Alexander was the victor in the contest for the Whistle, celebrated in Robert Burns' poem. The actual whistle is at Caprington Castle.
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 the most famous is 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 (1566-1625). 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 Scananavian under the table. As the winner, he claimed the whistle.
Sir Robert Laurie's son, Sir Walter Laurie lost a later contest and so the whistle passed to Walter Riddel 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' 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 Robie Gordon who it appears Robert 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 Whistle by Robert Burns (1789)
I sing of a Whistle, a Whistle of worth,
I sing of a Whistle, the pride of the North.
Was brought to the court of our good Scottish King,
And long with this Whistle all Scotland shall ring.
Old Loda, still rueing the arm of Fingal,
The god of the bottle sends down from his hall
'This Whistle's your challenge, to Scotland get o'er,
And drink them to hell, Sir! or ne'er see me more!'
Old poets have sung, and old chronicles tell,
What champions ventur'd, what champions fell;
The son of great Loda was conqueror still,
And blew on the Whistle their requiem shrill.
Till Robert, the lord of the Cairn and the Scaur,
Unmatch'd at the bottle, unconquer'd in war,
He drank his poor god-ship as deep as the sea,
No tide of the Baltic e'er drunker than he.
Thus Robert, victorious, the trophy has gained,
Which now in his house has for ages remained;
Till three noble chieftains, and all of his blood,
The jovial contest again have renewed.
Three joyous good fellows, with hearts clear of flaw;
Craigdarroch, so famous for wit, worth, and law;
And trusty Glenriddel, so skilled in old coins;
And gallant Sir Robert, deep-read in old wines.
Craigdarroch began, with a tongue smooth as oil,
Desiring Glenriddel to yield up the spoil;
Or else he would muster the heads of the clan,
And once more, in claret, try which was the man.
'By the gods of the ancients!' Glenriddel replies,
'Before I surrender so glorious a prize,
I'll conjure the ghost of the great Rorie More,
And bumper his horn with him twenty times o'er.'
Sir Robert, a soldier, no speech would pretend,
But he ne'er turn'd his back on his foe - or his friend,
Said, toss down the Whistle, the prize of the field,"
And knee-deep in claret, he'd die ere he'd yield.
To the board of Glenriddel our heroes repair,
So noted for drowning of sorrow and care;
But for wine and for welcome not more known to fame,
Than the sense, wit, and taste of a sweet lovely dame.
A bard was selected to witness the fray,
And tell future ages the feats of the day;
A Bard who detested all sadness and spleen,
And wish'd that Parnassus a vineyard had been.
The dinner being over, the claret they ply,
And every new cork is a new spring of joy;
In the bands of old friendship and kindred so set,
And the bands grew the tighter the more they were wet.
Gay Pleasure ran riot as bumpers ran o'er;
Bright Phoebus ne'er witness'd so joyous a corps,
And vowed that to leave them he was quite forlorn,
Till Cynthia hinted he'd see them next morn.
Six bottles a-piece had well wore out the night,
When gallant Sir Robert, to finish the fight,
Turn'd o'er in one bumper a bottle of red,
And swore 'twas the way that their ancestor did.
Then worthy Glenriddel, so cautious and sage,
No longer the warfare, ungodly, would wage;
A high ruling elder to wallow in wine!
He left the foul business to folks less divine.
The gallant Sir Robert fought hard to the end;
But who can with Fate and Quart Bumpers contend?
Though Fate said, a hero should perish in light;
So uprose bright Phoebus - and down fell the knight.
Next uprose our Bard, like a prophet in drink:
'Craigdarroch, thou'lt soar when creation shall sink!
But if thou would flourish immortal in rhyme,
Come - one bottle more - and have at the sublime!
Thy line, that have struggled for freedom with Bruce,
Shall heroes and patriots ever produce:
So thine be the laurel, and mine be the bay;
The field thou hast won, by yon bright god of day!'