James Walter Ferrier (1850-1883)

Joined the Society: 1871 (🌳 Original Member)

James Walter Ferrier was 21 when he became a founding member and one of the initial Presidents and Treasurers of the Philosophy Society. He was a student at the time, but never graduated. While at university, he attempted, along with Robert Louis Stevenson and two other fellow students, to found a student magazine. Although this magazine did not last, Stevenson later recalled the venture with fondness, and it is clear the two formed a lasting friendship during this time.

We know from some letters from him dated between 1878 and 1880 that he was suffering from poor health at this time. He spent at least the summer months of May through to August of 1878 in Chalmers Hospital (now the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre). It’s not clear from his letters exactly what afflicted him, although it may have been gastrointestinal. While still in hospital, he continued to write essays and was published in the Scotsman magazine. He also submitted essays to the London magazine via his friend and fellow author, William Ernest Henley, although it is not known whether any of his submissions were accepted for publication in London.

By the autumn of 1878, he was out of hospital and living in Forrest Road. Unfortunately, the worst of his troubles were not over. In 1880, Stevenson related in a letter that he was “consumed and wrecked by a miserable craving for drink.” It seems he later managed to escape the clutches of addiction, but the physical damage done to his body was, as it turned out, irreparable. He died in his native Edinburgh at the age of thirty-three.

The best record we have of him is from the letters of Stevenson. His letters paint a picture of deep mutual love. Despite his story and the grief it caused Stevenson, he was determined that his friend would be remembered for his best qualities. Stevenson wrote about him, anonymised, in emotional prose of exceptional quality in his later essay, Old Mortality. If it is inappropriate to quote the entire essay here, this passage should prove indicative of the whole:

The tale of this great failure is, to those who remained true to him, the tale of a success. In his youth he took thought for no-one but himself; when he came ashore again, his whole armada lost, he seemed to think of none but others. Such was his tenderness for others, such his instinct of fine courtesy and pride, that of that impure passion of remorse he never breathed a syllable; even regret was rare with him, and pointed with a jest. You would not have dreamed, if you had known him then, that this was that great failure, that beacon to young men, over whose fall a whole society had hissed and pointed fingers. Often have we gone to him, red-hot with our own hopeful sorrows, railing on the rose-leaves in our princely bed of life, and he would patiently give ear and wisely counsel; and it was only upon some return of our own thoughts that we were reminded what manner of man this was to whom we disembosomed: a man, by his own fault, ruined; shut out of the garden of his gifts; his whole city of hope both ploughed and salted; silently awaiting the deliverer. Then something took us by the throat; and to see him there, so gentle, patient, brave and pious, oppressed but not cast down, sorrow was so swallowed up in admiration that we could not dare to pity him.

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