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HURRAH! for the mighty engine,
    As he bounds along his track:
Hurrah, for the life that is in him,
    And his breath so thick and black.
And hurrah for our fellows, who in their need
    Could fashion a thing like him—
With a heart of fire, and a soul of steel,
    And a Samson in every limb.

From . . . . The Engine


IN the shake and rush of the engine,
    In the full, deep breath of his chest,
In the swift, clear clank of the gleaming crank,
    In his soul that is never at rest;
In the spring and ring of the bending rail,
    As he thunders and hurtles along,
A strong world's melody fashions itself,
    And this smoke-demon calls it his song.

From . . . . Song of the Engine


"Speak to him-quick!" they bent and said,
"Did the distant signal stand at red?"
Broken and slow came the words with a moan,
"Stood—at—clear," and poor Jim was gone.

I turn'd my head away from the light
To hide the tears that were blinding my sight,
And pray'd from my heart, to God that Jim
Might find heaven's signals clear to him.

From . . . . Stood at Clear


railwayman, poet and librarian.


A Glasgow & South-Western Railway Manson 4-4-0 — from a slightly later era than
that of Anderson's time as a surfaceman — pictured at Kirkconnel.


I left the realm of silence by the Rail.
There was no Rail whereon the steam-steed sped
With snort, and puff, and haste to turn men pale
With fear, and fill their hearts with instant dread
Of death, when I was young.   But, steady tread
Of waggon-horses, stout and strong;
the dash
Down hill and up, o' the mail, without a shred
Of fear, to coachee's chirrup
not the lash

O' the whip; the cheery horn; no dread of deathful

"Oh, for the dear old coach again!" I cry

But soon remind myself o' the pelting rain,
And that umbrella which the old man would try
To hold up still for shelter, with insane
Resolve, although it drenched our necks; the pain
Of sitting, crampt, for lack of room; the wind
That kept us in one posture, like a chain

It was so keen!   And then I am inclined

To own 'twas well men did the steam-steed find, and



[Ed.—readers interested in the early development of the steam locomotive and of railways might also wish to refer to The Life of  George Stephenson and his Son Robert Stephenson under "Samuel Smiles".]


". . . . Another of these Glasgow friends I must mention—a poet, and like Burns, a son of the soil. His name was Alexander Anderson.  When first I met him he was in the railway service, a labourer on the permanent way, what is called a surfaceman in Scotland, a platelayer in England and a milesman in Ireland.  Self taught, he became proficient in French, German and Italian, and was able to enjoy in their own language the literature of those countries.  A Scottish nobleman, impressed by his wonderful poetical talent, defrayed the expenses of a tour which he made in Italy and an extended stay in Rome, to the enrichment of his mind and to his great enjoyment.  On his return to Scotland he published a book of poems.  In an introduction to this book the Revd. George Gilfillan wrote, "The volume he now presents to the world is distinguished by great variety of subject and modes of treatment. It has a number of sweet Scottish verses, plaintive or pawky.  It has some strains of a higher mood, reminding us of Keats in their imagination.  But the highest effort, if not also the most decided success, is his series of sonnets, entitled, 'In Rome.'  And certainly this is a remarkable series."  A remarkable man he was indeed; simple and earnest in manner, with a fine eye, a full dark beard and sunburnt face.  Tiring, however, of a labourer's life and of the pick and shovel, he left the railway and became assistant librarian of Edinburgh University, and three years afterwards Secretary to the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh.  He afterwards became Chief Librarian to the Edinburgh University.  He died in the summer of 1909.  He stayed with me in Glasgow once for a week-end, and on the Sunday afternoon we together visited a friend of his who lived near, a literary man, who then was engaged in writing a series of lives of the Poets for some publishing house.  An interesting part of our conversation was about Carlyle with whom this friend was intimate, had in fact just returned from visiting him at Chelsea.  He told us many interesting stories of the sage.  I remember one.  He was staying with the Carlyles, when Mrs. Carlyle was alive.  One evening at tea, a copper kettle, with hot water, stood on the hob.  Mrs. Carlyle made a movement as if to rise, with her eye directed to the kettle; the friend, divining her wish, rose and handed her the kettle.  She thanked him, and, with a pathetic and wistful gaze at Carlyle, added, "Ay, Tam, ye never did the like o' that!"



