Haldane Burgess

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J.J. Haldane Burgess

James John (J.J.) Haldane Burgess 1862-1927 is a great figure in Shetland's cultural history, being a fine poet, novelist, musician, and linguist, as well as a pioneer socialist. His published works include Rasmie's Büddie, Some Shetland Folk, Tang, The Treasure of Don Andreas, Rasmie's Kit, Rasmie's Smaa Murr, and The Viking Path, the latter being translated into German. He was one of the Shetlanders who gave assistance to Jakob Jakobsen, in his researches into the Norn Language in Shetland.

Burgess was born on May the 28th, 1862, in Burns Lane, Lerwick, and was to become the pre-eminent Shetland writer of his period. He was a son of Lerwick, whose grandfather had left Dunrossness as a soldier during the Napoleonic period and lived in Edinburgh for a time before settling in 'da toon' as a shopkeeper.

Haldane Burgess was a prodigy, winning first place in the Glasgow Bursary Competition. He spent four years as a teacher in Bressay in order to pay for his university education. He studied Divinity at Edinburgh University, but found himself in disagreement with certain doctrines. He lost his sight in his last year of study, took his final exams orally and returned to Lerwick. Later his promotion of socialist ideas made him a popular and radical figure.

He was a gifted linguist, a champion of Esperanto, who developed a lifelong interest in Norse culture and taught himself Norwegian, later contributing articles to journals in Norway. In his lifetime he was best known for a novel entitled 'The Viking Path – A Tale of The White Christ' (1894), set in Shetland and Norway at the coming of Christianity. The best-known of his work now is probably his verse in dialect, as published in Rasmie's Büddie: poems in the Shetlandic (1891), which was republished in 1913, and later in 1979 with illustrations by Frank Walterson. The poem 'Scranna' is one of the acknowledged classics of Shetlandic literature.
Cover of the posthumous 'Young Rasmie's Kit', T and J Manson 1928

Laurence I. Graham, in his essay 'Shetland Literature and the idea of community' in Shetland’s Northern Links: Language and History, (1996) writes that his novel Tang “ … was written in the closing years of the last century.

Haldane Burgess' grave at Lerwick Churchyard

It tells the story of a young girl, Inga, and her divided love for two men: one, her devoted admirer, a steady, hard working fisherman, and the other, a newly arrived minister, young, idealistic, unsure of himself and very susceptible to feminine charm and persuasion. It also presents a picture of a small community of crofter-fishermen, their women-folk, the merchant, the teacher, the minister and the laird. Burgess brings out the darker side of this community, the hypocrisy and occasional dishonesty, the servility of some crofters towards the gentry, the malicious gossip, the petty jealousies and spitefulness within the congregation and the damage done by itinerant hot-gospellers and their infernal, illegitimate-producing revival meetings' as Hakki, the agnostic schoolmaster, calls them. The novel certainly gives an unflattering picture of what passed for religious life at this period … The arguments between Hakki, the outspoken agnostic, and the minister and laird are among the highlights of the book and it is obvious where the author's sympathies lie. It is certainly an unusual novel for its time when the Scottish Kailyard school of writing was still at its height …”

A street, Haldane Burgess Crescent, and a lane, Haldane Place, both in Lerwick, are named after him.
His younger brother William A. S. Burgess was also an author.

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