stevenson grew up in the New Town and would have been reading Fergusson's poems with the hindsight of knowing about the full panoply of writers and artists who had been influenced by Fergusson's use of Scots language.
Stevenson especially felt kinship with Fergusson's experiences of physical and mental illness, and in a letter sent in April 1891 he wrote:
"Ah! what bonds we have – born in the same city; both sickly, […] wearing shoe-leather on the same ancient stones, under the same pends, down the same closes [...] Command me to do [...] so that another monument (after Burns’s) be set up to my unhappy predecessor on the causey of Auld Reekie. You will never know, nor will any man, how deep this feeling is: I believe Fergusson lives in me."
Sadly Stevenson would die before he was able to make the memorial to Fergusson, his namesake predecessor with whom he felt such a strong connection. But a plaque at the grave today describes Stevenson's intentions, helping to give the grave its moniker - the grave of the three Roberts.
However, at least two other Roberts linked to the grave deserve mention, too!
THE FOURTH ROBERT
The fourth Robert is the architect Robert Burn (father of William Burn), who was commissioned by Robert Burns to create the original grave stone for Fergusson's burial site.
At that time, Robert Burn was starting out as an architect, and it's not clear why Burns chose him over the many other stonemasons and artisan builders in the city at that time - nor is it apparent why it took Burn two years to produce the grave stones that Burns had commissioned!
Later Burn would produce the Nelson Monument at the top of Calton Hill, visible from Fergusson's grave, and possibly he considered producing a few stones for a dead poet to be a bit beneath him.
Regardless, when Robert Burns received the bill for it he sat on it for two years, before writing a letter suggesting that as it had taken two years for Burn to produce the stones, and as he had spent two years withholding payment for the work, perhaps they could consider the matter settled...!
THE FIFTH ROBERT
Yet another Robert has a link to Fergusson's grave. Because the stone which stands today is not the original stone - it is a replacement which was installed in 1850.
The renovation of the original stone was organised by a local man named Robert Gilfillan. Like Burns he was also a member of the Freemasons, and was a songwriter, as well as contributing various writings to local magazines like Blackwoods.
Gilfillan led the collection of public funds to pay for the replacement stone on Fergusson's grave, and died just a few months after the work was undertaken, in December 1850. (It's worth noting that the stone from 1850 records Robert Fergusson's date of birth incorrectly - he was born in 1750, not 1751 as the stone indicates.)
So there you have it! Edinburgh's grave of the three Roberts, which actually has at least five Roberts associated with it...
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