(13th July, 1909)
THE LATE MR ALEXANDER ANDERSON, "SURFACEMAN."
THE death is announced at Mr Alexander Anderson,
Librarian, Edinburgh University, who was widely known by the nom de
plume of "Surfaceman," under which he wrote and published several
volumes of poetry. He had been laid aside for about three months
suffering from an internal malady.
Mr Anderson had a remarkable career. He would have made a good study
for Mr. Smiles' "Self-Help." He was born in the village of
Kirkconnel, near Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, on the 30th April 1845.
His father was a quarrier, who, it is said, built with his own hands the
humble cottage in which the poet was born. While still very young he
removed with his parents to Crockedford in Galloway. There he spent
his boyhood and received his early education at the village school.
In one of his poems, "The Old Schoolhouse," he revives some of his
impressions of this early period of his life. When he was fifteen
years of age the family returned to Kirkconnel, the father going back to
the quarry and young Anderson finding work as a railway surfaceman on the
Glasgow and South-Western Railway. "He was not," he tells us, says
the late Rev. George Gilfillan in a preface he wrote to one of Anderson's
books published in 1875, "remarkable for any particular cleverness or
aptitude for learning," but he was a good penman, and in his youth
developed some talent for drawing and for sketching in colour. He
was a member of an improvised "Academy of Youths," each of which was
"bound to provide at short stated periods a sketch, which was criticised
by the rest. "I can still see myself trudging to school," says
"Surfaceman," "satchel on back, and stopping now and then to look if my
masterpiece was receiving any damage in transit. But it was not a
budding Wilkie that he was to he make his fame but as a poet. As a
surfaceman Anderson worked 12 hours a day at his humble occupation, but
every spare moment he utilised for reading and self-improvement. He
was always a great reader. At one time he devoured the "two-penny
coloured" class of faction, but that was only a passing phase. He
early developed a faculty for turning into rhyme any notable incident that
came under his observation. The death of a brother set him thinking.
He wrote a memorial poem on the occasion, "To One in Eternity," and the
beginning then made was the forerunner of many more poetic effusions which
attracted notice on account of their worth. He devoted himself anew
to study the English poets; he learned under some difficulties French and
German and Italian in order that he might read in their own tongue Molière
and Béranger, Gœthe
and Schiller, and Dante, and he also
mastered sufficient Spanish to read Cervantes in the original. One
of the the first of his poems which was published appeared in a Dundee
weekly journal, with which all his life he retained a connection, and was
on "John Keats." It was of much merit, with thoughts in it on "the
boy poet in his Roman rest" beautifully expressed. To this paper he
became a regular contributor, and verses of his also appeared from time to
time in Chamber's Journal, Cassel's Magazine, The Quiver,
Good Words, and other magazines. In 1873, "Surfaceman" was
induced to publish a volume of his verses under the title of "Songs of
Labour, and other poems," which met with an immediate success. Two
thousand copies were printed, and the edition was bought up in a
fortnight. Two years later appeared "The Two Angels, and other
poems"—one of the most ambitious efforts of which was "In Rome"—called a
poem in sonnets, in which he described the Eternal City, which then he had
visited only in imagination. But "Surfaceman" was better in simpler
lays, and the volume contains much delightful Scottish Lilts as "Bairnies,
cuddle doon"—one of the best-known and most and appreciated of all his
poems. "The Bogie Man," "Cockie-Roosie-Ride," and clever ballads
like "The Fiddler o' BogleBriggs," and "Daft-Ailie," all in the Scottish
dialect, also that dramatic and pathetic poem, "Blood on the Wheel," in
which the thundering roll of the railway locomotive rushing along the iron
way sometimes, as in this case, with tragic results—is heard in the
stirring lines. This poems used at one time to be a great favourite
with amateur reciters, and it is included with some of "Surfaceman's"
other verses in reciting collections. In 1878 Macmillan published
his third volume, "Songs of the Rail," in which many of his best railway
poems are to be found. This he dedicated to "my fellow-workers on
the railway," for he was still then at the same laborious, poorly-paid
occupation. In a prefatory note he states that nearly all his
railway poems are founded upon facts, "and not a few of them upon
incidents that have taken place upon a line upon which I work." "I
send out," he says, "this volume in the hope that in it may interest my
fellow-workers on the railway and heighten to some degree their pride in
the service, however humble may be their position." He adds—"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
power destined beyond doubt to be one of the civilisers of the world."
