A BIOGRAPHIC SKETCH
ALEXANDER ANDERSON was born in
the village of Kirkconnel, Dumfries-shire on the 30th of April, 1845.
He was the son of James Anderson and Isabella Cowan, of whose family of
six sons and one daughter, he was the youngest. The place of his
birth is not Kirkconnel in Annandale, the scene of the tragic ballad of
Fair Helen, as has sometimes been imagined; but Kirkconnel in Nithsdale, a
village of little more than a single street built on each side of the
highway, with the long, straight line of the Glasgow and South-Western
Railway on one side of it, and the head waters of the Nith winding past it
on the other. The house in which he was born is still pointed out to
interested visitors, in what is known as John McLatchie's Entry, in the
main street of the village; but the house which was built by the hands of
his father, who was a quarryman, and in which the family afterwards
resided, stood in an opening between the main street and the railway
embankment. Since the poet's death it has been demolished, and an
extension of the adjoining buildings now occupies its place.
When the boy was about three years old, the family removed to
Crocketford, a village in the lower end of Galloway, where, in "its circle
of sunny land," he passed the days of his childhood, and, in "the old,
dark, humble school-house, that stood by the little stream," he received
the ordinary elementary education obtainable there. At this time of
his life he did not show any special aptitude for, or love of, learning,
except that he took a great delight in acquiring proficiency in writing;
and that he became an excellent penman, surviving examples of his early
compositions very clearly show. He was also fond of drawing, and
enjoyed a local fame as a colourist, becoming a member of an academy of
youths, every one of whom was in duty bound to provide, at stated periods,
a sketch to be criticised by the others. These criticisms being
often expressed in terms more pungent than pleasant, the results of their
devotion to art were not always conducive to the preservation of peace
among the brotherhood. Looking back to this time, from maturer
years, he says: "I can still see myself trudging to school, satchel on
back, and stopping now and then to see if my masterpiece was not receiving
any damage in its transit."
While he was receiving the ordinary education of the old
school-house, he was also unconsciously being moulded by those influences
which are so difficult to define, but which in after years are so fair to
look back upon. Writing of this period, to an old school-fellow, and
recalling scenes and incidents in which they had both participated, he
"For boyhood, like sweet love's first prime,
Has spells that are divinely given;
And all the light that crowned that time
Fell somewhere from a rent in heaven."
As he had now transferred his devotion from painting to
poetry, and was able to rhyme with facility, every notable incident, or
odd phase of character which came under his notice that he deemed worthy
of the honour, he recorded in rhyming epistles, or satirical verse.
Very few of those early productions, however, have escaped the fiery
ordeal to which they were ultimately subjected.
At this time also he began to become familiar with the world
of books, and to revel in literature of the most sensational character.
Living and moving in an atmosphere of romance, he read novels, plays and
books of adventure, among which the works of Fenimore Cooper held a
prominent place. As he had a healthy mind, he did not come to any
harm through living with the noble savage. His own view was, that as
these men lived with nature, to that extent, at least, their influence was
beneficial. This was but a phase of youth that soon passed away,
and, as his mind expanded and matured, he sought for companionship of a
more intellectual order.
When about sixteen years of age he returned with his parents
to his native village of Kirkconnel. There for about two years he
found employment in a quarry, after which he entered the service of the
Glasgow and South-Western Railway Company, as a surfaceman [ED.—also
known as a "plate-layer"], on that portion of the line adjacent to the
village. It was while employed in the quarry and on the railway that
he began that course of self-culture which so greatly influenced his
future career, and the results of which are so evident in all that he has
written. All his leisure time, even his meal-hour on the slope of
the railway embankment, was now devoted to study, and to the reading of
the best authors. Among these Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, and
Shelley were his favourites, and, like most young poets, he also came for
a time under the spell of Byron. As a result of this course of
reading, a strong desire to extend his education by the study of languages
took possession of him. By persevering effort in this direction,
with the aid of "Cassell's Popular Educator" and a French Grammar, it was
not long before he acquired a knowledge of French sufficient to enable him
to read the works of Racine and Molière.
