and songwriter Born: 11 November, 1919, in Blairgowrie, Perthshire Died: 9 March, 2002, in an Edinburgh nursing home, aged 82
GENERALLY acknowledged as the father of the Scottish folk revival,
Hamish Henderson, poet, cultural and political activist,
singer-songwriter and folklorist, received his initiation into folk
studies literally at his mothers knee.
As he once recalled: "My mother could sing in Gaelic, Scots and French
- French because she had been a nurse in the First World War. One of
my earliest memories is of her marching through the house singing the
Marseillaise. At the age of seven, I asked her about a song she was
singing. We had a book of songs in the house. I asked her where that
song was in the book. She said: Some of the songs we sing are not in
books. That started me off as a folklorist and collector."
Educated as a scholarship pupil at Dulwich College in London and at
Cambridge University, where he studied languages (and spoke in debates
in defence of the Spanish Republic), Henderson became a "temporary
honorary research fellow" at the newly-founded School of Scottish
Studies at Edinburgh University in 1951. His work was championed by
the renowned collector Calum MacLean (brother of the poet Sorley),
and, in 1954, he was offered a permanent post. A native Gaelic
speaker, he often referred to his Perthshire Gaelic proudly, though
not without irony, as "tinker Gaelic".
Prior to his university post, Henderson had acted as a "native guide"
to the American folklorist and ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax, on his
visit to Scotland in 1951. In his collected essays, Alias MacAlias
(1992), Henderson was to pinpoint this visit as the beginning of the
folk revival. But Henderson had already begun to write and collect,
and had published Ballads of World War II, a bawdy and vituperative
collection of soldiers songs, which included some of his own very
fine war-time compositions, most notably Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers
and Highland Divisions Farewell to Sicily.
In order to evade the censor, it was published "privately" under the
auspices of the fictitious "Lili Marlene Club (Glasgow)", but the book
earned him the self-righteous wrath of Lord Reith and associates at
the BBC, and he was prevented from making a series of programmes on
ballad-making. In fact, he was kept off state radio for ten years
because of this publication and because (as an ex-intelligence
officer) he had been "ranting red revolution", as he once put it.
Ironically, sweet revenge was to be his when he publicly turned down
an OBE award in 1983 in protest at the Thatcher governments nuclear
arms policy and was, as a result, voted Scot of the Year by listeners
to Radio Scotland.
A life-long socialist, Henderson introduced the name of Antonio
Gramsci to the Scottish Left (as well as to Hugh MacDiarmid).
Described by Eric Hobsbawm as "probably the most original communist
thinker of the 20th century in Western Europe", Gramscis influence on
Henderson was profound, one of his favourite quotations from the
Italian philosopher being: "That which distinguishes folksong in the
framework of a nation and its culture is neither the artistic fact nor
the historic origin; it is a separate and distinct way of perceiving
life and the world, as opposed to that of official society."
Henderson first heard of Gramsci from the mainly communist Italian
Partisans, to whom he was attached during the Italian campaign in the
Second World War. He was sent the first edition of Gramscis Lettere
dal Carcere when it appeared in 1947, and he set about translating it.
Prison Letters did not, however, make it into print until 1974, when
the translation first appeared in two special editions of the New
Edinburgh Review, and subsequently in book form in 1988.
Hendersons war experiences, in the Desert campaign, in Sicily and
Italy (evocatively captured in his personal documentary for BBC
Scotland, The Dead, the Innocent in 1980), also inspired his Elegies
for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948), a book of poems for which he
received the Somerset Maugham Award, as well as the following note of
praise - and warning - from the eminent historian EP Thompson: "You
must never let yourself ... be driven into the arms of the culture
boys who appreciate pretentiousness and posturing. They would kill
your writing, because you, more than any other poet I know, are an
instrument through which thousands of others can become articulate.
And you must not forget that your songs and ballads are not
trivialities - they are quite as important as the Elegies."
In fact, although he was a very fine poet (and arguably one of the
most significant poetic voices of the Second World War), it was the
songs and the ballads that were to attract him both as writer and
collector; and Thompsons description of him as "an instrument through
which thousands of others can become articulate" proved genuinely
In the words of the singer/song-writer Adam McNaughton (writing in
Chapman magazine in 1985): "Three strands are distinguishable in the
Scottish folksong revival: the academic, the club/festival movement
and the traditional. Perhaps the only person who has striven to
intertwine the three has been Dr Henderson ... Hendersons collecting
style is obvious on listening to any of his recordings. He is never
the fly on the wall, trying to efface himself altogether. The
collecting occasion is a ceilidh in which he is sharing and his voice
rings out in choruses or in responsive laughter. Perhaps a more
controversial aspect is his now well-known carrying of songs from one
singer to another, who in his opinion could make good use of it.