Macmillan also published in 1879 a volume of "Ballads and Sonnets,"
prefaced by a rhyming dedication to Mr A. Cameron Corbett, M.P. for the
Tradeston Division of Glasgow with whose son Mr Anderson went to Rome, and
realised one of the dreams of his life, to see the Eternal City. In
this volume some of his best poems were reproduced. In it appear
such poems as his "Castles in the Air," to which he has given the French
title of "Chateaux en Espagne," which is playful and humorous;
"Jamie's Wee Chair," a prettily turned domestic incident; "A Walk to
Pamphy Linns," Wordsworthian in its descriptive simplicity. In 1882
Mr Anderson wrote an "Ode to Burns" on the occasion of the unveiling by
Lord Rosebery of the statue of the poet of Dumfries, which had been
executed by Mrs D. O. Hill. In 1880 Mr Anderson severed his
connection with the railway and came to Edinburgh to be an assistant
librarian in the Edinburgh University, a position the influence of friends
had secured for him. Five years later he was appointed secretary of
the Philosophical Institution, but the duties were not congenial, and
after two years he returned to the University Library, in which latterly
he filled the post of chief librarian. Contact with books in the
mass, however, or the city air, had not an inspiring effect on his muse,
and though he wrote occasional poems he never exercised the lyrical
faculty to so great a purpose as in his humbler days. Learned
leisure did not stimulate him to surpass his early unsophisticated
efforts. Mr Anderson, who remained a bachelor all his life, had a
simple, unaffected, loving nature, which gained him many friends in all
ranks of society. Among others with whom he corresponded at one time
or another were the late Duke of Argyll, the late Lord Houghton, Sir Nöel
Paton, Mrs. D. O. Hill, "Mrs Craik," author of "John Halifax, Gentleman;"
Thomas Carlyle, the late Sheriff Nicolson, the late Professor Blackie, and
many others. He was a favourite with the University Professors, with
whom he came into contact in the library, and in an artistic and literary
circle with which he was associated in Edinburgh he was appreciated for
his literary gifts and for his bon-homie, and loved for the
simplicity and beauty of his character. He was long a member of the
Pen and Pencil Club and of the Scottish Arts Club. As one of the
minor poets Mr Anderson well deserves a place in the minstrelsy of the
country. He had an undoubted faculty for pleasing rhyme; he had the
poetic spirit, a love of nature, whose beauties he could agreeably
described, and a chord of human sympathy was struck in many of his poems.
His best efforts are those in which, as in "Bairnies, cuddle doon," he is
the poet of rustic childhood. In his "Songs of the Rail" the
nobility of labour is preached, and as for his philosophy, it was, as
embodied in this "Song of Progress," a belief like Burns in the ultimate
world's great brotherhood. Mr Anderson is to be buried to-morrow in
his native place of Kirkconnel.
(2nd October, 1909)
THE ESTATE OF A SCOTTISH POET.
Alexander Anderson, of 22 Gillespie Crescent, Edinburgh, a well-known
poet, writing under the pseudonym of "Surfaceman," a native of Kirkconnel,
Dumfiresshire, who died 11th July last, aged 63 years, left, in addition
to real estate of the estimated capital value of £200, personal estate in
the United Kingdom, valued at £3437, of which £2867 is Scottish estate,
and administration of his estate has been granted to his sister, Mrs Janet
Anderson Greenfields, of Boags Farm, Ayrshire, widow of next of kin.
(24th October, 1912)
"SURFACEMAN'S" LATER POEMS.
Edited with Biographical Sketch by Alex Brown. 10s 6d. net.
Glasgow: Fraser, Asher, & Co.
Alexander Anderson, the "Surfaceman," will always hold a high place among
the minor poets of Scotland. We wonder, not that a man brought up in
such an environment should have written well but that he should have
written at all. The "Surfaceman" first attracted attention as the
poet of the railway, but he also achieved distinction in other fields.
He had a simple gospel. He loved to sing of the nobility and dignity
of labour. One might have imagined that a man such as he, would have
seen a good deal of the seamy side of toil, would have made it his mission
to preach a divine discontent with the worker's lot, but the
"Surfaceman's" voice is generally raised upon the other side. He
taught an almost Calvanistic contentment with the sphere in which
Providence has been pleased to place us.* He was at his best when,
in Wordsworth's phrase, he "piped a simple song to thinking hearts."
He used the lyric and the ballad forms with felicity. He could with
great skilfulness fit a simple emotion to simple words. A good deal
of his popularity was due to the artfulness with which he could tell a
story in verse—the sort of story which finds its way into the repertory of
the popular elocutionist. Some of his happiest efforts were inspired
by the natural regret with which we regard the memory of what has been and
never more can be. He played upon this theme in a variety of tones,
and often with charming effects. Occasionally he was tempted to
flights which were beyond his power, and the result was merely respectable
versification. Examples which exhibit his limitations and which also
show him in his best vein will be found in the volume under notice.
Three or four small volumes of the "Surfaceman's" poems have already been
offered to the public, but, with a single exception, none of the poems in
the present volume have hitherto appeared in permanent form and many of
them have been unpublished until now. The book is handsomely printed
and handsomely illustrated by well-known Scottish artists, and its
contents will show, even upon the most cursory examination, that Anderson
deserves an honourable place in the records of Scottish literature.
* Ed.—in this respect Anderson makes an interesting
contrast to Massey, whose early labour lyrics expressed anything but
contentment and resignation with the worker's lot (e.g. see 'Hope
On! Hope Ever!', 'Up
and be Stirring', 'The
Cry of the Unemployed').
(9th December, 1912)
AN APPRECIATION BY DR WALLACE
AN interesting ceremony took place at the village of
Kirkconnel, Nithsdale, Dumfriesshire, on Saturday afternoon, when the
memorial, erected by public subscription to Alexander Anderson, the
poet—"Surfaceman"—was formally handed over to the keeping of the Parish
Council. The principal speaker was the Rev. Dr. Wallace Williamson,
of St. Giles, himself a native of the adjoining village of Thornhill.
Mr T. D. Rhind, architect, gave the design, which is of monolithic form,
executed in a rich red sandstone, having in front a bronze medallion
portrait head, with laurel wreath, and panel, the work of Mr. H. S. Gamley,
A.R.S.A. The inscription on the panel reads—"Alexander Anderson,
'Surfaceman.' Born 1845; died 1909. 'He sleeps among the hills
he knew.'" The memorial, which is set on a commanding site near the
Parish Church (in the cemetery of which Anderson is buried), overlooking
the public road and the river Nith, stands about 12 feet in height.
It cost over £100, and there will be a sum of £20 or thereabouts to invest
for its future upkeep.