    ALEXANDER ANDERSON, the sixth and youngest son of James Anderson, a quarrier, was born on 30th April, 1845, at Kirkconnel, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.

    When Alexander was three, the household moved to Crocketford in Kirkcudbright. He attended the local school where the teacher found him to be of average ability.  At sixteen he was back in his native village working in a quarry; some two years later (1862), he became a "surfaceman" (a person who maintains the railway tracks and track bed) on the Glasgow and South-Western Railway, and thereafter generally wrote under that pseudonym.

The Hills in the Heilands are Bonnie.
(Zip file, 1.3MB)
Courtesy of John Hopkins University.

    Spending all his leisure in self-culture, he read Shelley, Wordsworth, and Tennyson; he also mastered sufficient German, French, and Spanish to read the chief masterpieces in these languages, including Racine, Molière, Heine, Göethe and Schiller (as is evident from his references in his verse).  His poetic vein soon manifested itself, and in 1870 he began to submit verses to the People's Friend of Dundee.  His first book 'A Song of Labour and other Poems', was published in 1873; this was followed by the 'The Two Angels, and other poems' (1875), 'Songs of the Rail' (1878), and 'Ballads and Sonnets' (1879).  Examples of his poems were also published in the periodicals Good Words, Chambers's Journal, Cassell's Magazine, Fraser's Magazine and the Contemporary Review.

    In 1880 Anderson was appointed as an assistant librarian in the University of Edinburgh; thereafter he published no further poetry collections, although he continued (until 1905) to submit poems to newspapers and journals.  Anderson later became Secretary to the Philosophical Institution, but it seems that this was not for him a satisfactory appointment and, in 1886, he returned to the University eventually becoming its Chief Librarian, a position he held until his death.

    Of a simple and gentle character, Anderson made many friends, including the Duke of Argyll, Thomas Carlyle, and Lord Houghton.  At a commemorative dinner held some years after his death, one of the speakers recalled that Anderson's "was indeed a lovable personality—so modest, so thoroughly inspired, one of Nature's gentlemen in whatever circles he moved; full of brightness and humour in his best days, but always with that wonderful tenderness of heart which touched them in his poems; anxious to inspire his fellow-workers on the railway with the sense of the dignity of their calling.  His career was indeed a remarkable one, proving not only his genius but also his depth of character."


WELL worth the climbing—what a glorious sight!
    An empire all beneath us.   Far away,
    In the bright sunshine of the summer day,
Loch Awe, one blaze of silver, lies in sight,
With all its islands narrowed from this height
    To dots like shadows.   Westward, we survey
    Loch Etive, and still farther Oban bay,
Morven, and other hills in lonely night,
Gray with old legends, nearer streams that bound
    'Mid rocks, as if strong Thor had once held high
    Revel with thunder hammer far and near,
    Glorious!   I stand and bare my brow, and cry
In wild delight at all I see around,
    "Well worth the toil to be one moment here."


    Alexander Anderson died at his home in Edinburgh on 11th July, 1909 (obituary).  The following year a portrait by C. Martin Hardie, R.S.A., was acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and, in 1912, in recognition of their most famous son, a memorial was erected by public subscription in his home town of Kirkconnel, where he lies buried in the Parish Church—it is inscribed. . . .

BORN 1845. DIED 1909.

