Robert Fergusson was born in Edinburgh, his parents having moved there from Aberdeenshire two years previously. He was educated at Edinburgh High School, then Dundee High School before going on to St Andrews University on a Clan Fergusson bursary in 1765. He narrowly escaped expulsion for taking part in a student riot but left without a degree, having written Eclogue to the memory of a professor who had defended him.
His father died in 1767 which may have been one of the reasons why he left university and he returned to Edinburgh to support his mother, taking a job as a copyist in the Commissary Records Office in Edinburgh. Outside work he led a bohemian life, mixing with artists, actors and musicians at the Cape Club which held regular meetings in a tavern. He struck up a friendship with the Italian castrato singer, Giusto Fernando Tenducci, who asked him to write Scots airs for the opera Artaxerxes he was starring in.
In 1771 he began contributing poems to Walter Ruddiman’s Weekly Review in both English and Scots. Ruddiman published the first edition of his poems in 1773 which was well received. He also wrote his most famous poem, Auld Reekie, praising his home town through the daily life of ordinary people. It would appear though that Fergusson’s hedonistic lifestyle with its bouts of heavy drinking and late nights was taking its toll and after losing his job he took to his room to read the Bible. After 1773 his poetry became increasingly pessimistic as evidenced by his Poem to the Memory of John Cunningham who died in an asylum in Newcastle. The following year he sustained a serious head injury after a fall and was consigned to an asylum against his will where he died suddenly several weeks later at the age of 24.
Robert Burns, who was several years younger than Fergusson and a great admirer of his poetry, paid for a headstone for him which was erected in 1787. He described him as his “elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse”. His 1773 work was republished in 1779 with additional poems. Robert Fergusson was one of the leading figures of the 18th Century revival of Scots vernacular writing, which accounts for the majority of his poems although a number of his odes and elegies are in English. He is one of the poets commemorated on the Scott Monument in Edinburgh and there is a statue to him outside Canongate Churchyard in Edinburgh where he is buried in an unmarked grave.