For the ceremony
representatives of the Memorial Committee and a few friends motored in
wind and rain from Edinburgh to Kirkconnel by Abington, Leadburn, and the
Mennock Pass. The party included the Rev. Dr. Wallace Williamson, of
St. Giles; Mr David MacRitchie, C.A.; Sir Andrew M'Donald, Dr Lowe, Mr W.
Matthews Gilbert, Mr H. S. Gamley, A.R.S.A., Mr John Weston, Mr W. J.
Sinclair, and Mr F. C. Inglis, Mr Campbell Noble, R.S.A., chairman of the
memorial Committee; Mr Manson, W.S., the honorary secretary; and Mr T. D.
Rhind were unavoidably absent. Despite the unfavourable weather, the party
arrived well up to time at Kirkconnel. There they were met at two
o'clock at the memorial by Mr Joseph Ferguson, chairman of the Parish
Council; the Rev. Mr Charleson, parish minister; the Rev. Mr Dickie,
United Free Church, Sanquhar; and Messrs N. M'Millan, J. Weir, W. Cowan
Kirk, and Abraham Wilson, members of the local Committee. There was
a considerable gathering of villagers, among whom were several of the late
Mr Anderson's relations. Mr MacRitchie briefly introduced the
OF ANDERSON'S POETRY.
The Rev. Dr Wallace Williamson said he considered it a great honour to
have been asked to perform this duty today. The subscribers, he might say,
were scattered all over the world, and especially from Canada they had had
a splendid response to the appeal for the memorial to their
fellow-villager, their friend and our friend, the Scottish poet, Alexander
Anderson. First, he should like to congratulate the architect on the
design and the sculptor on his successful part of the work they had before
them. He (Dr Wallace Williamson) knew Alexander Anderson for well nigh
forty years, and when he looked upon the medallion he felt it was the man
he knew. He did not wonder at the sculptor's success, because, apart from
Mr Gamley's skill as an artist, he had a splendid subject. The first time
he met Alexander Anderson was when he (Dr Williamson) was a youth at
College. It was in his own native village of Thornhill, and he should
never forget the impression then made upon him by the manliness,
tenderness, and the humour of the man. He was already famous, having
produced his first memorable volume—"Songs of the Rail." In that volume
he spoke from his heart and with the skill and feeling of a true poet. When the book was published, it was felt that a new and genuine power had
come into their native Scottish literature. There was a sweetness and a
truth and a tenderness in it, and at the back of it all was the
characteristic manliness of Anderson, which must have touched the hearts
of all who, like Anderson himself, were called to work on the railway. But
it went much further than that. It had gladdened all toilers in their land
and many others besides. When that book was published between 1870 and
1880, it was difficult for many who read that collection of beautiful
poems to realise that they were the work of a man who was toiling
day by day as a surfaceman on the railway in this district. But those who
knew him had no difficulty in answering the question. For from his
earliest youth Anderson had a love of literature, and he had prepared
himself for the poetical work which he was ultimately to produce, though
he had to toil from day to day on the railway, by acquiring a working
acquaintance with French and German, Spanish and Italian, and a little
knowledge also of Latin and Greek. Here, too, in Kirkconnel the natural
beauty of this lovely land, all down the vale, had made a deep impression
on him. That marked the first period of his life. He came to Edinburgh at
the age of thirty-five; but while his life there was happy and full of
splendid work, they could not help feeling that, although by coming to
Edinburgh he had gained something by leaving Kirkconnel he had lost
something. His true inspiration was here, in his native village. No one
could read his poems without feeling how much Kirkconnel meant to him, and
how it had touched his soul in an abiding manner.
He thought that there were three distinct outstanding characteristics of
Anderson's poetry. First there was the living human touch; the
second was his love for children, and his power to delineate child life.
Among all the lyric gems he had produced it was certain that one most sure
of immortality was that lovely poem—"Cuddle
Doon." The other distinctive note in his poetry was a certain
melancholy, a certain feeling of the sadness of human things, but it was
that note he thought which would keep Anderson's poetry alive. It
was to show their honour for the personality of the man, and their respect
for the great work he did as a poet in enriching the literature of
Scotland, that they were there that day on behalf of the subscribers, true
loyal Scots all the world over, to hand over to the Parish Council of
Kirkconnel this beautiful memorial, that it might be preserved in all time
coming as a worthy record of the man who had added lustre to his native
village. He would not rank him—Anderson would have been the last man
to expect to rank—among the greatest of their Scottish poets, but he would
always hold an honoured place among them, and he would always be loved
because of his human touch, and because of that characteristic he had
noted, his power to delineate child life. Carlyle said of Burns
something like this, that "while the Shakespeare's and the Milton's roll
on like mighty rivers through the country of thought, this little Valclusa
Fountain will also arrest our eye, for this also is of nature's own and
most cunning workmanship," and that also might be said of Alexander
Anderson. He would say of Anderson what Anderson, in one of his
poems, said of his dear friend, Joseph Tomson:—
"His grave is green in that sweet vale,
Where the fair Nith flows on the same.
It rolls and gathers to its tale
The dead possession of his fame."
Mr. Ferguson, chairman of the Parish Council, in
accepting the custody of the memorial, said that in Kirkconnel they were
all proud of Alexander Anderson, who they regarded as one of Kirkconnel's
most distinguished and gifted sons. To Mr Anderson and to the late
Mr Campbell of Knockengig they were indebted for the library at
Kirkconnel, which was continually built up by donations of books from Mr
Anderson. They were well satisfied with the memorial, which, with
its beautiful portrait medallion, would keep green the memory of their
After photographs had been taken of the memorial, with
the Edinburgh and local Committees grouped around it, the proceedings
terminated. As a souvenir the Committee intend sending a postcard
with a picture of the memorial on it to each subscriber.
