Any regular reader of the Ramblings will know that I’ve covered many an interesting title by Michael Walmer; he republishes some fascinating books, from classic short works to forgotten fiction, belles lettres, poetry and classics – I do encourage you to check out his titles here. However, Mike relocated relatively recently from Australia to the Shetland Islands (now there’s a dramatic change of landscape!); and since his move he’s initiated a new range of releases, the Northus Shetland Classics. So far, there are three titles in the series and these are they – fiction, poetry and memoir.

Now, of course, I’m an exiled Scot (though not from so far north as these islands!) so I was very keen to read some of the titles, and Mike has kindly provided copies for me to explore. I was particularly interested in the release of the poetry of Basil Ramsay Anderson, as he’s a name new to me, and “Broken Lights” turned out to be a fascinating read.

Anderson had a short, yet productive life. Born in 1861 on Unst, the nothernmost inhabited point of the British Isles, his early years were tough; his father was drowned while fishing off the island, and the family were left to cope alone. As there were 6 children in the family, this can’t have been easy for his mother, to whom he was very attached. The family moved to Edinburgh when Anderson was in his teens, and here he fell in with the local group of exiled Shetlanders, who were very involved in the church and in radical politics. During his short life he published little, but after dying tragically young at the age of 26, his work became well known, mainly it seems thanks to the efforts of the Shetland novelist and poet, Jessie Saxby. She was asked by Anderson’s family to edit his work for publication, and the result was “Broken Lights”.

As well as collecting Anderson’s poetry, the book also gathered extracts from his letters, reminisences and tributes, and even included a useful glossary of Shetland terminology. A ground-breaking work, then, and one which is reproduced in full here, along with a new introduction by Robert Alan Jamieson, himself a Shetland poet.

I sigh for the Isles that are over the sea,
I sigh for the hearts of the North;
For I know that a welcome is waiting for me,
And I know what that welcome is worth.

The poetry itself is divided into two section: Poems in English and Scots, and Poems in the Shetland Dialect. They make fascinating, often moving, reading, with the English verses perhaps being more traditional. The ones using Scots were a little bit of a revelation for me; we moved down south when I was six, and so my exposure to Scots was limited and when I was quite young. Yet I found myself very much in tune with the Scots verse, with my understanding of Scots words coming back and this was a real joy. The Shetland poems dig deep too, drawing on the history of island life; the central poem of these is “Auld Maunsie’s Crü”, which is apparently Anderson’s best known work, and it’s striking and memorable.

The additional material, in the form of introductions by both Jamieson and Saxby, extracts from letters and the memories of those who knew Anderson, add to the poems and build up a picture of a fascinating and talented poet who died far too young. Interestingly, Jamieson’s introduction reveals that Anderson’s neice was Willa Muir, the esteemed novelist, essayist and translator – so there was obviously talent flowing in the family line.

When fall the shadows of the night,
    And quiet musings fill the breast,
We’ll think of one who, like the light,
    Has passed into the far, far west.

Shetland literature obviously has much to offer, and so the bringing of such an important work back into print is to be lauded. I confess to often feeling drawn north to my homeland, and islands themselves are very appealing. So to be able to read these wonderful works from Shetland writers is a huge treat, and I loved discovering the writings of Basil Ramsay Anderson. Kudos to Mike Walmer for starting up this particular imprint – I shall really look forward to reading more of the works in the series!