Anent Hamish Henderson | Essays • Poems • Interviews

Eberhard Bort  | University of Edinburgh | ISBN: 978-1-907676-65-9

Anent Hamish Henderson:

Introduction| Eberhard Bort

I’ll always be waiting
Where streams are afore me.


These two lines are taken from an early ‘Love Poem’ by Hamish Henderson. They could be seen as programmatic, expressing a curiosity, sense of adventure and life force that would again be reflected in his last poem, ‘Under the Earth I Go’,

While my love lives, I’ll dance with the Mayers
Teasing the Old Oss till there’s new life in him
Chasing sweet lusty Spring with pipes, goatskin and bones.

If Timothy Neat’s two-volume biography of the man has shown us anything, then how crammed with incident his life was. And charting, as in the previous three volumes – Borne on the Carrying Stream (2010), ‘Tis Sixty Years Since (2011) and At Hame wi’ Freedom (2012) – the life and work of Scotland’s foremost folklorist of the twentieth century, the songwriter, poet and political activist Hamish Henderson (1919-2002), this collection has been put together to fondly remember and critically assess the continuing influence he exercises.

Hamish Henderson has received quite a bit of attention recently. He has had a good press, as it were. Remember the Commonwealth Games in 2014? Particularly the Opening Ceremony on 23 July? Only a week later, the BBC reported that ‘The haunting rendition of Freedom Come All Ye performed at the opening ceremony by South African singer Pumeza is now topping the UK i-tunes classical charts.’ More than 44 years earlier, when a seventy-year-old Hamish Henderson sang ‘The Freedom Come All Ye’ at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow in January 1990, it was, according to Neil Cooper, ‘the ultimate folk-song cabaret’.

Henderson sang it … in his own slightly cracked tones not as part of some officially sanctioned flagship event for Glasgow’s status as European City of Culture that year, but for a low-level grassroots initiative that brought together art and activism in an event that would prove to be of huge trickle-down significance.

That ‘trickle-down significance’ could, perhaps, be seen in the Scottish independence referendum campaign and the 2015 UK general election. ‘There’s a roch wind blowing through the great glen of Scotland this morning,’ Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, adapted Hamish Henderson after he was declared winner in the Gordon constituency on 8 May – in an election in which the SNP swept the board in Scotland, gaining all but three of the 59 Scottish seats.

Alan Taylor used his column in the Herald to espouse the ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’, Hamish’s best-known song, in the recurring discussions about a Scottish national anthem. He introduced his plea for ‘the one to go for’ with a short character sketch of its author,

Tall as the Eiffel Tower, he cut an imposing figure with his bulbous nose, wiry moustache and ever-present hound. Ignorant interlopers might mistake him for a barfly but regulars knew better. Given a roving brief by the university’s School of Scottish Studies, Hamish used Sandy Bell’s to hold seminars, for students and anyone else within earshot, discoursing on everything from Gramsci and Italian fascism to the travelling community and the obscenity of nuclear weapons. When he died in 2002 at the age of 92 [sic] it was as if a Scots pine had been felled.

Note how Alan generously gave Hamish an extra ten years. But that can easily be forgiven for a choice phrase like this about the song: ‘Like its composer, it is nationalist by formation, internationalist in outlook, and socialist by inclination.’ It, Taylor persuasively argues, ‘springs from the memory of a boy brought up in Blairgowrie but it is the opposite of parochial.’ Attacking apartheid and the military aggression of imperialism, ‘its ambition is for a world free from prejudice and exploitation. In short, it’s an anthem for everyone.’

Yes – but it would also go against the grain of Hamish Henderson to ‘elevate’ it to officialdom by making it Scotland’s national anthem. It was conceived, as he said in the interview with Colin Nicholson (reprinted in this volume), as an inofficial, ‘alternative’ anthem:

I have always privately opposed the idea of ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ becoming an anthem because if there’s one thing I don’t think would do that song any good at all would be for it to become official. The whole idea is that it is an alternative to ‘official’ attitudes.

