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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Ferguson
Chapter 1


"Of Ferguson, the bauld and slee." – BURNS.

I have, I believe, a little of the egotist in my composition as most men; nor would I deem the story of my life, though by no means unvaried by incident, of interest enough to repay the trouble of either writing or perusing it, were it the story of my own life only: but, though an obscure man myself, I have been singularly fortunate in my friends. The party-coloured tissue of my recollections is strangely interwoven, if I may so speak, with pieces of the domestic history of men whose names have become as familiar to our ears as that of our country itself; and I have been induced to struggle with the delicacy which renders one unwilling to speak much of one’s self, and to overcome the dread of exertion natural to a period of life greatly advanced, through a desire of preserving to my countrymen a few notices, which would otherwise be lost to them, of two of their greatest favourites. I could once reckon among my dearest and most familiar friends, Robert Burns and Robert Ferguson.

It is now rather more than sixty years since I studied for a few weeks at the University of St. Andrew’s. I was the son of very poor parents, who resided in a sea-port town on the western coast of Scotland. My father was a house-carpenter, a quiet, serious man, of industrious habits and great simplicity of character, but miserably depressed in his circumstances, through a sickly habit of body; my mother was a warm-hearted, excellent woman, endowed with no ordinary share of shrewd good sense and sound feeling, and indefatigable in her exertions for my father and the family. I was taught to read, at a very early age, by an old woman in the neighbourhood—such a person as Shenstone describes in his "Schoolmistress;" and being naturally of a reflective turn, I had begun, long ere I had attained my tenth year, to derive almost my sole amusement from books. I read incessantly; and, after exhausting the shelves of all the neighbours, and reading every variety of work that fell in my way—from "The Pilgrim’s Progress" of Bunyan, and the Gospel Sonnets of Erskine, to a treatise on fortification by Vauban and the "History of the Heavens" by the Abbe Pluche—I would have pined away for lack of my accustomed exercise, had not a benevolent Baronet in the neighbourhood, for whom my father occasionally wrought, taken a fancy to me, and thrown open to my perusal a large and well-selected library. Nor did his kindness terminate until, after having secured to me all of learning that the parish school afforded, he had settled me, now in my seventeeth year, at the University.

Youth is the season of warm friendships and romantic wishes and hopes. We say of the child, in its first attempts to totter along the wall, or when it has first learned to rise beside its mother’s knee, that it is yet too weak to stand alone; and we may employ the same language in describing a young and ardent mind. It is, like the child, too weak to stand alone, and anxiously seeks out some kindred mind on which to lean. I had had my intimates at school, who, though of no very superior cast, had served me, if I may so speak, as resting-places, when wearied with my studies, or when I had exhausted my lighter reading; and now, at St. Andrew’s, where I knew no one, I began to experience the unhappiness of an unsatisfied sociality. My schoolfellows were mostly stiff, illiterate lads, who, with little bad Latin and worse Greek, plumed themselves mightily on their scholarship; and I had little inducement to form any intimacies among them; for, of all men, the ignorant scholar is the least amusing. Among the students of the upper classes, however, there was at least one individual with whom I longed to be acquainted. He was apparently much about my own age, rather below than above the middle size, and rather delicately than robustly formed, but I have rarely seen a more elegant figure or more interesting face. His features were small, and there was what might perhaps be deemed a too feminine delicacy in the whole contour; but there was a broad and very high expansion of forehead, which, even in those days, when we were acquainted with only the phrenology taught by Plato, might be regarded as the index of a capacious and powerful mind and the brilliant light of his large black eyes, seemed to give earnest of its activity.

"Who, in the name of wonder, is that?" I inquired of a class-fellow, as this interesting-looking young man passed me for the first time.

"A clever, but very unsettled fellow from Edinburgh," replied the lad; "a capital linguist for he gained our first bursary three years ago; but our Professor says he is certain he will never do any good. He cares nothing for the company of scholars like himself; and employs himself— though he excels, I believe, in English composition—in writing vulgar Scotch rhymes, like Allan Ramsay. His name is Robert Ferguson."

I felt, from this moment, a strong desire to rank among the friends of one who cared nothing for the company of such men as my class-fellow, and who, though acquainted with the literature of England and Rome, could dwell with interest on the simple poetry of his native country.

There is no place in the neighbourhood of St Andrew’s where a leisure hour may be spent more agreeably than among the ruins of the Cathedral. I was not slow in discovering the eligibilities of the spot; and it soon became one of my favourite haunts. One evening, a few weeks after I had entered on my course at college, I had seated myself among the ruins in a little ivied nook fronting the setting sun, and was deeply engaged with the melancholy Jaques in the forest of Ardennes, when, on hearing a light footstep, I looked up, and saw the Edinburgh student whose appearance had so interested me, not four yards away. He was busied with his pencil and his tablets, and muttering, as he went, in a half audible voice, what, from the inflection of the tones, seemed to be verse. On seeing me, he started and apologizing, in a few hurried but courteous words, for what he termed the involuntary intrusion, would have passed: but, on my rising and stepping up to him, he stood.

"I am afraid, Mr Ferguson," I said, "‘tis I who owe you an apology; the ruins have long been yours, and I am but an intruder. But you must pardon me; I have often heard of them in the west, where they are hallowed, even more than they are here, from their connection with the history of some of our noblost Reformers; and, besides, I see no place in the neighbourhood where Shakespeare can be read to more advantage."

"Ah," said he, taking the volume out of my hand, "a reader of Shakespeare and an admirer of Knox! I question whether the heresiarch and the poet had much in common."

"Nay, now, Mr Ferguson," I replied, "you are too true a Scot to question that. They had much, very much in common. Knox was no rude Jack Cade, but a great and powerful-minded man; decidedly as much so as any of the nobler conceptions of the dramatist—his Caesars, Brutuses, or Othellos. Buchanan could have told you that he had even much of the spirit of the poet in him, and wanted only the art; and just remember how Milton speaks of him in his "Areopagitica." Had the poet of "Paradise Lost" thought regarding him as it has become fashionable to think and speak now, he would hardly have apostrophized him as— Knox, the Reformer of a nation—a great man animated by the spirit of God."

"Pardon me," said the young man, "I am little acquainted with the prose writings of Milton; and have, indeed, picked up most of my opinions of Knox at secondhand. But I have read his merry account of the murder of Beaton, and found nothing to alter my preconceived notions of him, from either the matter or manner of the narrative. Now that I think of it, however, my opinion of Bacon would be no very adequate one, where it formed solely from the extract of his history of Henry VII., given by Kaimes in his late publication.—Will you not extend your walk?"

We quitted the ruins together, and went sauntering along the shore. There was a rich sunset glow on the water, and the hills that rise on the opposite side of the Frith stretched their undulating line of azure under a gorgeous canopy of crimson and gold. My companion pointed to the scene:--"These glorious clouds," he said, "are but wreaths of vapour; and these lovely hills, accumulations of earth and stone. And it is thus with all the paste—with the past of our own little histories, that borrows so much of its golden beauty from the medium through which we survey it—with the past, too, of all history. There is poetry in the remote—the bleak hill seems a darker firmament, and the chill wreath of vapours, a river of fire. And you, sir, seem to have contemplated the history of our stern Reformers through this poetical medium, till you forget that the poetry was not in them, but in that through which you surveyed them."

"Ah, Mr Ferguson," I replied, "you must permit me to make a distinction. I acquiesce fully in the justice of your remark; the analogy, too, is nice and striking, but I would fain carry it a little further. Every eye can see the beauty of the remote; but there is a beauty in the near—an interest, at least—which every eye cannot see. Each of the thousand little plants that spring up at our feet, has an interest and beauty to the botanist; the mineralogist would find something to engage him in every little stone. And it is thus with the poetry of life—all have a sense of it in the remote and the distant; but it is only the men who stand high in the art—its men of profound science—that can discover it in the near. The mediocre poet shares but the commoner gift and so he seeks his themes in ages or countries far removed from his own; while the man of nobler powers, knowing that all nature is instinct with poetry, seeks and finds it in the men and scenes in his immediate neighbourhood. As to our Reformers"—

"Pardon me," said the young poet—"the remark strikes me, and, ere we lose it in something else, I must furnish you with an illustration. There is an acquaintance of mine a lad much about my own age, greatly addicted to the study of poetry. He has been making verses all his life-long; he began ere he had learnt to write them even; and his judgment has been gradually overgrowing his earlier compositions, as you see the advancing tide rising on the beach and obliterating the prints on the sand. Now, I have observed, that, in all his earlier compositions, he went far from home; he could not attempt a pastoral without first transporting himself to the vales of Arcady; or an ode to Pity or Hope, without losing the warm living sentiment in the dead, cold personifications of the Greek. The Hope and Pity he addressed were, not the undying attendants of human nature, but the shadowy spectres of a remote age. Now, however, I feel that a change has come over me. I seek for poetry among the fields and cottages of my own land. I—a—a— the friend of whom I speak —But I interrupted your remark on the Reformers."

"Nay," I replied, "if you go on so, I would much rather listen than speak. I only meant to say, that the Knoxes and Melvilles of our country have been robbed of the admiration and sympathy of many a kindred spirit, by the strangely erroneous notions that have been abroad regarding them for at least the last two ages. Knox, I am convinced, would have been as great as Jeremy Taylor, had he not been greater."

We sauntered along the shore, till the evening had darkened into night, lost in an agreeable interchange of thought. "Ah!" at length exclaimed my companion, "I had almost forgotten my engagement, Mr Lindsay; but it must not part us. You are a stranger here, and I must introduce you to some of my acquaintance. There are a few of us— choice spirits, of course—who meet every Saturday evening at John Hogg’s; and I must just bring you to see them. There may be much less wit than mirth among us; but you will find us all sober when at the gayest; and old John will be quite a study for you."


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