Poetic Edinburgh: Fergusson and Burns
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature, it's unsurprising that Edinburgh has a variety of literary and poetic associations. But one spot in the city in particular has links to three of Scottish poetry's most important figures.
Located on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile, the Canongate Kirk is a fascinating and historic attraction in itself, and well worth the time to visit. But for poetry lovers in particular, this is an especially important place.
Firstly, visitors will find a statue of a jaunty looking fellow striding away from the kirkyard as they approach the gates. This is a memorial to Robert Fergusson, a poet who is largely credited with inspiring the budding writer Robert Burns in his work, and without whom Burns may never has persisted with the art which has led him to be treasured as Scotland's Bard.
Born in Edinburgh and educated in St Andrews, Fergusson became well known for his verses in the Scots tongue, something which especially inspired Burns. Unfortunately, all was not well in Fergusson's life, and it is thought he suffered from what in modern parlance would be termed depression. Having sustained a head injury falling down stairs in the city's Old Town, he was admitted to the asylum, where he died just a short time later. He was only 24 years old.
Fergusson was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard, where later Robert Burns appended a verse to his tomb, commemorating his friend and inspiration:
No sculptur'd marble here, nor pompous lay,
‘No story'd urn nor animated bust;’
This simple stone directs pale Scotia's way
To pour her sorrows o'er her Poet's dust.
Burns himself is the second poetic association with Canongate Kirkyard, and indeed its link to the third. For another of Burns' inspirations ended up interred in the graveyard here - Agnes Maclehose was known as Nancy to her friends, and to Burns himself as Clarina. She was his muse, as well as an unrequited lover of his, and it is to her that Burns wrote poems like Ae Fond Kiss, probably one of his most famous (and best loved) poems.
As with Fergusson, there is a sense of tragedy over the circumstances of Maclehose's claim to fame. She and Burns had been writing to each other for a number of years, she using the pen-name Clarinda, and he Sylvander. The aliases were necessary as Agnes was married at the time, to an apparently cruel and uncaring husband. Through her otherwise platonic correspondence with Burns she was able to experience something of the affection and love she was unable to enjoy with her estranged husband.
In 1791, Agnes sailed from Edinburgh to Jamaica to attempt a reconciliation with her husband, and Burns captured the sense of lost love her experienced at her departure in Ae Fond Kiss:
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy;
Naething could resist my Nancy;
For to see her was to love her,
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
Agnes/Nancy/Clarinda later returned to Edinburgh, where she died in 1841, being buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.
And so it is Scotland's Bard himself who links two other significant figures from Scots poetry. Memorials to both Fergusson and Clarinda can be found in the churchyard, where the melancholy sense of a life and love affair cut short can still be felt when the wind blows between the gravestones....
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