For him, ‘the world of folk-song and story … forms a kind of underground.’ He loved to quote Antonio Gramsci:

That which distinguishes folk-song 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.

Having ‘The Freedom Come-all-Ye’ blaring out at every official occasion is nearly as bad as envisaging drunken football crowds mangling the words and swaying to the tune of ‘The Bloody Fields of Flanders’. Maybe Hamish’s intentions ought to be respected, and his song be allowed to keep its ‘alternative’ credentials. It is doing fine, not just in folk clubs and sessions. Here is Lesley Riddoch:

Recently, I’ve taken to singing Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come all Ye before book events and campaign meetings. It’s become surprisingly popular. The first time, only a handful of other folk knew all the words. The second time, there were more…

‘This is,’ she contends, part of ‘the conscious remaking and revitalising of Scottish culture – every bit as important as the expression of the nation’s political will.’ And, in her column in the National, she hailed Hamish as a role model for his civic courage to reject the OBE offered by the Thatcher government in 1983, in protest against its pro-nuclear arms and foreign policies.

In his aptly titled A Work of Beauty, a splendidly produced Edinburgh photo album, Alexander McCall Smith paints an affectionate little pen portrait of Hamish:

Henderson was a lovable and gentle figure whose message resonated powerfully with Scottish egalitarian sentiment. His ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ is perhaps one of the most stirring indictments of exploitation ever written, sitting comfortably in the company of that other great Scottish humanitarian statement, ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’.

Dolina Maclennan’s memoir is studded with fond memories of her ‘big pal’ Hamish. And Stuart McHardy and Donald Smith remind us how Hamish set markers on the Scottish Democracy Trail: how he represented the Regent’s Road Vigil (for a Scottish Parliament) at the Democracy March on 12 December 1992 (where he sang ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’), which also rang out often during demonstrations and rallies on Calton Hill.

It will come as no surprise that due homage is paid to Hamish in Gillian Ferguson’s short booklet on Sandy Bell’s – after all, it was not just Hamish’s ‘favourite “howff”,’ he often referred to it as his ‘office’.

On the academic side, The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Traditional Literatures has been a wee milestone. Hamish is featured prominently, particularly in the contributions by Margaret Bennett and Corey Gibson. In Chris Wright’s edited volume on the Kist o Riches, Alison McMorland introduces Hamish, the fieldworker and collector.

Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr trace the transatlantic connections between the living traditions of Scotland and Ireland and Appalachia in Wayfaring Strangers, correcting some misconceptions of Cecil J Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1917), by focusing on today’s tradition bearers ‘and the music they share … immersed in Hamish Henderson’s “carrying stream”.’ Later, they refer to Hamish Henderson, who

reminded us that folk tradition neither stands still nor exists in isolation. It is the same with identity – Scottish, Irish, or American. Culture becomes a platform upon which we construct our concept of identity. As people move and ideas are shared, so their identities become more fluid, overlapping and blurring around the edges. Openness to new ideas and cultural exchange are at the heart and soul of social music.

Gary West’s Voicing Scotland offers a practitioner’s insights – as a teacher at the School of Scottish Studies and as a piper – into Scotland’s traditional music and song culture. He pays tribute to his teacher, Hamish Henderson –

He opened my ears to what folk culture is all about, what makes it tick, how the best of it stands in its own soil boldly looking outwards, not tamely looking in.

and to contemporary musicians, singers and poets, driven by the need for ‘an appreciation of where things have come from, where we stand within the stream … and to embrace the future with the confidence that comes from knowing where we’ve been.’

