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Issue 63 - The Clan Ferguson

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


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The Clan Ferguson

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's great families

Ferguson, with or without an additional ‘s’, means son of the spearman. Fergus is an ancient Gaelic personal name and unequivocally Scottish rather than Pictish. Half a dozen separate families with seats as far apart as Aberdeenshire and Dumfries bear the name and it is unlikely that they share a common ancestor. However all are united as a clan under the leadership of the Fergussons of Kilkerran in Ayrshire who themselves likely descend from a branch of the old princely house of Galloway. But the preferred ancestor of them all is King Fergus, son of Erc, King of Dal Riada, descended from Conaire Mor, High King of Ireland who was conceived when his mother was visited by a god who flew in her skylight in the form of a bird. King Fergus arrived in Scotland in 498 AD.

The Fergussons of Kilkerran received a charter of their lands from Robert Bruce and have owned them ever since. Like the rest of the clan they have produced more than their fair share of distinguished people with generations of judges and advocates. More recently sons of the house have been soldiers. Lord Ballantrae, Bernard Fergusson, who died in 1980, commanded a Chindit brigade in the Second World War. He was the last British-born Governor-General of New Zealand, a position held by his father, General Sir Charles Fergusson, and his grandfather Sir James Fergusson. His son was the British High Commissioner in New Zealand until 2010.

The name is common in Northern Ireland and families were among the original Scots-Irish, transplanted from Ayrshire during the reign of James VI.

The Aberdeenshire Fergusons produced Patrick who invented the first breech-loading rifle which he used during the Revolutionary War where he achieved notoriety as a major fighting under Cornwallis. Another was Robert who found fame as a poet in the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment.

He was Robert Burns’ favourite poet who he described as ‘Heaven-taught Fergusson’. His statue stands on the pavement outside Canongate Kirk.

The Black Captain, John Ferguson, commanded a ketch and then a frigate off the West Coast of Scotland during the ‘45 Rising and was ‘conspicuous on that station by his activity, diligence, and general conduct’ - none of which made him popular with the rebels. He caught Flora Macdonald, Lord Lovat and, very nearly, Prince Charles himself.

Donald Ferguson from Corgarff in Mar, was a piper in the Jacobite army in 1745. When a party of the Government troops were made prisoners at Keith, Donald was thrown off the bridge into the river Isla in the skirmish, but kept blowing with vigour and his inflated bag kept him afloat until he was rescued.

The Fergusons of Craigdarroch in Dumfriesshire were Whigs and Covenanters, supporters of parliament and the revolutionary settlement although one of them, leading a troop of horse composed of the gentlemen of Nithsdale, defeated a 1500-strong party of Cromwell’s troops when they invaded Scotland. Colonel John died at Killiecrankie, fighting on the government side. He was killed after his servant ran off on his horse when the redcoats broke. When the groom returned home, the widow cursed him ‘May you and yours never see a horse again’. He went blind and defective eyesight affected his descendants.

In the words of one commentator: ‘The Athole and Strathardle Fergussons have from time immemorial claimed to be the most ancient clan known in the Highlands, a claim which the other old clans of the district have never disputed.’ These Perthshire Fergussons played a prominent part in the six dazzling victories of the Marquis of Montrose for King Charles I in the winter of 1644/5. A century later, Adam Ferguson, the son of the minister of Logierait, was commissioned as assistant chaplain to the Black Watch in 1745. A few months before the regiment was transferred from Flanders to defend London against the threat of Prince Charles’s Rising, he led a column of men, sword in hand at the battle of Fontenoy. His colonel is said to have rebuked him for behaviour unbecoming of a holder of a church commission. Ferguson is said to have replied ‘Damn my commission’ and thrown it in his superior’s face. Adam left the army after nine years and went to Edinburgh. He soon became one of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, publishing books and pamphlets. He became professor of moral philosophy at the university in 1764. He was born Adam Fergusson but dropped the extra ‘s' ‘on the ground that it was unnecessary, and therefore unworthy of a philosopher’.

Rev David Fergusson was ‘jocund and pleasant in his disposition, which made him well regarded in court and country’. He was one of the men who led the Reformation in Scotland and was the first Presbyterian minister of Dunfermline. A jocund reformer was a very rare bird and he was accordingly relied upon by the church in their negotiations with the hostile James VI as he had the ability to ‘often please and pacify the King when he was in a fury.’ Perhaps the most famous clansman of all time is still with us. For more than 25 years, Glasgow-born Sir Alex Ferguson has been the manager of Manchester United Football Club. He was named as Manager of the Decade in the 1990s and World’s Best Coach of the 21st century this year. Forbes ranks Manchester United as the most valuable sports team in the world and the club’s international fan base is reckoned at 333 million with 200 supporters clubs in 24 countries.
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