The ambition to be able to read the works of the great masters in their
own tongue led him on by the same means to the study of German and
Italian. At a later period he added to these the study of Spanish,
that he might be able to read the masterpiece of Cervantes in the language
of its author. Along with these he had also a slight knowledge of
Latin and Greek. While, by his persevering efforts, Anderson had in
this way acquired what might be called a working knowledge of these
languages, he made no claim to exact scholarship. His own estimate
of his attainments was a very modest one; but it enabled him to say: "Now,
I can appreciate, in my own way and in their own tongue, the mighty voices
of Goethe, Schiller, and Dante." His knowledge of these authors, and
of the languages in which they have written, might be imperfect, as in the
circumstances it could hardly fail to be; but it was a possession that
gave him great pleasure, and became to him a source of genuine
During this period of self-culture the faculty of rhyming was
kept very much in abeyance. This was partly due to a growing
conviction of the worthlessness of much that he had written, and partly to
the nature of his daily toil not being favourable to the cultivation of
the art of poetry. But in 1864 the death of a beloved brother, at
the early age of 26, awoke the poetic faculty which had been lying
dormant. The memory of this brother, to whom he was devotedly
attached, is embalmed in a tender and impassioned poem—"To One in
Eternity"—which was included in the poet's first published volume.
Another tribute to this brother's memory was a series of "In Memoriam"
poems, which in later years he did not care to publish.
Anderson's first appearance in print was made in the columns
of The People's Journal, Dundee, to which he contributed some
verses, in reference to the Rev. Fergus Ferguson's attack on the character
of Robert Burns during the celebrations of the centenary year. This
poem, like the episode which called it forth, seems now to have passed out
of remembrance. In 1869 he appeared as a prize-winner, in the
Christmas Number of The People's Journal, with "A Song of Labour,"
a poem in the same measure, and following a similar train of thought, as
that which gave its title to his first volume, but which is not a part of
it. He was also the winner twice successively, in 1871 and 1872, of
the first prize for the best poem in The People's Journal
competition, with the poems of "The Dead Mother" and "Rachel"; and of the
second prize in 1870, with the poem of "The Dead Child."
It may have been about this time, or possibly a little
earlier, that he became the village satirist, and wrote about the "Holy
Willies" of the neighbourhood with a sharp and scathing pen. Some
examples that have been preserved show that, in spite of the writer's
kindly nature, he did not err on the side of leniency in dealing with the
faults and failings of the "unco guid."
The first real recognition of Anderson as a poet was due to
the keen literary discernment of Mr Andrew Stewart, sub-editor, under the
late Mr David Pae, of The People's Friend, Dundee. The poem
which at once attracted his notice was "John Keats," with the now familiar
pen-name of "Surfaceman" attached. This was the poet's first
contribution to the Friend, and it was printed in No. 16 of that
Miscellany. Mr Stewart was so much impressed by the manly ring of
the verse, and its great superiority to the poetical contributions which
he generally received, that he entered into correspondence with the
author, and was astonished to find that the writer who showed so much
nobility of heart and mind, such a wealth of imagery, refinement of
language, and a degree of culture that is usually associated with halls of
learning, was in reality what his pseudonym implied—a "surfaceman," and
toiling contentedly with pick and shovel on the railway. In this way
began a warm and life-long friendship between the poet and Mr Stewart, and
a connection with The People's Friend that lasted during the whole
of his active literary life.
Having now become a prolific writer, in addition to his
numerous contributions to The People's Friend, he also found time
to contribute poems to Chambers's Journal, Good Words,
Cassell's Magazine, The Quiver, and other Miscellanies.
This naturally led him to resolve on taking the risks of authorship and—to
use his own words—"gratify a long-felt wish to see the 'children of my
brain' housed under the boards of a neat volume." This desire was
realised in 1873. Encouraged by the hearty reception given to his
poems, and reassured by the many kind letters which reached him through
the hands of the editor of The People's Friend, he yielded to the
solicitations of his friends, to "venture upon the ocean of literature in
a trim built craft of his own construction." The result was the
issue of his first volume—"A Song of Labour and Other Poems"—a neat book
of 200 pages, printed at The Advertiser Office, Dundee. The
longest poem in the volume, "A Song of Labour," is "Respectfully dedicated
to my fellow-workers with pick and shovel everywhere."
The book received a most hearty welcome, and so successful
was it that the whole edition was bought up in less than a fortnight,
largely by the help of the contributors to The People's Friend.
It was favourably received by critics, and reviewed in a friendly spirit.
It was seen that a new poet had arisen with a distinctive note in his
song; with a genuine power, that was sweet, true, and tender in its
degree—one who was capable of expressing his own thoughts with vigour and
cultivated taste, and from whom work of higher quality might reasonably be
In 1875 Anderson issued a second volume, "The Two Angels and
Other Poems," with an appreciative biographical sketch by the Rev. George
Gilfillan. In this sketch the simple facts of the poet's life are
related, and a judicious appraisement of the man and his work is given.
"We believe," says Mr Gilfillan, "a purer and simpler-minded man does not
exist. He sends on his passions rushing with the trains—he retains
in his own bosom and home the peace which passeth all understanding."