Ian Spring has recently published his collection of essays, Hamish Henderson and Folk Song, which contains an essay on ‘Hamish Henderson: Man and Myth’. He sets out to debunk some myths and generally feels that much that has been written about Hamish has been ‘uncritical and anecdotal’. Apart from failing to break much new ground himself – that Hamish Henderson never produced that great book of Scottish folklore or folksong and did not fulfil the promise of the Elegies by producing a great ‘epic poem or song sequence’ can be found, among other places, in Tim Neat’s biography of Hamish Henderson, much maligned by Spring as ‘tainted by unwarranted and sometimes bizarre speculation’ and ‘a strange mixture of hyperbole and euphemism, or exaggeration and evasion’ – he ignores serious scholarship – like, for example, Corey Gibson’s work on Hamish Henderson and Antonio Gramsci or Ewan McVicar’s on Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson and cultural equity, Gary West’s inquiry into folk, culture and nation, Margaret Bennett’s on the impact of Hamish Henderson on international folk collecting or, to add just one more example, Steve Byrne’s work on digitising the School of Scottish Studies archive. Spring cannot quite avoid the anecdotal either – and why should he? He tells this one well:

Even after his death … Hamish’s spirit still seemed to remain in Bell’s. One strange thing happened in Bell’s on the day of Hamish’s funeral (many of us had decamped there). I was standing at the bar with Raymond Ross when I saw someone come in. ‘That looks like Eddie Linden,’ I said, ‘I thought he was dead!’ ‘So did I,’ said Ray (a newspaper had actually, accidentally, published his obituary). Eddie had ‘come back to life’ for Hamish’s farewell; Hamish would have appreciated the irony!

And so it is not really surprising that his ‘nudging Hamish from the pedestal on which he had been placed’ ends up in a very similar place to those he seems to attack: ‘If you count also the poems, songs, essays, etc that came from those he nurtured, supported and championed,’ he concludes, ‘his achievement is immense.’

Ian Spring may crave more academic scrutiny. Maybe he will find it in Corey Gibson’s forthcoming The Voice of the People, based on his award-winning PhD thesis at Edinburgh University. Or in Richie McCaffery’s recently finished PhD thesis on the Scottish Second World War poets at Glasgow University. Or even in this volume? Both Gibson and McCaffery are too young to have known Hamish Henderson. Gibson sets out clearly what is at stake:

On one level, Henderson’s ‘legacy’ will be short-lived if it relies on personal reminiscences and kind-hearted sketches of a tall, ambling, slightly shabby intellectual who was gregarious, opinionated, always ready to burst into song, and frequently holding court in the unofficial headquarters of the Scottish folk revival, Sandy Bell’s Pub. On another level, he cannot simply be cast as a folk-hero whose worth is in the example of his life, and in the readiness with which others invest in him as an embodiment of the values or ideas to which they ascribe. (…)

My intention is not to dismiss out of hand the fond anecdotal picture that is often portrayed, nor to overlook the range of Henderson’s interests and talents and, therefore, the variety of roles in which he might be cast; it is to show how his life’s work is underpinned by an ambitious moral-intellectual programme to reconnect and reintegrate the artist within society.


Very much in Gibson’s spirit, we continue in this volume what we started with Borne on the Carrying Stream five years ago: bringing together personal perspectives, memories and reminiscences with more detached and analytical pieces exploring the life, work and legacy of Hamish Henderson.

In this volume, Sheena Wellington and Dolina Maclennan, two fine singers and tradition bearers who knew and were inspired by Hamish Henderson, give us glimpses of the man. We can count ourselves lucky to have people putting on the record how they worked with and were influenced by Hamish Henderson. But – as in the other volumes – we do not leave it there.

Here, we put Hamish’s Elegies centre-stage. Joy Hendry, Mario Relich and Tessa Ransford had already explored them in Borne on the Carrying Stream, and Fred Freeman in At Hame wi’ Freedom. Now, Lesley Duncan draws parallels between Hamish and the Scottish First World War poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, before John Lucas and Richie McCaffery engage in close readings of the award-winning poetic sequence – ‘Henderson’s finest achievement,’ as Roderick Watson has called the Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. In his view, ‘this long poem, more than any other in the literature of the period, catches something of the strangely special nature of the desert war.’ And Douglas Gifford saw Henderson as arguably the greatest Scottish poet of the Second World War. Hamish’s Elegies as well as his war songs ‘came out of grim direct knowledge of that war which had to be fought, as well as deep disgust at later, colonial wars which did not have to be.’ Ray Burnett sums up Hamish’s achievement in the words:

The primacy of the moment was the utter necessity to defeat fascism. But in this struggle of total war, a profound sense of the human had to be retained if humanity itself was not to be consumed by it. Not least there was a need to retain an enduring commitment to the removal of want, injustice and inequality as the prize they were fighting for.

