Alexander Anderson (poet)

Alexander Anderson (1845-1909). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander Anderson
Born April 30 1845(1845-Template:MONTHNUMBER-30)
Kirkconnel, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
Died July 11 1909(1909-Template:MONTHNUMBER-11) (aged 64)
Nationality Scottish
Occupation poet, librarian

Alexander Anderson (30 April 1845 - 11 July 1909) was a Scottish poet.



Anderson, son of a quarrier at Kirkconnel, Dumfriesshire, became a surfaceman on the railway. Spending all his leisure in self-culture, he mastered German, French, and Spanish sufficiently to read the chief masterpieces in these languages. His poetic vein, which was true if somewhat limited in range, soon manifested itself, and his first book, Songs of Labour, appeared in 1873, and there followed Two Angels (1875), Songs of the Rail (1878), and Ballads and Sonnets (1879). In the following year he was made assistant librarian in the University of Edinburgh, and after an interval as secretary to the Philosophical Institution there, he returned as Chief Librarian to the university. Thereafter he wrote little. Of a simple and gentle character, he made many friends, including the Duke of Argyll, Carlyle, and Lord Houghton. He generally wrote under the name of "Surfaceman."[1]


Youth and educationEdit

Anderson, born in the village of Kirkconnel in Upper Nithsdale, was the 6th and youngest son of Isabella (Cowan) and James Anderson, a Dumfriesshire quarrymann. When the boy was 3, the household moved to Crocketford in Kirkcudbright, and at the village school there Anderson got all his schooling; there too he began to make rhymes.[2]

At 16 he was back in his native village working in a quarry; some 2 years later (1862), he became a surfaceman or platelayer on the Glasgow and South-western railway there. While performing his long day's task on the line he found opportunity of an evening or at meal times on the embankment to read Shelley, Wordsworth, and Tennyson; and by help of Cassell's Educator and an elementary grammar, acquired French enough to puzzle out Racine and Molière. Later he managed in like manner to read Goethe, Schiller, and Heine in German, learnt a little Italian, and acquired a smattering of Spanish and Latin.[2]


Alexander Anderson (1845 - 1909)

Alexander Anderson (1845 - 1909). The 'Surfaceman' Railway Poet

In 1870 he began to send verses to the People's Friend of Dundee, whose sub-editor, A. Stewart, brought Anderson's work under the notice of George Gilfillan and advised the publication of a volume of collected pieces, A Song of Labour, and other poems (1873). This Gilfillan reviewed very favourably; and to a 2nd volume, The Two Angels, and other poems (Dundee, 1875), the friendly critic prefixed an appreciative memoir of the "Surfaceman," whose verse now appeared from time to time in Good Words, Chambers's Journal, Cassell's Magazine, and the Contemporary Review.[2]

A wealthy Glasgow citizen, Thomas Corbett, sent Anderson to Italy with his son (Archibald Cameron Corbett, afterwards Lord Rowallan). But the sonnet series "In Rome" does not record the impressions made by Italian experiences; they are the imaginings of the railway labourer who, when he published them (1875), had hardly been out of his native county. Before the surfaceman returned to his labours on the rail he had made personal acquaintance with Carlyle, Roden Noel, Lord Houghton, Dinah Maria Craik, and Alexander Macmillan.[2]

His next venture, Songs of the Rail (1878; 3rd edit. 1881), was largely composed of railway poems from the 2 earlier collections. Ballads and Sonnets (1879), published by Macmillan, also contained a selection from the earlier volumes with new pieces. In 1896 all the volumes were out of print.[2]

In October 1880 Anderson passed from the exhausting 12 hours a day with pick and shovel at 17s. a week to the lighter appointment of assistant librarian in Edinburgh University. Learned leisure failed to stimulate his poetic impulses; henceforward he wrote little but occasional verses, mainly when on holiday amongst old friends at Kirkconnel. For private circulation he printed some translations from Heine; and from time to time he revised, amended, or extended a long blank verse poem on the experiences of Lazarus of Bethany in the world of spirits, and after restoration to life.[3]

He was unmarried. In Edinburgh he conciliated respect and affection, not less by the native dignity and force of his character than by his geniality and social gifts, although in later years ill-health made him much of a recluse.[3]

In 1883 he left the university to become secretary to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, a library and lecture society. But in 1886 he returned to the university library, where at his death he had for 5 years been acting chief librarian.[3]


Anderson's poetical work shows lyrical power, generous feeling, and vivid vision, as well as a command of meter and a literary equipment that would be note-worthy in a writer of liberal education and in a cultured environment. He had no faculty for prose writing. His most characteristic achievement was as laureate of the rail (after the manner of the Pike County Ballads or Bret Harte) and of child life in humble Scottish homes. In his best-known poems the vernacular of the south-west of Scotland is employed with verve and discretion. Few anthologies of Scots poems now lack 1 or 2 of Surfaceman's, and several of the railway and child poems are popular recitations.[3]


In 1912 a modest memorial was erected in Anderson's native village, and his scattered and unpublished pieces were collected for issue.[3]

Publications Edit

  • A Song of Labour, and other poems. Dundee: Advertiser, 1873.
  • The Two Angels, and other poems (with introduction by George Gilfillan). London: Simkin, Marshall / Edinburgh & Glasgow: John Menzies, 1875.
  • Songs of the Rail. London: Simpkin, Marshall / Edinburgh & Glasgow: John Menzies, 1878.
  • Ballads and Sonnets. London: Macmillan, 1879. London
  • Later Poems of Alexander Anderson, “Surfaceman.” (edited by Alexander Brown). Glasgow: Frasher, Asher, 1912.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[4]

See also Edit

Jean Weir reciting "Cuddle Doon"

Jean Weir reciting "Cuddle Doon"

References Edit

  • Cuthbertson, David. The Life-History of Alexander Anderson-“Surfaceman”. 1929. Inveresk. 139pp
  • Brown, Alexander. Later Poems of Alexander Anderson, “Surfaceman.” Edited, with a biographical sketch, by Alexander Brown. 1912.
  • Miller, Frank. Poets of Dumfriesshire 1910. Pages 294-300.
  • PD-icon.svg Patrick, David (1912). "Anderson, Alexander". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement​. 1. London: Smith, Elder. pp. 41-42. 


  1. John William Cousin, "Anderson, Alexander," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 10.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Patrick, 41.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Patrick, 42.
  4. Search results = au:Alexander Anderson, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 2, 2016.

External linksEdit

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