Henderson wastes no anxiety on intruding with a tape-recorder into
the oral tradition. The last thing he wishes is to record museum
pieces; he wants a tradition that is fermenting and creative ...
Hamish Henderson has always valued and encouraged young singers and
story-tellers within the tradition."
Henderson lived for months at a time with the travelling people of
Scotland, collecting songs, classical ballads and stories which had
been passed along "the carrying stream", the travellers having a
strong oral tradition, overlooked or ignored (sometimes for purely
snobbish reasons) by previous collectors. His work in this area is
often regarded as his greatest achievement. He showed the world,
particularly the academic world, that Scottish traditional culture was
still vigorous and fermenting, and then he went one step further: he
brought the travellers wealth of oral culture to the publics
At the Peoples Festival Ceilidhs in Edinburgh in the early Fifties,
he provided the first public platforms bringing together traditional
and revivalist singers. He supported the new folksong clubs (starting,
in particular, the Edinburgh University Folk Song Society along with
Stuart MacGregor), and became a stalwart of the Traditional Music and
Song Association, acting as its president until 1983.
Henderson was particularly proud of his discovery of Jeannie
Robertson, once described by AL Lloyd as "a singer, sweet and heroic".
In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that he was prouder of
having "discovered" and promoted Jeannie Robertson than of any other
achievement. Like many of the travellers (and other tradition bearers
such as the Border shepherd, Willie Scott), Jeannie became a close
friend. (Hendersons return to the north-east, where he did much of
his initial collecting, was ably captured in Grampian Televisions
1992 Journey to a Kingdom , directed by Timothy Neat). In later years,
looking back, Henderson often spoke of his discovery of Jeannie in
terms of the "justification" of his lifes work.
His contribution to the folk revival was, in fact, much greater and
further-reaching than this. Working closely with enlightened teachers
such as Morris Blythman ("Thurso Berwick") and Norman Buchan (later
the Labour MP), he helped inspire a new generation of singers,
including the likes of Jean Redpath, Jimmie Macgregor and Josh McCrae.
At the School of Scottish Studies he operated a covert "open door"
policy, giving many vital access to materials though they were not
matriculated students, and he went on to inspire other revivalist
singers, among them Dick Gaughan.
Many of his own songs have passed into the tradition, including,
perhaps most notably, The Freedom Come All Ye, which has now achieved
a status akin to that of an unofficial national anthem in some
circles, and The John MacLean March. The latter tribute to the Red
Clydesider was first sung by Willie Noble at a commemorative meeting
organised by Henderson and Morris Blythman under the auspices of the
Scotland-USSR Society in Glasgow in 1948. With 2,000 people in
attendance, Blythman later described the singing of Hendersons
composition as "the first swallow of the folk revival".
That the songs choral phrase "great John MacLean" derives from a poem
by Sorley MacLean (Clan MacLean) is but one small instance of the
cross-fertilisation which has always taken place in Scotland between
"folk" and "literature" - a cross-fertilisation which Henderson not
only embodied but also championed. And championed so vociferously in
his famous "flyting" with Hugh MacDiarmid in the letters pages of The
Scotsman in 1964, where he not only accused the enfant terrible of
Scottish letters of "a kind of spiritual apartheid" but also argued
that "by denigrating Scots popular poetry now, Mr MacDiarmid is trying
to kick away from under his feet one of the ladders on which he rose
The source of the dispute was MacDiarmids thrawn dismissal of
folk-song sources as "spring-boards for significant work". Only, in
this instance, the Langholm Byspale perhaps more than met his match.
While Henderson tirelessly championed MacDiarmids own work (and on
occasion provided him with more than moral support), he baulked at the
great poets "arty" attitude to politics and, in particular, his
cultural elitism. For at bottom, Henderson was humanitarian in
everything he did, and said, and always held the field for the
"democratic intellect". He saw no other way, and his lifes work, his
very motivation, could perhaps be best described by that telling
phrase of George Elder Davies.
As a visiting student in pre-war Nazi Germany, Henderson acted as a
courier for an organisation set up by the Society of Friends (the
Quakers), "sending on certain communications to their rightful
destinations", the contents of which he never examined. He was, in
fact, part of a clandestine network working to help those in danger in
the Third Reich and, although ultimately he did not share their
pacifist principles, he maintained a deep respect for the Quakers
throughout his life. He was followed. He was questioned, but he was
never caught out, his excellent German coming in handy (as later would
He told me that on one occasion he stood within yards of the Fuehrer
as he passed, standing in an open car during one of the interminable
Nazi parades. He described the atmosphere as one almost of "sexual
hysteria", with young women (and some not so young) screaming and
crying "rather like a Beatles concert", though he thought the
diminutive dictator an "unprepossessing" figure, returning the Nazi
salutes with a "foppish" wave.