Folk-collecting and song-writing are also being focused on in this section. Ewan McVicar, already established as an expert on Alan Lomax’s collecting, gives a critical guided tour of Lomax’s recordings of Hamish Henderson which are now all available online. Very apt, as 2015 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of both Alan Lomax and Ewan McColl. He makes some important annotations and corrections – alas, one anent the photo we used for the cover of ‘Tis Sixty Years Since and which, he persuasively argues, is falsely dated to 1951. Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre give insights into the evolution of the ‘Underground of Song’, reminding us of the ambiguity of that term – the fact that folk song often has been ‘submerged’, even threatened in its existence, but that it also has been and remains ‘the music of the people’, in the Gramscian sense, the voice of the subaltern. Their conversation shows what Hamish meant when he said:

‘But what on earth are you going to do with all this stuff once you’ve collected it?’ comes a parting shot from the opposite camp. The answer is: give it back to the Scottish people who made it.

In his discussion of the ‘flytings’ between Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid in the letters pages of the Scotsman in the early 1960s, Raymond Ross (who in 2000 edited and published Hamish’s Collected Poems and Songs), pitches Hamish’s ‘humanitarianism’ against MacDiarmid’s ‘elitism’, following on from a piece he contributed to Joy Hendry’s Chapman twenty years ago. Margaret Bennett reminds us in her transcription on the pioneering collaboration between Hamish and her son Martyn Bennett – which also comes up in Archie Fisher’s interview with Hamish later in this volume.

The politics of Hamish and his lifelong interests in Ireland and in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa are foregrounded in the next section of the book. Ray Burnett corrects some mis-representations in Tim Neat’s biography in his contribution, while I try to trace Hamish’s engagement with Irish culture and politics as well as his role in fighting apartheid and for the freedom of Nelson Mandela.

That Hamish continues to inspire is not just evident from the reminiscences of Sheena Wellington and Dolina Maclennan. We have included in this volume a number of poems – some of them directly addressed at Hamish, as in the poems of David Daiches, Donald Smith and Willie Hershaw, others about him, like Mario Relich’s and Donald Meek’s. When Alison McMorland mentioned to George Gunn that Hamish Henderson was, for her, ‘the bones of Scotland’, it inspired him to write the present poem in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum. Keith Armstrong’s poems are more loosely connected to Hamish Henderson and the poetic scene of Edinburgh – but, as a performing poet, Keith is an example of what Edwin Morgan called the ‘links between the folk revival and the spread of poetry-readings, a link of performance, of a sense of the public…’ He thought that Hamish Henderson’s folk-poems were a bridge that brought poetry and song closer together, and had an effect on poetry:

The poem is jumping off the printed page into the gramophone record and the concert hall, and with it goes the poet. Performance – the poet’s voice – becomes significant instead of being a mere curiosity. The concept of a living and reacting audience revives. Qualities weakened for centuries – vibrance and warmth, immediacy, tonal indication, subtlety of emphasis – are being regained … this is life entering again through the ear.

At the opening of the Scottish Parliament to Sheena Wellington’s memorable rendition ‘A Man’s A Man for a’ That’, wrote Ray Burnett,

the spirit and the ‘voice’ of Henderson was there alongside Burns. At every gathering against wars, injustice and inequality, every celebration of Scotland’s national culture, the songs he composed, the old songs he recovered and the new songs he inspired can always be heard.

Hamish’s inspirational power can also be seen in the art work that peppers this volume, from the cover painting by Timothy Neat – and his sketches of the young and the dying Hamish – and Tom Hubbard’s frontispiece portrait to fellow Fifer Jan Miller’s drawings and the paper cuts and calligraphy of Howard Glasser.

