Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Broken Lights - Basil Ramsey Anderson

This is the second book from the Northus project and the first of the volume of poetry. Novels are much easier to write about which is one reason why it's taken me so long to get round to posting about Broken Lights, which even for poetry presents a few challenges for me to do justice to it.

Basil Ramsey Anderson died from tuberculosis when he was 26, another tragedy in a family that had more than their fair share of them. His younger brother had also died of tuberculosis only a couple of months before, His father and uncle had both drowned in a fishing accident when Basil was 5, leaving his mother, pregnant with her 6th child. 2 more of the 6 Anderson children also died from tuberculosis within a few years of Basil. Nothing could more clearly underline the poverty of the family, or the struggle Mrs. Anderson must have had than those losses. 

When Basil was 14 the family moved to Leith in Edinburgh, where they became a part of an expatriate Shetland community there - which included the notable poet Jessie Saxby, both Saxby, and the Anderson family were from Unst, the farthest North island in Shetland - Unst is possibly the inspiration for the map of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson visited it to see the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga that his family built. It was Jessie Saxby who put together and edited Broken Lights after Basil's death. Edinburgh still has a community of Shetland-associated writers in it, including Robert Alan Jamieson who writes the introduction to this collection. 

As a poet Basil Ramsey Anderson is a mixed bag, though it's reasonable to assume that had he lived longer he might have left a really considerable legacy. As it is we get something of a mixed bag. Robert Alan Jamieson makes a strong case for the poems in English and Scots as being better than they're sometimes considered. His argument is compelling, but the truth is that these are the works of a young man, edited by another hand, in a form of speech that wasn't entirely his own. The Anderson's learned to read in English but spoke in Shetland dialect, these poems are the work of someone finding their way. The rhymes come easily, and they're fashionably sentimental but on their own, they wouldn't be much of a legacy.

The Shetland dialect works are a different matter. There's only a dozen of them and Auld Maunsie's  Crü is considered the masterpiece. I vaguely remember reading this in school, and understand it's still taught - which is brilliant. There's a confidence about the dialect poems, and a sense of identity, maybe even authenticity (although that's a loaded term these days) that underlines that Basil's early death was more than a loss to just Shetland literature and his friends. 

And that's something else this collection does; show the depth of friendship for Basil, and that too is worth celebrating and remembering. Saxby was obviously fond of his, and there's a whole lot of verse (of varying quality) in her introduction from other friends which are at least a testament to the regard they held for Basil. They're also a testament to the wider community he was part of in Edinburgh. Some extracts from Basil's letters at the end of the book are another insight it's good to have - and again make me feel his lack of time more keenly. 

The glossary of Shetland words is also useful, and an early example of such a thing - so from a historical as well as a literary point of view there's a lot of interest going on here. I have various collections of poetry on my shelf, including plenty of Victorian favourites - and very useful they are for providing context for other books and paintings of their time, but nothing quite like Broken Lights, which in the normal way of things would probably have been long forgotten, even if Auld Maunsie's  Crü had somehow managed to survive on its own. Yes, I think what we have here is a mixed bag, but it's got a lot of good stuff in it both in the form of the poems, and what it says about the poet and his community and it's a privilege to be able to get our hands on this collection again. 

Available from Michael Walmer books, or through The Shetland Times



  1. Really glad that you think it's important that this book is back in print, Hayley. Me too. Thanks for giving it some airtime.

    1. I really enjoyed it, and the insights it gave into a community that doesn't get talked about that much, and Basil Ramsey Anderson was more than good enough to deserve a bit of appreciation.