The Peasant-Boy Philosopher James Ferguson astronomer and limner from Rothiemay

james ferguson astronomer 2 rothiemay

Gravestone at Milltown of Rothiemay

A chance glimpse of a name on a gravestone in a tiny village in Moray aroused my curiosity.

James Ferguson astronomer it read. I wasn’t familiar with the name but my other half was and told me Ferguson was famous long ago (and not for playing the electric violin on Desolation Row). So I took a photo of the tombstone and looked him up when I got back home.

James Ferguson was born to a poor tenant farmer and his wife in Rothiemay near Keith in Banffshire in the presbytery of Strathbogie during the year of 1710. As a young loon he earned his keep herding sheep and later working in a mill. Fascinated by what he saw about him the boy developed a hunger for learning and as a child mapped the night sky with thread and beads. His enquiring mind was never at rest and he set about educating himself. He first learned to read by listening in to lessons given by his father to his older brother for despite their humble circumstances the father was, as most Scots were, literate to an extent that they might be able to read the bible. And so in the evenings after work reading was taught centring mainly on the Scottish Catechism. That the young Ferguson was attempting to learn at the same time as his brother wasn’t obvious to their father and James was unwilling to ask for help when he found the going tough and he turned to a neighbour, an elderly woman, who coached him in reading so that by the time the father discovered his competence he encouraged him further by teaching James to write as well. The icing on the cake was the three months James spent at the grammar school at Keith and those three months amounted to the whole of James Ferguson’s formal education.  

Perhaps it was his inauspicious start in life that persuaded the successful adult James Ferguson to ensure his own writings on the physical sciences were easily accessible to untrained minds. His book Lectures on Mechanics attracted a vast number of readers across all classes and became a classic to be found in every mechanics workshop, it was claimed, as well as a source for other learned works but all of that lay in the future for the boy from Rothiemay.


James Ferguson mapping the stars

Ferguson’s interest in mechanics came about by accident. He was about 7 or 8 years old when the roof of the family’s meagre home began to sag. His father set about repairing it – using a lever to position a prop that lifted it more or less back into place. Watching him the young James was astonished at how his father managed to raise such a great weight with so little difficulty. He imagined the ease of the exercise was down to his father’s great strength but later thinking about it realised his father had applied his strength to the lever not the prop and the child began to make his own levers and developed experiments to hoist up weights.

Soon his models were adapted with wheels and winding ropes and the results were methodically recorded so that he might improve on each design and he would probably have been content to continue passing his time in this manner but as one of six children he had to earn his keep and was found work looking after a neighbour’s sheep and this is how he came to study the night skies. A pattern emerged in his life whereby he made models of mills, spinning-wheels and such in daytime then at night he would take a blanket and go out into a field and lying down on his back would stretch out threads strung with small beads positioning each bead to hide a star from his eye – in this way he calculated their distance from one another. Then by candlelight he laid out the thread over paper and marked the positions of the beads/stars building up maps of the night skies. He showed these maps to the farmer, James Glashan, who laughed at him at first before realising the boy was onto something and began encouraging him. During the day James made fair copies of his rough calculations, his star papers, sometimes helped by Glashan. Later in his life Ferguson said of the farmer,

“I shall always have a respect for the memory of that man.”

And he went on –

One day he sent me with a message to Mr J Gilchrist, minister at Keith, to whom I had been known from my childhood. I carried my star papers to show him, and found him looking over a large parcel of maps, which I surveyed with great pleasure as they were the first I had ever seen. He then told me the earth is round like a ball, and explained the map of it to me. I requested him to lend me that map to take a copy of it in the evenings, for which pleasant employment my master gave me more time than I could reasonable expect, and often took the threshing-flail out of my hands and worked himself, while I sat by him in the barn busy with my compasses, ruler, and pen. When I had finished the copy I asked leave to carry home the map. In my way to the minister’s house I happened to pass the village school, where I saw a genteel-looking man painting a sun-dial on the wall. I stopped awhile to observe him, and the schoolmaster came out and asked me what parcel it was I had under my arm. I showed him the map and my copy of it, wherewith he appeared very well pleased, and asked me whether I should not like to learn of Mr Cantley to make sun-dials. Mr Cantley then looked at the copy of the map, and commended it much.”