The book closes on a handful of interviews with and about Hamish Henderson. They cover the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. All but Margaret Bennett with Howard Glasser’s and Archie Fisher’s ‘Travelling Folk’ interview have been previously published, but we thought it might be handy to have them together in one volume. There are overlaps, but they are also complementary, all illuminating different aspects of Hamish’s life and work.

When talking about his interview with Hamish, Archie Fisher told me that he gave Hamish a lift afterwards from the BBC’s Edinburgh Queen Street studio to Sandy Bell’s in his Landrover:

‘Why a Landrover, Archie?’ asked Hamish. ‘It’s for the horse trailer,’ I said. ‘Last time I sat on a horse, I had requisitioned it from a German general.’ Top man, Hamish!

The book ends as it starts, with fond reminiscences about Hamish. In between, there is what we hope will read as an exciting journey, with some new discoveries, and incentive for further research.

With Sheila Stewart and Jean Redpath, the Scottish folk scene lost two of the great voices of the Scottish Folk Revival last year – both good friends of Hamish Henderson’s. We were lucky to have Sheila Stewart giving the Hamish Henderson Lecture at the Carrying Stream Festival in 2010. She was also part of the 60th anniversary celebration of the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh in 2011, organised by Edinburgh Folk Club. Unfortunately, our invitation to Jean Redpath to give the lecture was to late. In 2012, Jean felt she could, for health reasons, not commit to attending the Carrying Stream Festival. It is a small consolation to have heard her sing at the 2011 festival. We dedicate this volume to the memory of these two fine tradition bearers, who bore testament to Ray Burnett’s dictum: ‘Wherever Scotland comes together in music and song, Henderson is there.’


      • List of Illustrations
      • Acknowledgements
      • Eberhard Bort: Anent Hamish Henderson – Introduction
I  Essays
(i) Reminiscences
      • Sheena Wellington: Hamish Henderson – Inspiration
      • Dolina Maclennan: Hamish Henderson – Ma Big Pal
(ii) Poetry
      • Lesley Duncan: Charles Hamilton Sorley and Hamish Henderson – Two Voices from the Battlefield
      • John Lucas: No Gods and Precious Few Heroes
      • Richie McCaffery: ‘Mak siccar’ – A Reading and Critical Commentary of Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica
(iii) Folk-Song
      • Ewan McVicar: I Heard Scotland Singing
      • Alison McMorland & Geordie McIntyre: In Tune with the ‘Underground of Song’
      • Raymond Ross: Visions and Voices: The Flyting of Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid
      • Margaret Bennett: Hamish Henderson and Martyn Bennett – Conversations and Collaborations
(iv) Culture and Politics
      • Eberhard Bort: ‘The Shamrock and the Thistle’ – Hamish Henderson’s Ireland
      • Ray Burnett: Viva la Gillie More – Hamish Henderson, Gramsci and Subaltern Scotland
      • Eberhard Bort: Hamish and Madiba –Hamish Henderson, Nelson Mandela, and the Fight against Apartheid in South Africa
II Poems
      • Mario Relich: Interrogations
      • David Daiches: Alang wi’ Hamish
      • Donald Smith: Man and Boy
      • Donald Meek: Seumas MacEanraig
      • George Gunn: The Bones of Scotland
      • William Hershaw: Abhainn
      • Keith Armstrong: Stella of Rose Street The Divided Self
III Interviews
      • Geordie McIntyre: Risurgimento! – An Interview with Hamish Henderson
      • Andrew Means: Scottish Studies – A Melody Maker Interview with Hamish Henderson
      • Jennie Renton: ‘Opening Up the Lore of the Travelling People’ – A Textualities Interview with Hamish Henderson
      • Colin Nicholson: ‘For Our Own and the Others’ – Hamish Henderson
      • Archie Fisher: ‘Ceilidh is an Excellent Word’ – A Travelling Folk Interview with Hamish Henderson
      • Margaret Bennett: Howard Glasser and Hamish Henderson: Creative Collaboration and Kinship

Paddy Bort