    Much of Anderson's verse is concerned with locomotives—which he sometimes personifies  (see the examples quoted at the head of this page)—and, related to this, the theme of man's engineering achievement.  But, in contrast, he  also takes inspiration from nature, probably gained during his youthful walks in the hills around Kirkonnel and his work on the isolated railway track.  Even more interesting are his acutely perceptive dialect poems on child life (e.g. 'Cuddle Doon', the first of a cycle of four poems; 'The Bowgie Man'; 'The Deil's in that Bit Bairn'; and 'The Paidlin' Wean').  With their relaxed and natural charm they, at least, should ensure Surfaceman's lasting place among Scotland's more notable bards.


WE left the dear old house behind,
    And where the moon was glancing,
We stood amid the low soft wind,
    To hear the feet still dancing.
The moonlight fell upon her hair,
    Made golden still more golden;
There are no pleasures half so fair
    As pleasures that are olden.

For what to us were dancing feet,
    And what the fiddle playing,
When all the moonlight fell so sweet
    And soft the winds were straying.
I felt her hair upon my cheek
    Touch like an angel's blessing;
My heart had not one wish to speak,
    So sweet was the caressing.

The years they come, the years they go,
    And as they still go stealing,
They take away the early glow
    And all the finer feeling.
But still I feel against my cheek
    That touch of hair so golden;
There are no pleasures that can speak
    Like pleasures that are olden.


   On his death, Anderson left many unpublished poems, a selection of which appeared posthumously in "Later Poems" (1912).


A Song of Labour and other Poems. 8vo. Printed by the Dundee Advertiser, 1873.

Two Angels and other Poems. 8vo. Simpkin, Marshall & Co London, 1875.

Songs of the Rail. 8vo. Simpkin, Marshall & Co., London, 1878.

Do. (Second Edition). 1878.

Do. (Third Edition), 1881.

Ballads and Sonnets.  8vo. MacMillan & Co., London 1879.

Later poems, edited (with a Biographical Sketch), by Alexander Brown. 8vo., published by Fraser, Asher & Co., Glasgow and Dalbeattie, 1912.

"The Life-History of Alexander Anderson ('Surfaceman'),"  by David Cuthbertson, sub-librarian in the Edinburgh University Library.  Printed privately and issued to subscribers, December, 1929.



I TRIED the gowfin' when at Troon,
    The links are bonnie there to see,
A warm September day flung doon
    Its licht to gladden heart an' ee;
I had a cleek alang wi' me,
    I made it wheel, I wasna slack,
Then to the caddie said, "Now tee
    The ba', an' stan' a wee bit back."

A' games o' skill come never wrang
    To ane wha has the nerve an' han',
Its just like croonin' a bit sang,
    Or what a fule micht understan';
A' that ye need is just the plan,
    An' where to fix a steady ee,
Then whirl the cleek, an' strike, an' than
    Gang on to where the ba' may be.

I swung on high my shinin' cleek,
    I struck, the caddie turned his back;
I thocht it better no' to speak,
    Nor enter into ony crack.
But what a day to ha'e a walk,
    Sae saft the turf, see green an' sweet,
An' then the sea laid oot a track
    O' white waves to my very feet.

I dinna think I need to say
    What mair I did in sic a case,
Some things are better hid away,
    It gi'es ane better heart o' grace.
A bunker is an awfu' place,
    An' tries the temper weel nae doot,
Ye dicht the sweit frae aff your face,
    An' tine a' houps o' gettin' oot.

My frien' wha took me roun' the links,
    An' got the cleek for me that day,
I aften wonder what he thinks
    When he looks back upon my play.
I did my best to mak' my way,
    But, O, my shuider-banes were sair,
In fact, it's waur than mawin' hay,
    My fingers—but I'll say nae mair.

They tell this story still at Troon,
    That just when nicht begins to fa',
They hear a voice, wi' eerie soun',
    That cries oot, "Ha'e ye seen a ba'?"
An' then a cleek plays clink, an' a'
    The san' springs up twa yairds or three—
What can that story mean ava',
    And did that voice belang to me?




I LIE an' look doon on the clachan,
    This best o' a' simmer days,
An' doon by the side o' the burnie
    The lasses are bleachin' their claes.

