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 1710. As a young boy, he earned his keep herding sheep and later worked in a mill.
Fascinated by what he saw, he developed a hunger for learning and, as a child, mapped the night sky with thread and beads. His inquiring mind was never at rest and he set about educating himself. He first learnt 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. Ferguson’s interest in mechanics came about by accident.
He was about 7 or 8 years old when the roof of the family’s modest 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. James later left the village to make his way in life. He earned a humble living maintaining clocks and when at Durn House, he took to painting the stone spheres 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.
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.
His many writings were translated into French, German and Swedish as his fame spread. Ferguson was acquainted with Benjamin Franklin (whose inventions enabled the electric violin) and drew on Franklin’s 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, yet it’s suspected that 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. While his name is included on the gravestone back home in Milltown of Rothiemay, James was buried near his former wife and their son James in Old Marylebone churchyard in London.