Fernie, who was born in Kinglassie, Fife, joined Celtic from his local Kinglassie Hearts side in 1948. He had to wait until March 1950, however, to make his first team debut. Fernie became a regular first team player in 1952–53, and set up both of the Celtic goals in their 2–0 win against Hibs in the Coronation Cup Final.
A renowned dribbler, he also displayed a remarkable versatility which saw the club deploy him as a right half, inside forward and outside left as the need arose. He was part of Celtic’s 1953–54 Double-winning team and also collected two League Cup winners medals, in 1956 and 1957. In the 1957 Scottish League Cup Final, Fernie played in the deeper position of right half, influencing the play and scoring the last Celtic goal as they defeated rivals Rangers 7–1.
Fernie’s efforts in Celtic’s double-winning side earned him promotion to the full Scotland team, having previously represented the B team and the Scottish League. He made his debut against Finland and was selected in the squad for the 1954 FIFA World Cup. He played in both matches in Switzerland, but Scotland suffered a 7–0 defeat by Uruguay. Despite this infamous defeat, Fernie remained part of the national team and in October 1956 he scored his only Scotland goal, against Wales. and was selected for the 1958 World Cup. He played only one match in the tournament, a 3–2 defeat by Paraguay, which proved to be his final appearance for Scotland.