Henderson crossed from Germany into Holland on 27 August, 1939, a few
days before war was declared. He volunteered but was turned down
because of his eyesight. Called up the following year, he joined the
Pioneer Corps and spent the winter of 1940-41 building defences along
the Sussex beaches, working alongside Jewish refugees from Germany
(this regiment being the only one which admitted them). In the spring
of 1941, he volunteered as an intelligence officer and was soon
shipped out to North Africa, holding to the belief that this "was a
war that had to be won", while later dedicating his Elegies "to the
dead of both sides". In the final analysis. he saw all war as "human
He was attached to the 8th Army, prior to the invasion of Sicily in
June 1943, and his intelligence operations revealed that there were no
German troops manning the strategic Sicilian beaches, only autonomous
Italian troops who, he suggested, would "melt away into the
landscape", which was exactly what happened. Not only did he
personally intercept and arrest the German paratroop commander in
Sicily, Major Guenther, but it was under Captain Hendersons personal
supervision that Marshall Graziani, the war minister in Mussolinis
last government, drew up the Italian surrender order on 29 April,
1945, the first major surrender of an Axis army in the West.
After the liberation of Rome on 5 June, 1945, Henderson also paid a
visit to the citys former SS commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kappler,
in jail. It was Kappler who, after a Partisan attack in Rome, had been
directly responsible for the retaliatory massacre of 335 civilian
hostages in the Ardeatine caves on the outskirts of the city in March
1944. The Scottish soldier wanted to see for himself what kind of man
could commit such an atrocity. He found him to be "a stiffly correct,
rather prosaic German". Kappler was described by his own men as "an
ice cold, ambitious fanatic", and Henderson always thought of him as
"the carrier of a deadly disease".
On a return visit to Italy in 1950, Henderson was expelled by the
right-wing government of the day for speaking on behalf of the
Partisans of Peace, and he did not return to the country until the
making of The Dead, The Innocent, though he was a frequent visitor
thereafter. The singer-songwriter (often referred to fondly and
mischievously by Sorley MacLean as "Comrade Captain") was also a
founder member of, and tireless campaigner for, CND and the
Anti-Apartheid Movement. His song, The Men of Rivonia (Free Mandela),
written to a Spanish Republican tune was, he was told, actually sung
on Robben Island when Mandela was imprisoned there. I once witnessed
Henderson singing it to (or, more precisely, at) a South African
diplomat during an Edinburgh International Folk Festival ceilidh in
the early Eighties. The man left early.
Henderson also believed that he was the target of two assassination
attempts by people whom he could only assume were MI5/MI6 personnel
operating in cahouts with BOSS, the South African security services.
This was not something he spoke about lightly or often. He described
to me one of these hit-and-run attempts on an Edinburgh street in
An Old Labour man and a veteran home-ruler, Henderson was also
involved in many and various post-war home-rule campaigns and
organisations, as well as the John MacLean Society. He also played his
part in the setting up of the short-lived Scottish Labour Party of the
Although he spoke often of his mother, he rarely spoke of his father
or his fathers family. He told me that he was, in fact, an
illegitimate son of a cousin to the Dukes of Atholl, and was a direct
descendant of Robert II. Bill Shanklys famous description of Jock
Stein as "a man with the blood of Bruce in his veins" was literally
true in Hendersons case. The reason he did not speak publicly about
his parentage had nothing to do with any sense of shame about being
illegitimate. He simply did not think that any public knowledge of his
aristocratic links would benefit him in the work he did.
He was very proud of, and close to, his two daughters, Janet and
Christine, and to his German wife, Katzel. But it was no secret to
anyone who knew him that Hamish was bisexual and he spoke and wrote
openly on such matters long before it was fashionable (or safe) to
"come out". (He also intensely disliked the word "gay").
He spoke often of his Perthshire childhood, recalling once how, at the
age of five, he was evicted along with his mother from their cottage
because she could not afford to pay the rent. He knew, first hand as
he once put it, "what the Clearances meant". He was brought up in the
Episcopalian tradition, looked upon the Episcopal Church as,
historically, "the Scottish church", and was proud of its links with
the Jacobites. He had little or no fondness for Presbyterianism, and
often attacked the Church of Scotland for its role in the Clearances.
In some ways there was as much of the Jacobite in him as there was of
the Jacobin. He was also a man who did a great many private kindnesses
for a myriad of folk. Though never a rich man, he helped many people
in financial need over the years, and gave of his time and talent, not
least to Scotlands small literary magazines, generously.
Once, walking with him from the School of Studies in George Square,
Edinburgh, to his favourite howff, Sandy Bells in Forrest Road, we
saw approaching us in Middle Meadow Walk the kenspeckle figure of
Father Anthony Ross, then rector of Edinburgh University. Hamish
remarked: "Look, here comes Father Anthony. That mans heart could
float a battleship."
Surely a fitting epitaph for Hamish Henderson himself.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.