Scotsman obituary

Obituaries Index

A wide circle of friends and former pupils will hear with regret of the death in his 84th year of Robert McNair Ferguson, LL.D., late headmaster of the Edinburgh Institution, which took place yesterday at his residence, 5 Douglas Gardens Edinburgh, after a brief illness.

Dr Ferguson had a distinguished career as an educationalist. Born in Airdrie in July 1828, he came to Edinburgh when he was about 3 years old. Between 1843 and 1858 he was successively monitor, assistant, and lecturer in the Free Church Normal School, Moray House, and at the same time an able student at the University. Both at the University and at the New College, Dr Ferguson gained the highest honours in philosophy, mathematics, and natural philosophy, and he afterwards passed his examination in King's College, London, for a lectureship in physics and chemistry. In 1855, after studying under Professor Bunsen and others, and undergoing examinations in chemistry, physics, and mechanics, he graduated in the University of Heidelberg as Ph.D. During his residence in Germany he acquired so fluent a knowledge of the Gorman language and literature that Germans with whom he conversed were occasionally at a loss to determine his nationality. In the year 1858 he, in company with the late Mr Bickerton, took ever what was known as the "Hill Street Academy." They subsequently removed to Queen Street and transformed the small academy into the Edinburgh Institution, which for many years was looked upon as one of the best secondary schools in the city. It was rather hard hit, like so many schools of the land, in the establishment of George Watson's College by the Merchant Company, but the excellence of the teaching given in the Institution, both general and scientific, was so good, that it continued to hold its own even against so formidable competition as that with which it had to contend. Mr Bickerton in time retired. Dr Ferguson was an ideal headmaster, manly and sympathetic, and exercising a wholesome influence on five or six generations of boys, many of whom distinguished themselves in different walks of life. On the side of the boys their feeling for their headmaster reached the point of enthusiasm. Among other former pupils might be mentioned Sir A H L Fraser. K.C.S.I., Professor Sir Thomas Fraser, Edinburgh; Sir Lauder Brunton, M.D., London; the late Sir James Gibson, Bart.; Professor Haswell, Sydney; Professor Scott Lang, St Andrews; Dr A E Scougal, late H.M. Inspector of Schools; Professor John Wyllie, Edinburgh; the late Professor Sir William Gairdner, Glasgow, and many others. Dr Ferguson took a keen interest in politics. Before the Home Rule split in 1886 he was on the Liberal Committee of West Edinburgh. Afterwards he joined the Unionists, and for many years, from 1891 to 1906, was Chairman of the Liberal Unionist Association of West Edinburgh. He was one of the most indefatigable of members and office-bearers. In spite of his years, no weather was too inclement and no meeting was too late for him to attend. For a long period he was also a member of the Executive Committee of the East and North of Scotland Liberal Unionist Association, and latterly was one of the honorary vice-presidents of that body. Frequently he presided at public meetings, and the well-chosen character of his remarks and his conduct of the business always gave satisfaction. Both by speaking and by his pen he did good work for the cause in West Edinburgh, where he was greatly respected by both wings of the party. By his tact he was enabled to draw the two wings more closely together and initiate a cordial working arrangement which still subsists. In addition to such services, which he give freely, he was also a generous subscriber to the Unionist party funds.

From 1862 Dr Ferguson was an active member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and was three times elected to the Council. He was president for two years of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and for a time president of the Mathematical Society. Besides valuable contributions to the publications of these Societies, Dr Ferguson wrote several articles on Natural Philosophy in Chamber's Encyclopaedia, and an excellent treatise on "Electricity," which had a wide circulation. Among others to whom be taught chemistry were three French Princes, the great grandsons of Philip Duke of Orleans (Egalité) who were then in Edinburgh.

In November 1902 he was elected a member of the Heriot Trust, as the representative of the Royal Society, and as a Member of the Heriot Watt College and Education Bursary Committee he brought to their work his wide experience as an educationist and a practical business man.

In 1892 the Edinburgh University conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D., and the orator on that occasion emphasised the importance of his educational and scientific work. By all who knew him Dr Ferguson was admired for his singularly manly and straightforward character, his wide reading, and his skill in dealing with scientific subjects. He is survived by a family of two sons and three daughters.

On Wednesday, 1st January 1913 Robert McNair Ferguson's obituary appeared in The Scotsman.