Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson

Rhona Brown

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson

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Allan Ramsay (b. 1684–d. 1758) was born in Leadhills, Lanarkshire, Scotland. He attended Crawfordmoor parish school but left for Edinburgh in 1701, where he was apprenticed to a wig-maker before opening a shop and becoming a burgess in 1710. In 1712, he married Christian Ross; their son, Allan, was a distinguished portrait painter. Although he would not publish a volume of poetry until 1721, Ramsay was active in literary circles from 1712 as a founding member of Edinburgh’s Easy Club. Members of the club, in which Ramsay later took the pseudonym of medieval Scottish poet Gavin Douglas, had patriotic and Jacobite sympathies, a theme seen throughout Ramsay’s corpus. After abandoning wig-making, Ramsay opened a bookshop, and he founded Britain’s first circulating library. He was an energetic collector and editor: The Tea Table Miscellany (1724) is an influential song collection while The Ever Green (1724) brought the work of older Scottish poets to an 18th-century audience. Alongside poetry, Ramsay’s reputation traditionally rested on his popular pastoral play, The Gentle Shepherd (1725). This interest in drama led him to open a theater in Edinburgh, which, due to Presbyterian objections and London-based stage legislation, was closed after a fleeting existence in 1737. He died in 1743. Despite his short life, Robert Fergusson (b. 1750–d. 1774) is, like Ramsay, a cornerstone of the Scottish literary tradition. Born in Edinburgh, Fergusson was educated at the city’s high school, Dundee Grammar School, and at St. Andrews University. At St. Andrews he became notorious for pranks, but his friendship with Professor William Wilkie, author of The Epigoniad (1757), saved him from expulsion and encouraged his literary talents. The death of Fergusson’s father in 1767 forced him back to Edinburgh, where he took work as a legal clerk. Although biographers describe his professional life as one of drudgery, it was punctuated by pleasures: He was a member of Edinburgh’s Cape Club, while occupying the role of “house poet” in Walter Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine. Fergusson suffered a fall in 1774, after which he became furiously insane. He was incarcerated in Edinburgh’s Asylum for Pauper Lunatics, where he died at the age of twenty-four. Ramsay and Fergusson are central figures in what is traditionally known as the 18th-century “vernacular revival.” They are, undoubtedly, important influences on Robert Burns (b. 1759–d. 1796), and they proved active in the preservation of older Scottish forms and genres. But recent criticism contextualizes their work in wider British traditions such as Augustanism and the developing Romantic movement, demonstrating their range and facility.

Article.  8731 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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