(30th April, 1928)
POET OF THE RAIL.
THE idea of honouring dead poets by
paying tribute to them at dinners is growing—in Edinburgh at least.
The latest candidate for immortal fame is Alexander Anderson, better known
as "Surfaceman," who, born in 1845, at Kirkconnel, died in 1909.
Anderson, who, as his pen name indicates, was a worker on the railway, and
afterwards became librarian to the University of Edinburgh, wrote several
stirring ballads of the line, while his "Cuddle Doon" is a well known
example of his talent in a different genre.
It is now a few years since the Alexander Anderson Memorial
Club was formed at Kirkconnel, but Saturday's gathering was the first
occasion on which a dinner commemorating Anderson had been held in
Edinburgh. It was an interesting event. It took place in the
Gainsborough Hall, Leith Street, under the chairmanship of the president
of the Club, Mr M'Naughton, who "ventured to predict that it would prove
the first of many meetings in Auld Reekie and stimulate interest in
Anderson's work." Kirkconnel, which holds the memory of its poet in
high esteem, sent a contingent of over 30 members, while the connection of
Anderson with Edinburgh was reflected in the presence of a number of those
who knew him during his career in the city. At one time "Surfaceman"
was secretary of the Philosophical Institution, and among the guests on
Saturday was the present secretary of that organisation. The
gathering, moreover, was representative of many walks of life. In
the intervals of the toast-list several Scottish songs were sung, and a
recitation of a "Surfaceman" ballad, the favourite of its author, given by
Mr R. C. H. Morison.
Professor A. S. Pringle-Pattison, who proposed "The Immortal
Memory of 'Surfaceman,'" said that it was the man as well as the poet to
whom they were thinking. Anderson, he said, 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
PROFESSOR SAINTSBURY'S TRIBUTE.
Alluding to Anderson's desire to understand others, Professor
Pringle-Pattison said that he acquired a working knowledge of French,
German and Italian, so that, as he said himself, he was able to
appreciate, in their own way the tongue, the mighty voices of Gœthe,
Schiller, and of Dante. As Professor Saintsbury said, in reviewing
the volume called Ballads and Sonnets, in 1879, the remarkable
thing about this work was that the more ambitious poems were as good as
the more homely, or perhaps they should reverse the phrase and say that
the more homely were as good as the more ambitious. Another critic
said of the sonnet sequence, "In Rome," that it seemed rather that the man
of letters had become a railway navvy than that the person in human life
had worked his way up into the lofty haunt of literature. Those
poems had much beauty, and would always be read with interest by anyone
trying to form a proper idea of the poet and his work; but it was to this
distinctive work that he would owe his permanent place in literature.
In that most distinctive work they must rank the Songs of the Rail,
and those in which he half personified the soul of the engine as a type of
the age, and still more those tense and unmoving tragedies of the four
foot way which went straight to the heart. But even more interesting
were his Scottish poems of child life. They seemed to ripple from
his lips without the slightest suggestion in effort. Some of them
would be included in every anthology of Scottish poetry as long as such
poetry was published and read. (Applause.)
The toast of "Other Poets" was proposed by Mr S. Tollans, of
Kirkconnel, who expressly referred to the work of the "poets of nature"—to
that of James Montgomery, Wordsworth, Burns, Thomson, Robert Fergusson,
and Allan Ramsey. Mr Tollans commented upon the subordinate place
which education often had in the work of a poet, and remarked that no
academic training could have given to Burns that direct clear-sightedness
which caused him to see into the outward show of wealth and rank.
Mr David Cuthbertson,* who replied, said that he had just
received a letter which stated that the "Rab" and "Tam" of "Cuddle Doon"
were still alive. "Rab" was 84 and "Tam" was 86, and living in
The toast of "The Anderson Memorial Club" was proposed by Mr.
D. S. Calderwood, and replied to by Mr A. Wilson, senior.
* Ed.—Cuthbertson, David. The Life-History of Alexander
Anderson-“Surfaceman”. 1929, Inveresk,. 139pp.
(12th February, 1929)
CARLYLE AND ART.
". . . . Carlyle was highly appreciative of art in the realm of letters
wherever he found it. A well-known Edinburgh medical gentleman
described to the writer within the past few days how he accompanied
Alexander Anderson ("Surfaceman"), the author of a number of poetical
pieces which are still very much alive, to the carlyle household in Comely
Bank, Edinburgh. He had secured a letter of introduction for Anderson from
one of Carlyle's near relatives, resident in Dumfries. He took the
poet to Comely Bank; but, with a reticence and reluctance to intrude, he
decided to remain outside the house. Pacing up and down outside the
dwelling-house, however, he saw Anderson being received in the drawingroom
by Mrs Carlyle, and he learned afterwards that she explained to the poet
at that time her husband was not seeing anyone at all. As they talked,
however, the doctor had the good luck to see the door at the back of the
drawingroom open, and Carlyle, in his dressing-gown, appear. His interest
in Anderson's personality was attested by the fact that he spent an hour
in conversation with the unassuming South Country poet. It would be
interesting to have a record of what passed between the two on that
(8th January, 1934)
Presented to Kirkconnel Club.
A PORTRAIT in oils of Alexander
Anderson ("Surfaceman"), author of "Cuddle Doon," "Songs of Rail," "The Convenanters' Tryst," &c., was unveiled during the week-end in the Village
Institute, Kirkconnel, his birthplace.