Ferguson’s Orrery

One thing led to another involving the kirk minister and a wealthy individual who invited the boy to live at his house where Cantley was butler with the idea that he would be taught by Cantley. James could not take up this offer immediately for he was bound to Glashan as his herder but once his time was out he took up residence with Thomas Grant of Achoynaney and there the boy and Cantley formed a close friendship. Self-taught Cantley excelled in arithmetic, mathematics, geometry in addition to being a highly capable musician. He also understood Latin, French and Greek and was said able to write a prescription if required. The arrangement ended when Cantley moved to another household and James Ferguson returned home and found work in a mill but his friendship with Cantley lasted till Cantley’s death.

Milling was more arduous than James anticipated it would be and his employer was an unreasonable man who made life difficult for him. After a year the boy had become physically weak. Another engagement further depleted his strength and the child was forced to rest and recuperate.

During this low period in his life while James tried to regain his strength he occupied himself by making a wooden clock using the neck of a broken bottle as the ‘bell’ against which a hammer struck but interested in the differences between a clock and a watch that did not require a weight and line he persuaded a gentleman to show him the inside of his pocket watch. James listened as the workings were explained and having memorised the instruction went on to make his own watch with wooden wheels and a spring made from whalebone. The whole works he encased in wood and the watch which was a little larger than a breakfast teacup was proudly shown to a clumsy neighbour who accidentally dropped it then stood on it, crushing all its parts. James’ father was infuriated and ready to beat the neighbour and the whole episode affected James so much he never made another watch.


James Ferguson painting a globe

As soon as his health was recovered James left the village to make his way in life. He earned a  meagre living maintaining clocks and when at Durn House at Portsoy he took to painting the stone balls on top of the gateposts – one as a globe of earth and the other the night sky – accurately aligned towards the celestial pole so they became sundials – using his lessons from Cantley to map them accurately. He would later go on to make pocket globes which brought him a reasonable living.

Ferguson had what we now call transferable skills and he found earned money producing needlework patterns for aprons and gowns. His artistic ability enabled him to copy paintings he saw in fine houses and this inspired him to learn portraiture but he was disappointed to discover none of the artists in Edinburgh where he tried would take him on as an apprentice without a premium. However, the Rev Dr. Keith sat for a portrait by James and so pleased was he by the result he recommended him to others so gradually James Ferguson had wealthy individuals queuing up to be drawn by him and a career as a pen and ink portraitist, a limner, was born.

Driven to learn Ferguson taught himself medicine and practised for a time in Keith but could not make a living from it as once helped his patients forgot to pay him.


Ferguson’s Astronomical Rotula


Astronomy was still the area James Ferguson longed to be involved with. From Edinburgh James Ferguson went to Inverness and invented an instrument to demonstrate new moons and eclipses; soon his Astronomical Rotula was published. He made a mechanical model of the solar system, an orrery, and word of his abilities spread. He came to the notice of the Royal Society and in 1747 he published his first work, a Dissertation on the Phenomena of the Harvest Moon. A prolific author he published his mechanical lectures, tables and tracts on various arts and sciences, a treatise on electricity and his Astronomical Dialogues between a Gentleman and Lady in which they discuss Newton’s system of the world in mathematical terms. His many writings were translated into French, German and Swedish as his fame spread. Readers of his works included the political theorist and one of the founding fathers of the United States of America Thomas Paine and astronomer and composer William Herschel. Ferguson was acquainted with Benjamin Franklin (whose inventions enabled the electric violin) and drew on his designs of a 3-wheeled clock for his own trials. Ferguson began giving public lectures on experimental philosophy going on to become one of the most popular lecturers of his time using instruments and models to entertain as well as inform the public. George III was an admirer and awarded Ferguson an annual pension of £50 from the Privy Purse. However it was his inventions of scientific and astronomical apparatus that most captivated attention.  


He lived in London for thirty years making his living mainly as a limner but also selling his globes. In 1763 he was elected a member of the Royal Society without being required to pay for admission (unusual it appears).

James Ferguson led an extraordinary life, immensely successful in so many ways but I suspect it did not entirely satisfy the man who wanted to do so much else with his time. He did not enjoy a happy family life and was legally separated from his wife Isabella. They had four children.

Humble and courteous, described as a lovely character, James Ferguson’s eventful life ended on 16th November 1776 at the age of 66 years and while his name is included in the gravestone back home in Milltown of Rothiemay he was buried near his former wife and their son James in Old Marylebone churchyard in London.

 Jm - Copy


James Ferguson’s tomb at the lost Old Marylebone graveyard


You can find out more about Ferguson’s burial from this short article from the University of Edinburgh…15…57D&db_key=AST&page_ind=0&data_type=GIF&type=SCREEN_VIEW&classic=YES




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