British and Irish Literature Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson
Rhona Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0067


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.

General Overviews

The texts listed in this section deal with Ramsay’s and Fergusson’s literary lives, and with their known corpora. Daiches 1982, Gibson 1924, MacLaine 1965, and MacLaine 1985 are introductory studies, which offer general overviews of each writer’s work, although Allan MacLaine spends little time on their English-language works and, instead, chooses to focus, as many critics do, on Ramsay’s and Fergusson’s Scots vernacular output. Each of these introductory studies offers a useful starting point for the Ramsay and Fergusson researcher, but there is a dearth of book-length general studies of Ramsay’s work. Daiches 1982 and MacLaine 1985 are particularly helpful in illuminating Ramsay’s and Fergusson’s contexts, and these works approach their corpora chronologically. Brown 1984 and Freeman 1984 are more detailed studies with a more defined methodology. In a short study, Brown 1984 analyzes the relationship between Ramsay and his son, the renowned portrait painter. Freeman 1984 is a research monograph of considerable scope and depth, which places Fergusson’s work in the context of Scottish humanism and focuses on its political attitudes. Two of the sources cited are essay collections: Crawford 2003 and Goodsir Smith 1952 contain articles on themes found in Fergusson’s work and on specific poems; their individual chapters can be found in the sections below. As well as essays, Goodsir Smith 1952 includes many appendixes illuminating various facets of Fergusson’s life and work and offers reproductions of manuscripts and portraits. Crawford 2003 is the most recent study of Fergusson’s work, containing new readings of his poems and offering a recontextualization of his corpus. It also includes ten poems on Fergusson by contemporary poets, including Les Murray, Kathleen Jamie, Edwin Morgan, and Meg Bateman.

  • Brown, Iain G. Poet and Painter: Allan Ramsay, Father and Son, 1684–1784. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1984.

    An account of the history of the Ramsay family as well as an exploration of the relationship between a literary artist father and his visual artist son. Although mainly biographical, this short study offers a good introduction to the work of both Ramsays.

  • Crawford, Robert, ed. “Heaven-Taught Fergusson”: Robert Burns’s Favourite Scottish Poet. East Linton, UK: Tuckwell, 2003.

    The most recent collection of essays on Fergusson’s work and a useful source for researchers. It offers new readings of Fergusson’s poems and their contexts, and contains ten poetic tributes to Fergusson by writers including Edwin Morgan and Les Murray.

  • Daiches, David. Robert Fergusson. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982.

    An excellent first port of call for anyone interested in Fergusson’s work. Taking a chronological approach, it offers a good introduction to the poet’s life and historical context, as well as credible readings of the range of his poetry.

  • Freeman, F. W. Robert Fergusson and the Scots Humanist Compromise. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984.

    Useful on Fergusson’s literary and cultural backgrounds, this study places his work in the context of Scottish humanism and Toryism. It is a helpful resource for the researcher interested in Fergusson’s politics, containing a very full and functional bibliography.

  • Gibson, Andrew. New Light on Allan Ramsay. Edinburgh: Brown, 1924.

    Although somewhat outdated, this critical biography is, nevertheless, a good starting point for Ramsay scholars. It focuses on Ramsay’s biography and bibliography, but it is also useful on literary contexts and offers a good account of his publishing history.

  • Goodsir Smith, Sydney, ed. Robert Fergusson, 1750–74: Essays by Various Hands to Commemorate the Bicentenary of His Birth. Edinburgh: Nelson, 1952.

    A detailed and well-researched collection that covers a good range of Fergusson’s corpus and contexts. It offers studies of Fergusson’s life and educational backgrounds as well as accounts of his use of Scots vernacular and Scottish literary traditions.

  • MacLaine, Allan H. Robert Fergusson. New York: Twayne, 1965.

    Although focusing mainly on Fergusson’s influence on Robert Burns and giving only analyses of his output in vernacular Scots (the poet’s equally numerous English-language works are seen as apprentice pieces), this study offers useful readings of Fergusson’s major works.

  • MacLaine, Allan H. Allan Ramsay. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

    A comprehensive account of Ramsay’s literary career that shows the depth of his corpus. A good introduction for the student with no prior knowledge of Ramsay, it gives accounts of his major works alongside a recontextualization of The Gentle Shepherd.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.