Enlightening Conversations

Posted 10 months ago by John

Enlightening Conversations
“...if all the [ ] denizens of the Canongate Kirkyard were to rise from beneath the mools, one September night when the Festival and the fireworks were over, they would still have plenty to say to one another...”
Whenever I walk down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, perhaps on my way to the Parliament or the Poetry Library, I pass Robert Fergusson, book in hand, heading in the same direction. I usually say hello to him - that is, if he is not busy, for often there are tourists taking photographs of themselves with him. He seems so friendly that they can’t resist, even though few of them can have much of a clue who he is. Sometimes they drape an arm around his shoulders. He doesn’t seem to mind. He just keeps lamping on down the street, with that eager, almost smiling, slightly wistful look on his face.
The thing about Rob Fergusson is that he’s been dead since 1774, and where he now strides, in the form of a wonderful statue by David Annand unveiled in 2004, is just a stone’s throw from his burial place in the Canongate Kirkyard. I’ve long admired Fergusson’s poetry, especially the forty-odd poems he wrote in Scots, in which he captured for ever the sights, sounds, smells and characters of Edinburgh in the 1770s, the high point of what we now call the Scottish Enlightenment. He may not have moved in the highest circles of society, but in the ‘Auld Reikie’ of his day (he wrote a long poem with that title in celebration of his native city) people of all classes rubbed shoulders together because they had no choice, given the cramped, crowded condition of the stairs and closes in which they resided. The great migration of the well-to-do to the New Town had barely begun and - like the building of the New Town itself - would continue over decades. The Auld Toun, in Fergusson’s lifetime, was where everything happened. As an English visitor famously remarked, ‘Here I stand at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can, in a few minutes, take fifty men of genius and learning by the hand.’
 Other folk of that period interred in the same graveyard include the philosopher and economist Adam Smith, six-times Provost of Edinburgh George Drummond (praised in verse by Fergusson), numerous members of the medical Gregory family (Fergusson’s earliest surviving poem is a mock-heroic elegy for another Gregory, a Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews where Fergusson studied), the painter Alexander Runciman (he and Fergusson were both members of the Cape Club, one of the town’s many drinking and debating societies), fiddler and composer Daniel Dow (Fergusson was an aficionado of Scots music), the philosopher Dugald Stewart, and Agnes Maclehose, who was ‘Clarinda’ to Robert Burns’s ‘Sylvander’ and for whom Burns wrote ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. It was discovering Fergusson’s poems that inspired Burns to write in his native tongue and use the Scots stanza known as ‘Standard Habbie’: ‘meeting with Fergusson’s Scotch Poems,’ Burns wrote, ‘I strung anew my wildly-sounding rustic lyre with emulating vigour.’ Painfully conscious of the shortness of Fergusson’s life and his dreadful death in the city madhouse at 24, Burns addressed him thus: ‘O thou, my elder brother in misfortune, By far my elder brother in the Muse’. And, acknowledging the debt he owed him, he arranged for the erection of the stone which now marks Fergusson’s grave.
Several of Fergusson’s poems take the form of dialogues between two characters. In one of these, ‘The Ghaists’, two earlier citizens and benefactors of Edinburgh, George Heriot and George Watson, meet in another of its famous burial grounds, Greyfriars, and discuss the decline of public virtue. I imagine that if all the above-mentioned denizens of the Canongate Kirkyard were to rise from beneath the mools, one September night when the Festival and the fireworks were over, they would still have plenty to say to one another, and that Rob Fergusson would record their opinions in verse, with no doubt a few squibs and rockets set off for the sheer fun of it. His poetry is full of irreverent humour, and he revelled in an outrageous rhyme. My favourite of his poems, ‘Braid Claith’, extols the benefits of dressing to impress and has this as its final stanza:
For thof ye had as wise a snout on
As Shakespeare or Sir Isaac Newton,
Your judgment fouk would hae a dout on,
I’ll tak my aith,
Till they could see ye wi a suit on
O’ gude Braid Claith.
Edinburgh in the late 18th century was a veritable beehive of buzzing conversations. Out of that febrile place and time, some say, the modern world emerged. Well, maybe, although there was plenty going on in London, Paris, Vienna, St Petersburg, Boston and elsewhere. But certainly something added spice to the intellectual soup tureen that was Edinburgh, and I believe the essential ingredient was people of all sorts talking to one another, in oyster taverns, in bookshops, in coffee shops, in clubs, in drawing-rooms. It was knocking words around that helped to shape the ideas that grew into explanations of why things were as they were - from the age of the planet’s rocks to the nature of heat, history, miracles, morality and mankind.
I love Lord Cockburn’s description of Adam Ferguson, the celebrated philosopher, and his friend and relation the physicist and chemist Joseph Black, ‘rioting over a boiled turnip’. Those two did not like to dine out, and did their talking at home. Others, such as Jane Maxwell, the Duchess of Gordon, were perfectly at ease in society: ‘I have been acquainted with David Hume and William Pitt,’ she said, ‘and therefore I am not afraid to converse with anybody.’ When economists, historians, geologists, poets, philosophers, painters, scientists, musicians, theologians, thespians and doctors talk to each other, things happen.
It was a male-dominated age, though the influence of women on both private and public discourse should not be underestimated. Lord Cockburn again: ‘There was a singular race of excellent old Scotch ladies. They were a delightful set; strong headed, warm hearted, and high spirited; the fire of their tempers not always latent; merry even in solitude; very resolute; indifferent about the modes and habits of the modern world; and adhering to their own ways, so as to stand out like primitive rocks, above ordinary society. Their prominent qualities of humour, affection, and spirit, were embodied in curious outsides; for they all dressed, and spoke, and did, exactly as they chose; their language, like their habits, entirely Scotch, but without any other vulgarity than what perfect naturalness is sometimes mistaken for.’
We live in another world, in which too often public discourse has been reduced to tribal shouts across ravines. We need less shouting and more constructive conversation, which involves listening as well as speaking. We need real conversations among excellent Scotswomen and Scotsmen and all the excellent people from elsewhere who have made Scotland their home.
Robert Fergusson could not have become the great poet he was had he not first listened and observed, but he also had to re-articulate what he heard and saw in order to make it into art. The art of poetry and the art of conversation are not so different. They are both about using language to say what needs to be said, and saying it as well as possible. Today, as was ever the case, we need that kind of honesty and clarity when we speak to one another.
James Robertson (b.1958) is one of Scotland's foremost novelists, winner of several major literary awards. He has drawn on Enlightenment Edinburgh for two of his novels, The Fanatic and Joseph Knight. However, his range of imaginative engagement with Scotland's past extends from the deeper past to consider Scotland's religion (The Testament of Gideon Mack), politics and society (And the Land Lay Still) and to an examination of Lockerbie's relatively recent tragedy (The Professor of Truth). These themes reflect a wide commitment to Scottish culture, evident in his independent publishing company, Kettilonia, and his work with Itchy Coo, the publisher for children and young people to promote Scots.
If you would like to find out more about the Enlightenment, 'Northern Lights: The Scottish Enlightenment', is at the National Library of Scotland until 18 April 2020.


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