The portrait, which was first presented to Anderson by his
friends and admirers at a complimentary dinner in his honour at Edinburgh
on December 16, 1891, eleven years after he took over the duties of
Librarian at the University of Edinburgh, was recently purchased by his
niece, Mrs Adamson, of Glasgow, and her husband, Mr Samuel Adamson, and
was presented by them to the Kirkconnel Anderson Club.
There was a large and representative gathering at the
ceremony, including Mr and Mrs Adamson, Mr John Greenshields, Auchinleck,
nephew of the poet, and Mrs Greenshields. Mr Archibald Wilson,
Roslin, president of the Anderson Club, presided, and invited Mrs Adamson
to unveil the portrait, in the unavoidable absence of Mr William Cowan,
the "grand old man" of Kirkconnel, and a life-long friend of "Surfaceman."
The portrait is a striking likeness of Anderson, and is in a
massive guilt frame, which bears the following inscription—"Surfaceman.
Presented by Mrs Adamson (niece) and her husband, Mr Samuel Adamson, of
Glasgow, to the Kirkconnel Alexander Anderson ("Surfaceman") Club,
During the evening an unpublished poem by "Surfaceman,"
entitled "An Auld Man Dreamin' o' Lang Syne" was read, the MS.
being sent by Mr William Cowan.
(20th April, 1934)
Poet of the Iron Horse and Cottage Home
INTEREST REVIVAL PLEA
AN appeal for a revival of interest in
Alexander Anderson ("Surfaceman") and his poetry was made by Sir James
Crichton-Browne, in a message read at an Anderson night gathering in
Kirkconnel, Dumfriesshire, the poet's native village, last night.
The gathering was arranged by the local Rural Women's
Institute. Mrs Edgar, The Scores, presided over a large audience.
In addition to Sir James Crichton-Browne's appreciation, there was read a
letter from Sir James Barrie in reply to a request from Dr Bowman Edgar
for any reminiscences he might have of "Surfaceman."
SIR JAMES BARRIE
Sir James Barrie wrote:—
"In answer to your letter, all good wishes for Mrs Edgar's
Rural night in memory of 'Surfaceman.' I would do as you ask, but I
saw, unfortunately for myself, so little of Alexander Anderson that I can
send nothing. On occasional visits to Edinburgh, after I graduated
there, I used to look in at the University in search of books, and he was
endlessly obliging in finding them for me. I was, of course, an
admirer of his poetry."
SIR JAMES CRICHTON-BROWNE
Sir James Crichton-Browne wrote to Mrs Edgard:—
"I rejoice to hear that, at your instigation no doubt, the
Kirkconnel Women's Institute has resolved to revive the remembrance of
Kirkconnel's most distinguished son, Alexander Anderson, the 'Surfaceman'
poet, by holding a special meeting in his honour on the 89th anniversary
of his birth.
"Such a revival seems to me very necessary, for the mist of
forgetfulness has fallen with strange celerity on this remarkable and
gifted man. It is only 25 years since he died, but when I applied
recently to Hatchards for a complete copy of his works, I was informed,
after enquiries had been made, that they are all out of print, and that no
biography of him is known to exist. When I sought at the Ewart
Library, Dumfries, that admirably appointed bibliotheca of his native
county, for his 'Songs of the Rail,' which went through three editions, I
found that there was no copy of it there and that indeed the only work of
Anderson's in the collection was his 'Songs of Labour,' which was printed
by the Dundee Advertiser in 1873. It would be a happy issue
to your Kirkconnel meeting if it should again draw attention to the merits
of the Surfaceman's work and lead to production of a Life of him with a
selection of his poems.
Sir George Douglas has said that Scotland has produced 10,000
minor poets, but the Surfaceman was certainly not of that tuneful
multitude, but one of a chosen few who, while not in the first rank of
Scottish songsters, and overshadowed by the greatest of them all, have
given us work of individual significance and charm, and worthy of lasting
remembrance. To me the Surfaceman when I think of him, stands out
characteristically as the poet of the iron horse, on the one hand, and of
the domestic affections of the Scottish cottage home, on the other.
"THE MIGHTY ENGINE"
"After the scant education of a parish school and an
apprenticeship in a quarry, the Surfaceman entered the service of the
railway, and for seventeen years was engaged in keeping clear, with pick
and shovel, the highway of 'the Jove of Commerce with the lightning in his
grasp.' The locomotive engine became an inspiration to him. He
entered into its soul, and in many poems he has given powerful expression
to the emotion it evokes.
"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."
"But while engaged for all these years in arduous and
monotonous toil, the Surfaceman nourished and put into verse all those
tender feelings that well up at the fireside of the humble home during the
vicissitudes of life. He was the poet of the weans as well as of the
locomotive engine, and every mother in Kirkconnel will find in his pages a
faithful reflex of her joys and troubles, her raptures and anxieties.
"'What lauchs o' love we hae at nicht wi' Jonnie,
our wee wean,
As he wamples aff his mither's knee to row on
And there he spurles wi' wee fat legs and
Sweet gems frae his ain authors, Greek and
"'O' a' the ills that come to swell a wearit
The worst is when the laddie winna tak' his
An' here I've stood this ae half-hour, the
And yet he winna drink it up, to get them
"In his poems on the weans and domestic affections the
Surfaceman recalls another Scottish poet, "Delta," or David Macbeth Moir.
Although not without the note of sadness here and there, he is less
plaintive than "Delta," and indulges in touches of humour to which "Delta"
was a stranger.