This little book of 232 pages, published by Messrs Simpkin, Marshall &
Co., received as cordial a welcome as that which was given to "A Song of
Labour." In his new volume, the poet's supreme ability as a
delineator of child life was abundantly evident. The fine touches of
nature, the pawky humour, and pure pathos of such poems as "Jenny wi' the
Airn Teeth," "Cuddle Doon," and "Jamie's Wee Chair," at once won for their
author a warm place in Scottish hearts, and made his name a house hold
word in Scottish homes. In this connection it may be interesting to
note that "Jenny wi' the Airn Teeth" was Anderson's first poem
illustrating this particular aspect of child-life, and that it was written
at the suggestion of his friend, Mr Andrew Stewart. On every page
there was evidence that the poet had made a distinct advance in the
cultivation of his art. The purity and elevation of sentiment, and
the delicacy and refinement of expression, attracted special attention.
With "In Rome, A Poem in Sonnets," the author essayed a higher flight than
any he had yet attempted. In choosing such a theme he challenged
comparison with the great masters. That a young railway surfaceman
should grapple with such a theme is in itself remarkable; but that he
should have done so with such a large measure of success is more
remarkable still. At the time those sonnets were written the poet
had never seen Rome; to him a visit to that city was as yet a "vast
desire," not a realised ambition. If the contents of the book showed
the fine qualities of the poet, not less did his letters reveal the
sterling unaffected character of the man. Writing to a friend at
this time, of how he spent his leisure hours among his favourite books,
with his friends dropping in now and then for a quiet chat, he says:—
"What more have I to wish for? I have the great rush
and whirl of the world going past me in the trains through the day when at
my work, and at night the cool healthy calm of my native village."
Writing to another friend, he says:—
"Poets are a strange lot, and I am beginning to think that
''Tis only noble to be good.' Better to have a little high, firm
manhood than the gift of poetry coupled with a mean intellect."
In 1878 "Songs of The Rail" appeared. The book was
published by Messrs Simpkin, Marshall & Co., and bore the inscription:
"Dedicated to my Fellow-workers on the Railway." In a prefatory note
the author defends himself from charges brought against him of
exaggeration and over-drawing in his poems of railway life. In reply
to these charges, he remarks: "Nearly all my railway poems are founded
upon facts, and not a few of them upon incidents that have taken place
upon a line on which I work. There are others founded upon accounts
of railway accidents, seen in glancing over the papers in my leisure
hours; while others, again, have for basis communications made to me by
railwaymen with whom I came in contact in my daily work. I will
frankly admit, however, to having
taken advantage now and then—although in a very slight degree—of the
licence usually allowed to verse writers, of altering details in order to
create a more complete whole." In a few words more he expresses the
hope, that the book:
"may interest my fellow-workers on the railway, and
heighten in some degree their pride in the service, however humble be
their position. I trust that its perusal may lead the
engine-driver, among others, to look upon his 'iron-horse' as the
embodiment of a force as noble, as gigantic—a force which has opened up
for commerce and industry a thousand paths that otherwise would have
remained undiscovered: a power destined beyond doubt to be one of the
civilisers of the world."
"Songs of the Rail" was a selection of poems on railway
subjects from the author's two previous volumes, with a few additional
pieces. It contained a portrait of "Surfaceman" as he appeared at
his daily employment, standing on the railway slope, with a pick and
shovel beside him.
In 1879 "Ballads and Sonnets" was published by Messrs
Macmillan & Co. This volume was to a great extent made up of
selections from the first two volumes, which had been long out of print.
This publication was very much a concession to the wishes of the poet's
friends, who were in some degree responsible for the selections made; but
it also contained a number of new poems written in the author's happiest
vein. It was dedicated, in three sonnets, to Archibald Cameron
Corbett, Esq., who had been to the poet one of the best and kindest of
friends. With this gentleman, so well known as Member of Parliament
for the Tradestan division of Glasgow, and afterward as Lord Rowallan,
Anderson had at different times visited the English Lake district, Belgium
and Germany; and at this time had but recently returned from Italy, after
having visited Florence, Pisa, and Rome. The dedicatory sonnets
recall the visit to the Wordsworth country, and a longer series at the end
of the book commemorate the tour in Belgium and Germany. The first
place in the book is given to "In Rome: a Poem in Sonnets." It must
have been very gratifying to the author, that, though this poem was
written long before he ever thought of seeing Rome except in dreams, he
found it was so true to the reality in every respect that, on his return,
he saw nothing to alter except a line or two, where he refers to Keats and
Shelley as "Two of great England's singers, lying each by each"—the fact
being that separate graveyards contain the dust of the two poets.
