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Chalmers, Margaret (b. 1758), poet, was born at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, and baptized there on 12 December 1758, the eldest child of William Chalmers, customs officer and landowner's steward, and his wife, Kitty Irvine. Her only brother, William, master of the Royal Sovereign, fell at Trafalgar, leaving his sisters and widowed mother in poverty. (The mother became bedridden about 1798, as did one of the sisters three years later.) Lord Collingwood petitioned the government for a pension for them, but without success. In 1813 Margaret (impelled, she said, ‘by circumstances of severe domestic affliction’), published her Poems by subscription at Newcastle, through S. Hodgson. The volume was badly printed and publicized, and many subscribers were lost by delay. It did not attain the financial success which, for its literary panache and the interest of its subject matter, it deserved.

Chalmers calls herself ‘the first British Thulian quill’, though she shares that honour with Dorothea Primrose Campbell, who, more than a generation younger, was the first of the two to be published. Like Campbell, Chalmers expresses a mixture of pride and apology about her native land, enthusiastically describing its landscapes and customs while doubting that it is really a fitting environment for the poet. About herself as poet, too, she sounds ambivalent. She expresses vaunting literary ambition, but does so with self-deprecating wit; she calls herself ‘a hizzie’, ‘madam Thulia’, or ‘my Greenland Lady’. Much of her material is local: the place names of the island of Uist, scenes along the River Esk, a famine in the Faeroes relieved with British aid, the loss of a Shetland boat at sea. She provides prose notes in explanation of local matters such as handiwork and superstitions. More general topics include female friendship, British patriotism, the royal family, and local dignitaries. Her literary references are largely Scots: she quotes James Thomson, praises Walter Scott, and imitates Robert Burns.

Margaret Chalmers corresponded with Scott between 1814 and 1815, and sent him copies of some of her poems. In 1816, three years after her publishing venture, she appealed for financial help to the Royal Literary Fund, sending a poem ‘To the Powerful Benevolent’. They responded with a grant of £10 but apparently did not keep the poem. It is not known when Margaret Chalmers died.

Isobel Grundy

Sources  

M. Chalmers, Poems (1813) · MSS, Royal Literary Fund [microfilm] · Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany (1806) · Blain, Clements & Grundy, Feminist comp.

Archives  

NL Scot., letters to Sir Walter Scott