WIDE RANGE OF VISION
"In referring to the Surfaceman as the poet of the locomotive
engine and the weans, I am recalling merely the main impressions left on
my mind by the perusal of his works, and would not for a moment ignore the
fact that he had a wide range of poetic vision, and was in sympathy with
nature in all her moods, and with humanity in all her struggles.
Sunshine and moonlight, the song-bird, the flowers of the field, the
spirit of the woodlands and the waters, the softer passions, life and
death, all set his pen in motion from time to time. In his later
academic days, when, in just recognition of his genius, for genius he had,
he became Librarian of the University of Edinburgh, he would perhaps
himself have preferred to rest his literary fame on his ballads and
sonnets, and translations from Heine, but to my thinking his best work was
done by the ingle nuek at Kirkconnel.
"I feel somewhat audacious, dear Mrs Edgar, in saying
anything critical about the Surfaceman to you, living as you do amongst
the scenes that awoke his Muse, and intimately familiar, as I know you
are, with his writings: but you have asked for a word of greeting on his
birthday, and glad I am to pay tribute of praise and admiration to a true
Scottish poet, a good, brave man, who triumphed over what might have
seemed insuperable obstacles: uncomplaining, genial and kind, and has left
us a precious legacy which we must not hide away in a napkin, but make
available for the enrichment of our people."
(23rd April, 1934)
'Surfaceman,' and His Works.
Public Library, Aberdeen, April 20, 1934.
SIR,—In the matter of the memorial
meeting at Kirkconnel for Alexander Anderson, "Surfaceman," and the fine
letter from Sir James Crichton-Browne on the poet—as published in today's
Scotsman—it may be helpful to point out that a biography of
Alexander Anderson does exist. It is "The Life-History of Alexander
Anderson ('Surfaceman')," and was written by David Cuthbertson his
colleague and sub-librarian in the Edinburgh University Library. It
was privately printed, which would account for its being so little known
but was issued to subscribers in December 1929. It is a very
intimate and reliable account of Anderson in his later years.
Then Alexander Brown, of Edinburgh, another intimate friend,
who died about twenty years ago, gave a good "Biographic Sketch" of
Anderson, in his book, "Later Poems of Alexander Anderson, 'Surfaceman.'"
published by Fraser, Asher & Co., Glasgow and Dalbeattie, in 1912.
It is more of a literary chronicle than Cuthbertson's biography, but on
that very account it has its own value. It also gives good
particulars as to the movement for the memorial to Anderson, unveiled at
Kirkconnel in 1912, and contains, as a frontispiece, an admirable
reproduction of the portrait on the bronze medallion on the monument.
In Mr Cuthbertson's volume a full list is given of Anderson's
works—all now out of print—as follows:—
A Song of Labour and other Poems. 8vo. Paisley, 1873.
Two Angels and other Poems. 8vo. 1875.
Songs of the Rail. 8vo, London, 1878.
Do. (Second Edition), 8vo. 1878.
Do. (Third Edition), 1881.
Ballads and Sonnets, 8vo. London 1879.
Later poems, edited (with a Biographical Sketch) by Alexander Brown. 8vo.,
Perhaps I should say that the first formal biography of
Anderson was an "Introductory Sketch" by the Rev. George Gilfillan, of
Dundee, in "The Two Angels and other Poems," printed in Dundee, 1875.—I am
&c. G. M. FRASER.
(27th April, 1934)
15 Feversham Terrace, York,
April 25, 1934.
SIR,—My attention has been drawn by the
article on "Surfaceman" in your columns recently, and to the
correspondence which has ensued, and I feel impelled to add my stone to
I knew Alexander Anderson well in the early 80's, when he
used to spend a holiday at Broughty Ferry with his friend, Mr Andrew
Steward, the editor of the People's Friend. It was this
miscellany which was the cradle of "Surfaceman's" poetic genius; and the
editor and he were fast cronies. The poet was a most lovable man,
and an engaging companion, full of witty nonsense and an inveterate
punster. It was a "feast of reason and a flow of soul" when he was
present. Miss Jean L. Watson (who does not remember "Miss Jeannie,"
most delightful of Scottish gentlewomen!) and Mr Robert Richardson were
often present, as well as Mr Alexander Hutcheson, himself a famous
raconteur and charming conversationalist. "Cuddle Doon" was often
sung at these cheery supper parties, and one congratulated the author on
his not only being read but sung.
In Edinburgh "Surfaceman" was a popular member of the
artistic and literary circles of the day. He enjoyed the friendship
of Sir Noel Paton and other distinguished men. The knight in Sir
Noel's picture of "Faith and Reason" was undoubtedly drawn from the poet
and is an excellent likeness. "Surfaceman" was a romantic-looking
man. With his black beard, brilliant dark eyes and sallow
complexion, he might have passed for Spanish or Italian. He was not
only a poet, but looked the part—but not a Scottish poet. Compared
with Andrew Steward, he was like a greyhound beside a Scottish terrier!
When visiting the local museum in Dumfries some years ago, I looked in
vain for any memorial of the country's gifted son, and I am doubly
surprised to learn that the library has no copy of his works. It
would give me great pleasure to remedy this omission if the authorities
are willing to accept copies of his early poems, which I possess.