When Anderson was leaving for Italy, a lady in London, who knew of his
deep admiration for Keats and Shelley, gave him a case of violets to plant
upon their graves. This loving tribute the poet reverently paid,
and, on his own part, procured in Rome a lily of the Nile which he planted
on the grave of Shelley.
The publication of "Ballads and Sonnets" by a firm of eminent
London publishers could not fail to introduce the poet and his work to a
wider circle of the English reading public; and, containing as it did a
fair representation of the varied themes by which the author appealed to
the hearts of his readers, it allowed of a better estimate being formed of
his merits as a poet.
In October, 1880, Anderson left Kirkconnel for Edinburgh,
having obtained an appointment there, as assistant librarian in the
University Library. This change of circumstances gave great
satisfaction to his numerous friends, who had long grudged to see him
spending his golden prime, and exhausting his energies with pick and
shovel, in the hard and exacting toil of a railway surfaceman. Now
that they saw him placed in more congenial surroundings, they believed
that in his new position he would find much that was agree able to his
personal tastes; while by his talents and acquirements he would be well
qualified to perform the duties attached to it. Anderson had already
made many friends in Edinburgh, and to them his appointment was
particularly gratifying. He liked the city for the opportunities
which it gave him of social intercourse and intellectual enjoyment; but he
did not delight in "the sweet security of streets" as Charles Lamb did.
It was a cause of regret to his friends that city life did
not seem to stimulate Anderson's poetical ardour, or quicken his impulses
towards a literary career. He printed a small collection of
translations from Heine for private circulation, but he could not be
prevailed upon to publish another volume. The regret of his friends
was hardly justified by facts, for, during the ten years following his
removal to Edinburgh, his poetical contributions to periodical literature
were both numerous and important, while the desire to write well remained
as strong as ever. But, though living as he now did, in close touch
with all that was best in the artistic and literary life of the capital,
and mingling freely with it in a social capacity, it was quite evident
that the city did not inspire him. He found his inspiration still at
Kirkconnel, amid the breezy uplands dominated by Corsencon and the
Kirkland Hills, and where traditions of the Covenanters still linger about
Glen Aylmer and the Vennel Burn. The holiday seasons found him back
again beside his native woods and streams, or on the hillside listening to
the low sweet voices of Nature, with his favourite bird, the lark, soaring
and singing in the blue sky above him.
In 1883 he became Secretary to the Edinburgh Philosophical
Institution. Whatever advantages this position afforded him, the
responsibilities and the engrossing duties of the position left him little
leisure to follow his favourite pursuits; and in 1886 he returned to the
more congenial atmosphere of the University as sub-librarian.
In December, 1891, the poet was entertained by his friends to
a Complimentary Dinner in the Douglas Hotel, Edinburgh. On this
occasion he was presented with his portrait in oils, painted by W. S. MacGeorge, R.S.A. The chair was occupied by Sheriff Aeneas Mackay,
and the presentation was made by the Rev. John Lamond. Mr Anderson
replied in a poetical address, which will be found, under the title of
"The Portrait," in the present volume.
In 1900, the death of his friend Mr Andrew Stewart, Editor of
The People's Friend, was a great blow to the poet. Theirs was
a unique friendship, that had endured for thirty years without the
slightest jar. Of this sad event he wrote: "Mr Stewart was my soul's
brother, and ours was a long, long friendship without the slightest hitch
on either side. I never had a blow like it." He also wrote the
following verse, with which he associated the writer of these notes:—
"We lay this wreath upon thy grave, O friend!
Symbol of that we wear within our heart;
The one will fade, the other still keep green,
Until we, too, shall be as now thou art."
It always seemed to those who knew Anderson most intimately
that he was never quite the same man after the death of his friend, and as
if the shadow of his great loss lay on much of what he wrote.
His contributions to periodical literature now became less
frequent; but he still remained faithful to his first love—The People's
Friend. His last contribution "The Quick and The Dead"—appeared
in its columns in 1905, and it was probably the last poem that he sent to
the press. During the thirty-six years of his connection with this
Miscellany he contributed to its columns considerably over three hundred
Some years before his death Anderson was appointed Chief
Librarian, he having been acting in that capacity for some time
previously. This recognition of his services gave him genuine
pleasure, and he, the most modest of men where his own merits were
concerned, found delight in the thought, that, beginning life as a railway
surfaceman, he had attained to the position of Librarian of Edinburgh
University. But he also felt that, like so much in life, promotion
had come too late to yield the full satisfaction that it would otherwise
have done. His health by this time had become seriously impaired,
and the feeling that he was an old man was daily growing upon him.