I hear them lauchin' an' daffin',
    I catch the skance o' their feet
As they rin wi' their cans for mair water
    To jaw on the snaw o' the sheet.

Then ane starts liltin' an' singin',
    And the sang comes up to the heicht;
It's a' aboot lads and their lasses
    That coort in the lown o' the nicht;

The lads an' the lasses coortin'
    Aneath the spread o' the birk,
Or castin' sheeps' een at ilk ither
    As they stan' at the psalms in the kirk.

An' O, but the sang comes bonnie,
    On a gliff o' the win' up the brae,
An' as sweet as the scent in the meadows
    When fowk are teddin' their hay.

Then anither ane sang, but her singin'
    Brocht the warm tears into my een;
For an auld-warld sorrow was sabbin'
    In an' oot through the words atween.

A sang o' a deid knicht lyin'
    At the back o' a rickle o' stanes;
An' you heard the deid grass rustle,
    An' the sugh o' the win' through his banes.

A licht dee'd oot o' the sunshine,
    A shadow fell doon on the hill;
The win' held its breath for a moment,
    An' the grass beside me was still.

A' this by an unkenned singer,
    An' O, but the heart was sair
For the knicht away in the muirlands,
    An' the grass growin' up through his hair.

How strange that an old-world ballad,
    Away far back in the years,
Should still have the same sad magic,
    To touch the source of our tears.

An' a' this is mine as I listen,
    This best o' a' simmer days;
Hearin' naething ava' but the liltin'
    O' lasses thrang bleachin' their claes.

WE danced at night in the farm-house,
    While, fifty yards away,
We could hear the rush of the engines
    When the fiddle had ceased to play.

But up got the lads and lasses
    With many a merry glance;
And down went they all through the mazes
    Of the dear old country dance.

There were gentle whispers and touches
    Love only can hear and feel;
And pressure of dainty fingers
    In the changes of the reel.

But the old man sat in the arm-chair,
    By the fire that was sinking fast;
In his eyes was the look of the dreamer
    Who is thinking of the past.

And I sat and watched the shadows
    Of the firelight sink and flee,
But my thoughts were of him and his
    And what those dreams could be.

Were they thick with the well-reaped harvest
    Of those long, dim eighty years?
The shadows of vanished sunbeams,
    The mists of long-shed tears?

The changes all around him,
    The homely customs fled;
Of his long past youth and manhood,
    Of his friends with the lonely dead?

Were his thoughts of her who was with him
    In the flower of her noble life,
Of her who had stood beside him
    A true and a tender wife?

Did he feel once more the children
    Lay their hands upon his knee?
Did he see in their eyes the promise
    Of what each one would be?

Ah, vain is each idle question
    That may spring from our hopes and fears;
We cannot know the thinking
    Of him who is eighty years.

The old man sat in his arm-chair,
    And still on his kindly face
The sinking firelight flickered,
    And the thoughts I could not trace.

And still danced the lads and the lasses,
    While, fifty yards away,
We could hear the roar of the engines
    When the fiddle had ceased to play.



OH, Jenny, she is fair an' braw,
    An' Daisy fu' o' lovin' wiles;
Then Mary has a broo o' snaw,
    An' lips an' cheeks just made for smiles.
I lo'e the three wi' a' my will,
    For roun' my heart their spells are thrown;
But there's anither dearer still,
    My bonnie Nannie Nicolson!

I like to look on Effie's face,
    Where spring an' simmer wed their beams;
An' Annie sweet in stately grace,
    She moves through a' my wauken dreams.
I lo'e the five, though weel I ken
    That I can only wed wi' one.
O, tell me where it a' will en',
    My bonnie Nannie Nicolson!

The sheep may wan'er where they like,
    Or at dyke-sides lie doon an' dee;
My faithfu' collie, honest tyke,
    He won'ers what's gane wrang wi' me.
I've lost mysel' amang them a',
    I wish this weary life were done;
O, come to me, an' set me free,
    My bonnie Nannie Nicolson!



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