They are "A Song of Labour" (1873), printed by the Dundee Advertiser
with a modest and touching preface by the author. This contains the
poem on John Keats, which was the first he contributed to the People's
Friend. Keats was "Surfaceman's" literary idol. He wrote a
sonnet on Keats for my literary album (as well as other things in lighter
vein.) It was afterwards reprinted. "The Two Angels," which
appeared in 1875, has a preface by George Gilfillan, containing an
appreciative biographical sketch, in which it is mentioned that Anderson
acquired a knowledge of French, German and Italian. In this volume
appears "Cuddle Doon" and "Jenny wi' the airn Teeth." "Songs of the
Rail," perhaps his best known and most characteristic work, appeared in
1878. It has an excellent portrait of the poet in his working "togs"
The fact of these three volumes appearing within five years
shows that the poet had an appreciative public, and makes it all the more
mysterious how the dust of oblivion should have settled so soon on his
At the time of his death it was rumoured among his friends
that he was engaged on a poem dealing with "Lazarus." It would be
interesting to know if this ever took shape, or was only projected.
I am much interested to hear of Mr Cuthbertson's "Life" of
the poet, and hope to obtain a copy.—I am &c.
JESSIE M. KING.
W. C. Batey.)
* Ed.—shown on this website's Home Page.
OPINIONS OF THE PRESS
"A SONG OF LABOUR, AND OTHER POEMS."
By ALEXANDER ANDERSON.
George Gilfillan, Dundee.—Here is verily a "sign of the
times"—perfect phenomenon—a volume of true poetry, testifying to a
powerful, and, most astonishing of all, a well-cultivated mind, by a
working railway navvy or surfaceman on the Glasgow and South-Western
Railway. The Ayrshire ploughman, or the Edinburgh barber, the
Glasgow pattern drawer, the Paisley weaver, the Clydesdale miner, the
Aberdeen policeman, are scarcely so wonderful as the Kirkconnel
surfaceman. . . . . . The sons of toil will rejoice to hear the ring and
rattle of their work return on them in poetry and music, and will hail him
as their representative, the true "Railway King."
People's Friend.—This writer, who assumes that name
(Surfaceman), shows a refinement of language, a culture of intellect, a
nobility of mind and heart, and a command of language and imagery
astonishing even where the highest training has been received in college
halls and classes. And yet, nevertheless, Mr. Anderson has been, and
is at this present moment, a surfaceman, working on the Glasgow and
South-Western Railway—a "comman navvy," as he not unfrequently designates
himself—with pick and shovel toiling for his daily bread.
Scotsman.—What will remain most remarkable in this volume is
the rare degree of culture to which this Railway Surfaceman has attained;
for not only has he made himself so familiar as to be able to use it with
care and effect in his own poems, but he is apparently familiar with
German literature, talking glibly of Schiller and Goethe, and prefixing to
several pieces German quotations, which we presume him able to translate,
and also shows an acquaintance with French in his translation of "Hope and
Sleep," from Voltaire.
Athenæum.—They (the poems)
show a remarkable power in the author of assimilating what he reads, and
of expressing his own thoughts with vigour and poetical taste.
Liverpool Daily Albion.—This is a very remarkable book, and
Mr. Anderson is evidently a very remarkable man.
The Railway News and Joint-Stock Journal.—There is a true
ring of poetry in the book, and it may be a subject of pride to sixteen
thousand platelayers engaged on the railways of the United Kingdom to have
such a poet in their ranks.
Glasgow Herald.—His efforts in Scotch are almost uniformly
good; one or two of the sonnets are capital; and the volume, as a whole,
may be taken as a proof that the author will yet produce something of
Glasgow News.—This volume will no doubt at once become a
favourite, and please and soothe many a heart in the fortunes of homely
life; and, if we mistake not, it will receive a cordial welcome from the
press in all quarters.
Ayr Observer.—An educated Surfaceman, a polished and
gentle-minded wielder of hammer, pick and shovel, is truly a rara avis
in terra; but it is out of just such incongruous surroundings, and
these, too, intensified by distance from any particular centre of culture,
that there has sprung as remarkable a producer of verse as any that our
century has seen. . . . A rough-handed son of toil, who is likely to make
his neighbourhood a notable one in future years.
Aberdeen Journal.—The author possesses genuine poetic power,
not of the highest or most vigorous kind, but sweet, true, and tender in
Dunfermline Press.—The poems abound in illustrations from a
wide range of sources, as well as in the neat, short, and striking
word-pictures which bespeak the author's care and accuracy, as well as the
abundance of his literary information, both ancient and modern.
Border Advertiser.—We have not space to permit us to analyse
with anything like justice the genius of our author. To say that the
book is the production of genius is perhaps enough for our
readers—especially in those days when genius is such a rare commodity.
Haddingtonshire Courier.—If the mission of the poet is to
inculcate the principles of goodness and truth, and to cheer men in this
world, then we must say that Mr. Anderson has not come far short of this
mission. His poetry has none of the drawing-room tones, or the tinge
of the midnight lamp. It has the real ring of nature's poetry in it.
Hamilton Advertiser.—We cordially recommend the book itself
to our readers. It will repay perusal, and is sure to afford much
intellectual pleasure and enjoyment.
Dumfriesshire and Galloway Herald.—Many will be proud that
the mine of poetry is still unexhausted within her (Dumfries) bounds, and
the sons of labour should delight to honour one who has done so much to
dignify their calling. They will find much in these poems to raise
them in the scale of being.
Chicago Tribune.—There is a hearty earnestness about "Surfaceman's"
poetry which at once engages the reader's attention, and keeps him
spell-bound till he reaches the end of the poem.
"THE TWO ANGELS, AND OTHER POEMS."
George Gilfillan, Dundee.—"The Railway King."
