Broken Lights, by Basil Ramsay Anderson

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

Years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate class on the topic of the poetry of the bard of Orkney, George Mackay Brown. I made a passing reference to Norn, the ancient language of Orkney and Shetland, and was buttonholed later by a perplexed American exchange student. “But I thought that only English was spoken in England!” he said.  I gave him a brief history of the ties between Norway and Scotland, pointed out that England was not the same as the UK, and mentioned some of the other languages that have been and are still spoken in these isles: Gaelic, Welsh, Scots, Cornish, and so on. It was a useful reminder of how varied the linguistic landscape of Britain is. So it is a pleasure to see Michael Walmer, Britain’s northernmost publisher, embark on a new series of books celebrating the literary heritage of Shetland. The series is called Northus Shetland Classics, and so far two books have been published, with three further volumes in preparation, (Tang: A Shetland Story by J.J. Haldane Burgess being the first). These are, I would hazard, not projects that a big commercial publisher would take on, so once again we are indebted to a small independent press for carrying out the important work of keeping such material in print, and bringing it to a new audience in the twenty-first century.

The volume I have to hand is Broken Lights, which comprises pretty much the entire output of Basil Ramsay Anderson, a Shetlander whose brief life came to an end in 1888 at the age of 26. He wrote poems in English, Scots and Shetlandic, and this volume reproduces the collection edited from his notebooks by fellow Shetland poet Jessie Saxby at the request of Anderson’s family. Saxby includes 58 poems, and a selection extracts from his letters. This new edition also includes a valuable introduction by the contemporary Shetland poet and novelist Robert Alan Jamieson, whose enthusiasm for Anderson is infectious. He recommends reading the poems in the Shetland dialect first, and certainly, even for those readers unversed in the language, these poems are striking in their energy and vigour. Jamieson draws particular attention to Anderson’s best-known work, “Auld Maunsie’s Crü”, which he describes as “Shetland’s dialect masterpiece.” This is a haunting evocation of island life, imbued with the rituals and wisdom of generations. Maunsie is a crofter (the “crü” is an enclosure for growing plants) and the poem depicts, in simple but effective language, his lonely and difficult existence, and how he embodies the spirit of Shetland life. The language can, for the modern reader, be difficult, but with the help of the glossary, it really isn’t too hard to read and appreciate the verse. Here’s a flavour:

Auld Maunsie’s crü was fair to see,
A tooer an’ landmark tad a ee.
When Nickie soucht da fardest haaf
He pointed wi’ da huggy-staff,
“Noo Erty keep her tad a Nord
Tak Maunsies crü on Byre o’ Scord.”

The English poems in the collection (many of which were unpublished at Anderson’s death) might be seen as owing somewhat to a Romantic sensibility, reflecting a conventional concern with nature. But though they do not match the achievements of his mentors, they are in the main substantial and worthy of being preserved here, if only to demonstrate Anderson’s range.  There are echoes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley in these poems, with titles such as “The Old Man”, “Cloud and Star”, “Night Shades” and “The Mermaid’s Song.” Less lively and more formal than the Shetland or Scots poems in the collection, they nevertheless demonstrate an adroit wit and an ability to manage rhyme and rhythm.  

This collection is an important document, making easily available the work of a key figure in the annals of the literature of Shetland. As with other books issued by this publisher, the book is physically pleasing, sturdily bound and printed on good paper. It is to be hoped that this and future volumes arouse more interest in the fascinating and neglected literature of our northernmost islands.

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Basil Ramsay Anderson, Broken Lights (Michael Walmer, 2021). 978-0648920472, 217pp., paperback.

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1 comment

  1. So grateful for your support, Rob, and Shiny New Books. I think the English and Scots poems are substantial, as you say – it would be wrong to dismiss them. Thanks.

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