In his later years he became very much of a recluse, and was
constrained by failing health to withdraw from those scenes of social
intercourse that he had formerly found so congenial, and where his
presence had always been so welcome and attractive. He attended to
his duties at the University till within a week or two of his death, but
it was evident that he was doing so in much weakness and suffering.
He died on the evening of Sunday, the 11th of July, 1909. He had
often expressed his desire that when the end came he should be buried in
the churchyard of his native village "Among familiar names to rest, and in
the places of his youth."
Three days after his death this desire was given effect to.
In deference to the wishes of his relatives, the funeral was a private
one; but, along with those connected with the family and a few old friends
in the village, it was attended by Professor Eggeling, as representing the
Library Committee of Edinburgh University, and Mr Alexander Kennedy, of
Kenmill House, Bothwell., who afterwards acquired the copyright of the
It is beyond the scope of these notes to attempt any critical
estimate of Anderson's merits as a poet; but a few points may be briefly
touched on. It was quite in accordance with the ordinary course of
things that "Surfaceman" should write "Songs of the Rail" with a fulness
of knowledge, and a power of vivid description, and thereby make for
himself a name in a comparatively new field of poetic enterprise.
With his poems of child life, so remarkable for their sweetness and
simplicity, their pawky humour, and tender pathos, the case was different;
for these domestic poems, with their fine touches of human nature, and
which give such charming glimpses of simple household ways, were written
by one who was all his life a bachelor.
His poems of Nature are all the result of close observation,
and are inspired by a deep love of his subject. They show a
thoughtful mind and a lively fancy; while the element of human interest is
seldom absent. He contrasts the joyousness of Nature with the
sadness that clings to human things—that feeling which finds such poignant
expression in the Book of Job, where the man of Uz bemoans the frustration
of his hopes, and the fewness of his days: "Thou prevailest for ever
against him, and he passeth: Thou changest his countenance and sendest him
away." In his reflective moods, the poet often quoted these words.
In his early years, as already stated, Wordsworth, Keats,
Tennyson and Shelley were among his favourite poets. In maturer
years he may have reconsidered the position of Tennyson, and Shelley may
not have held the same place in his esteem that he once did; but his
devotion to Wordsworth and Keats never waned.
He had a high admiration for the work of Burns as a poet,
especially for his epistles and love songs; but the indiscriminate
adulation of the birthday celebrations did not appeal to him. One of
the most congenial of companions, and most faithful of friends, he did not
give his confidences to everyone—not even in his youthful days in his
native village. This trait of character made it difficult for him to
accept the sentiments expressed in "A Man's a Man for a' That" without
He had a wide knowledge of literature, and a fine critical
taste. He loved to linger over the felicities of Tennyson and Keats,
and to quote striking passages from his favourite authors, first among
whom was Scott, whom he loved to speak of as "Good Sir Walter."
He had a fine sense of humour, and considered the gift a
priceless possession; but while "his jest among his friends was free," in
his poems it generally plays a subordinate part. In company he was
not a great talker, and he was seen at his best in a small gathering of
the inner circle of his friends, where he had the happy knack of bringing
out in conversation the best thoughts of those around him.
During the summer of the present year a memorial of Anderson
was erected on the Kirkbrae, Kirkconnel. The monument, which was
designed by Mr T. Duncan Rhind, architect, consists of a massive rugged
block of red sandstone set on a base of the same material. Placed on
the centre of the block is a bronze figure of the poet, by Mr H. S. Gamley,
A.R.S.A., bearing the inscription:—
born 1845, died 1909.
'He sleeps among the hills he knew."'
The funds for the erection of the monument were raised by
subscription, by Scotsmen at home and abroad.
In the autumn of last year, with two friends of the poet, the
present writer stood beside the family burying-place in the "Hillside
Graveyard." The space on the simple headstone that the poet claimed
for his own name has now been filled. After the record of those
members of the family who have gone before, we read:—
Born 30th April, 1845,
Died at Edinburgh 11th July, 1909,
Aged 64 years.
"We have our day, we have our say,
Then quit the scene for ithers,
And cuddle doon amang the mools,
Where mankind a' are brithers."
These lines inscribed on the stone were written by a friend
of the poet, resident in the neighbourhood.
It was a sunny afternoon, the blue bells still lingered among
the half-withered grass, and the brackens were turning brown on the
hillsides; all those voices of Nature, for which the poet had such a
receptive ear, were above us, and around us; but for him—and in his own
His grave is green in that sweet vale
Where the fair river flows the same;
It rolls, and gathers to its tale
The added memory of his name.