Scotsman.—The most daring and lofty flight the "Surfaceman"
has yet attempted is in the series of sonnets entitled "In Rome," wherein
he measures himself against some of the greatest writers, and when we
consider who he is and who they were, it is surprising how he holds his
Daily Review.—In some of the author's more ambitious efforts
we find a manly simplicity, with a statuesque kind of classic stateliness
which slowly and stealthily, but in the end powerfully appeals to
sympathies that would not respond at all to the touch of the mere
poetaster or the vagabond troubadour.
Glasgow Herald.—A vigorous earnestness runs through the
poems, and almost every one beats with a pulse of reality.
People's Friend.—This new volume is one that will endear the
poet still more to all who take an interest in his career, and lift him to
a higher niche among the glorious company of Scotia's bards.
League Journal.—We heartily recommend the volume as the work
of a true and a genuine man.
Kilmarnock Standard.—Every household in Ayrshire should get
the poems of the Railway Surfaceman.
Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald.—The volume is a remarkable
Haddingtonshire Courier.—In the sonnets Mr. Anderson attains
at once his finest melody, his happiest thoughts, and his most sustained
and artistic expression.
Young Men's Christian Magazine.—Those who appreciate genuine
poetry will. find in this volume a rich treat.
Weekly Review, London.—This is a remarkable production,
whether we consider its sterling excellence, evincing as it does true and
genuine genius, or the social circumstances in the midst of which it has
struggled into existence.
Hamilton Advertiser.—These are compositions that will bear
to be read and re-read, and read again.
Cumnnock Express.—Not a little he has written is as worthy
to live as much that has flowed from the pen of the greater sleepers in
our national Pantheon.
Railway Fly-Sheet.—We offer to the railway world Mr.
Anderson's most excellent work as something of which the service ought to
be proud, and to the author we present our warmest congratulations.
Christian News.—Apart from his poetic genius, Alexander
Anderson is a very remarkable man.
Kelso Chronicle.—If " Surfaceman " will only be true to his
powers and work slowly and carefully as Smith did, there can be no doubt
that he will yet make for himself a name of no little renown.
Dumfries and Galloway Standard and Register.—No one can
devote half-an-hour or so to this volume without perceiving that its
author is a man of talent and culture, who possesses besides a
considerable amount of poetic genius.
Dumfries and Galloway Courier. -Altogether we regard Mr.
Anderson's poems as a credit to our literature, and we are proud to claim
a man of so well cultivated and so pure and sound a mind as a native of
the south of Scotland.
The Orkney Herald.—"In Rome" is a production of great
genius. It evinces a power of conception and delineation which have
been seldom surpassed.
Dunfermline Press.—We heartily recommend the book to our
readers as one certain to be thoroughly enjoyed, and full of what is at
once interesting, profitable, and entertaining—a miscellaneous collection,
but of treasures the like of which we seldom see, and will be only too
happy to welcome again.
Inverness Courier.—The author possesses genuine poetic
faculty, but more remarkable even than this, we think, are the marks of
culture and scholarship which his poems display.
The Courant.—We heartily recommend Mr. Anderson on the
success of his resolute self-culture.
Border Advertiser.—The volume as a whole has more genuine
poetry in it than twenty others of modern verse we could name put
together, and is equally an honour to the poet himself, an honour to the
class to which he belongs, and an honour to the age which has the
liberality to purchase and the taste to enjoy such productions, thus
encouraging and inspiriting one who is at once a genuine son of toil and a
genuine son of song.
Stirling Observer.—The latent power this poem ("In Rome")
reveals bespeaks a future for Anderson of no uncertain kind.
Labour News.—If there is a poet living who can sing of the
throbbing impulses of this inquiring age, and who is likely to chant a pæan
over our victories as displayed in the triumphs of science in this
eventful era of the world's history, that poet is "Surfaceman."
Leeds Mercury.—It is not surprising to discover that a
spirit of purity and refinement pervades all the writings of such a man,
but it is somewhat startling to find a self-educated "Surfaceman"
grappling, and that by no means unsuccessfully, with subjects which have
furnished themes for poets like Byron, Madame de Stael, and Goethe.
Liverpool Weekly Albion.—We regret that we have not space
for further comments or additional extracts from this volume, which is
certainly the most charming and interesting collection of verse which has
come under our notice for some time.
Bradford Observer.—We could easily show by extracts that Mr.
Anderson has the distinctive qualities of the poet in no slight
degree—insight or intuition, earnestness, pathos, sympathy, and humour.
Westminster Review.—We advise all our readers to judge for
themselves of a remarkable book in which we feel no common interest.
Dublin University Magazine.—In the front ranks of the modern
singers of Scotland we would place Alexander Anderson.
Literary World.—They (the poems) are so far removed from the
jingle-jingle of many poetisers of humble rank that one asks again and
again how comes it to pass that a railway navvy can produce such
The Evangelical Magazine.—Talk of learning and culture in
the presence of genius! Why, here is a "Surfaceman" as he used to
call himself—that is a worker on railways, a "navvy," as he would be named
in England, who has written poems that would do honour to the finest
scholar that ever left the classic halls of Oxford or Cambridge.
The Christian World.—We heartily recommend this charming
Pall Mall Gazette.—Our Author's sonnets "In Rome" form
unquestionably his most elaborate composition.
The Examiner.—Mr. Anderson has sung the engine and related
incidents of the line, not, indeed with all the glamour of Turner's "Mist,
Rain, and Steam," but with an evident love for his subject, and much
insight into its capabilities.
Saturday Review.—Considering his defective education and his
everyday employment, there is a remarkable delicacy and refinement in some
of the pieces, and the writer has evidently, though not uniformly, an
accurate ear for melody.