Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch
Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch was Master of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning from 1784 to 1787 and is seen in the painting handing the Laurel Wreath to Burns. He was an Advocate (Barrister) and his Edinburgh residence was at 6 St David Street in the recently constructed New Town of Edinburgh.
Alexander Fergusson was one of many landowners whom Robert Burns came in contact with through his contact with Lodge Canongate Kilwinning. Robert Burns refers to him numerous times, perhaps most famously as the contender for "The Whistle".
This poem refers to a black ebony whistle which was brought to Scotland by a huge Danish gentleman during the reign of James the Sixth of Scotland (1567-1625). The whistle was placed on the table at the start of festivities, (which often lasted for days) and the last person capable of blowing the whistle, won it.
The Dane had an unbeaten record through the courts of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Moscow, Warsaw, and several of the smaller courts in Germany. On arriving in Scotland he beat many Scots in contests, until he encountered Sir Robert Laurie of Maxwelton, who after three days and nights of hard drinking, left the Scandinavian under the table. As the winner Laurie claimed the whistle.
Sir Robert Laurie's son, Sir Walter Laurie lost a later contest and so the whistle passed to Walter Riddell of Glenriddell, who was married to a sister of Sir Walter. Another sister was Annie Laurie (of the famous ballad) who in 1710 married Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch, grandfather of the Fergusson who was Master of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in 1787.
In 1789, Robert Riddell, who owned the estate next to Burns’s Ellisland Farm, and with whom Robert Burns had become friendly, agreed to a contest for the whistle by Sir Robert Laurie and Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch. All three contestants were descended from the original winner, Sir Robert Laurie of Maxwelton.
A document was drawn up dated 10 October 1789, signed by the contestants and listing John McMurdo as judge, George Johnston as witness and Patrick Miller, "witness, to be present if possible".(Patrick Miller had rented Ellisland Farm to Robert Burns and was a member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning) Robert Burns was invited to witness the event and record it in verse.
"Three joyous good fellows, with hearts clear of flaw
Craigdarroch, so famous for wit, worth, and law
and trusty Glenriddell, so skill'd in old coins;
and gallant Sir Robert, deep-read in old wines."
After consuming eight bottles of claret, Alexander Fergusson won the contest and claimed the whistle and was immortalised in the poem of the same name. The whistle itself is now at Caprington Castle.
Burns's contact with Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch continued during his time as an Excise Officer. Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch became a magistrate and in October 1789 Burns wrote to him asking for something to be done for Robbie Gordon who it appears Burns was about to have prosecuted. However, when Burns reported Thomas Johnston of Mirecleugh for illicit distillation, and he was convicted and fined £5, Burns was none too pleased when in their capacity as magistrates, Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch and Robert Riddell of Glenriddell ordered suspension of proceedings while Johnston's appeal could be investigated.
The family seat of Craigdarroch was built in 1729 by William Adam, Scotland's most famous architect for the sum of £526 2s 9d and the original estimate in William Adam's handwriting still exists. A number of William Adam's sons were members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning.