At Hame Wi’ Freedom Essays on Hamish Henderson and the Scottish Folk Revival

Eberhard Bort
University of Edinburgh
ISBN: 978-1-907676-17-8 (PBK)

‘At Hame Wi’ Freedom’: The Politics of Hamish Henderson


This publication marks the tenth anniversary of Hamish Henderson’s death in 2002. It is the third book of a loose trilogy which began with Borne on the Carrying Stream (Grace Note, 2010), followed by ‘Tis Sixty Years Since (Grace Note, 2011) – all revolving around the life and legacy of Hamish Henderson and the Scottish Folk Revival he did so much to inspire and sustain.

At Hame wi’ Freedom focuses on Hamish Henderson’s involvement in the revival, his association with Perthshire and the North-East, and the emergence of his poetic voice. But at the core of this volume are two pieces inspired by Hamish Henderson: Pino Mereu’s poetic evocation of the Anzio (Beachhead) Pipe Band and Owen Dudley Edwards’ Hamish Henderson Memorial Lecture of 2011.

Borne on the Carrying Stream was built around a handful of the Hamish Henderson Memorial Lectures given annually at Edinburgh Folk Club’s Carrying Stream Festival and tried to assess the legacy of the great folklorist, poet, songwriter and political activist for the twenty-first century; the second book had as its focus the sixtieth anniversaries of both the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh, organised and compered by Hamish, and the foundation of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University in 1951 – Hamish’s academic home for the rest of his life. It gave Hamish’s own account of the Festival Ceilidhs as well as Ewan McVicar’s research into the recordings Alan Lomax made of the 1951 – released in 2006 as an album by Rounder Records (Rounder CD 1786).

The People’s Festival Ceilidhs were a major catalyst for the burgeoning Folk Revival in Scotland. The anniversary celebrations in 2011 were, to say the least, a memorable occasion (see the photographs of Allan McMillan at the end of this introduction to get an impression). Back at Oddfellows’ Hall, the original venue of the 1951 shindig, now Malone’s Irish bar, a fine crowd gathered on 9 November 2011 to join with a host of musicians in the celebrations, and at the Pleasance Theatre a veritable who’s who of Scotland’s traditional music scene, all connected with the School of Scottish Studies and the Royal Conservatoire, gave a breath-taking performance of over three hours. Phil Cunningham provided, in his inimitably genial way, musical guidance for both evenings; Ewan McVicar and Adam McNaughtan excelled as witty and knowledgeable comperes for the two anniversary nights. In the footsteps of John Burgess, piper Donald Mackay opened proceedings with a birl on the Highland Pipes.

These were events that knew no generational or linguistic barriers. There were tradition bearers in Scots and Gaelic like Sheila Stewart, Jock Duncan, Margaret Bennett, Rod Paterson, Gordeanna McCulloch, Talitha MacKenzie, Margaret Callan and Jean Redpath, younger singers like Lucy Pringle, Chris Wright, Steve Byrne and Scott Gardiner, musicians like Patsy Seddon, Gary West, Josh Dickson and Barnaby Brown – and Phil Cunningham brought along a hugely talented bunch of musicians and singers from the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow to round things off with a flourish.

A particularly thrilling pleasure was the presence of Flora MacNeil at Oddfellows’ Hall, where she famously sang in the 1951 Ceilidh. Sharing the stage, sixty years on, with her daughter Maggie MacInnes, was a highlight of the celebrations. Hayden Murphy’s remarks about the two, penned on the occasion of their 1984 Edinburgh Folk Festival appearance, could easily have been written about this performance:

They sang and played beautifully. As Flora MacNeil commented: “When people did not have instruments they sang – forth.” Her daughter played the harp and the music fused in duet by these two is both a treat and a formidable weapon. It was lovely.

Edinburgh Folk Club on its own could not have managed to organise these events – they were very much the collaborative result of EFC and the School of Scottish Studies – in particular Cathlin Macauley and Gary West – and the Royal Conservatoire – first and foremost Talitha MacKenzie and Phil Cunningham. It was very nice that the anniversary celebrations were noted in the Scottish Parliament, thanks to Rob Gibson MSP, who lodged a Motion on Hamish’s birthday which received cross-party support:

Motion S4M-01322: Rob Gibson, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 11/11/2011

The Parliament applauds the 10th Carrying Stream Festival, held in Edinburgh from 9 to 16 November 2011; notes that the festival was formed to celebrate the life and legacy of Hamish Henderson, the renowned folklorist who died in 2002; especially praises what it considers the organisers’ outstanding success in mounting a 60th anniversary concert in the original venue that saw the first People’s Festival Ceilidh in 1951, which presented traditional Gaelic and Scots singing and piping to an enthralled urban audience; welcomes that, 60 years on, on 10 November 2011 the knowledgable audience was treated to what it considers unforgettable performances from a few surviving singers; notes that the festival also displayed today’s crop of young singers and players, many of whom are studying for degrees in traditional music at the Conservatoire in Glasgow, which it considers a modern symbol of the popularity and strength of traditional music in Scottish culture today, and considers that Scottish roots music, first brought to urban audiences by Hamish Henderson in the People’s Festival Ceilidh in 1951, today fills the largest halls in the land.

Supported by: Margaret Burgess, John Finnie, Bill Kidd, Richard Lyle, Joan McAlpine, Kenneth Gibson, Angus MacDonald, Kevin Stewart, Linda Fabiani, Jim Eadie, Mike MacKenzie, Mary Scanlon, Maureen Watt, Patricia Ferguson, David Torrance, Humza Yousaf, Jean Urquhart, Nigel Don, James Dornan, Annabelle Ewing, Jamie Hepburn, Colin Beattie, Stuart McMillan, Gil Paterson, Stewart Maxwell.

Last year’s Hamish Henderson Lecture was delivered, in his trademark bravura style, by Edinburgh’s most famous living Irishman, Owen Dudley Edwards, musically supported by his wife Bonnie. It attracted a packed and spellbound audience at the City Chambers. As published in this volume, it does not only record Owen’s longstanding acquaintance with Hamish Henderson – he knew him so well, he says, that they were not on speaking terms for sixteen years – but, more importantly, the role Hamish played in the publication of The Red Paper on Scotland and The People’s Past – and particularly in introducing Gordon Brown to the thinking of Antonio Gramsci and persuading at least parts of the Labour party that small ‘n’ nationalism is compatible with democratic socialism and a distinctly international outlook.

Having thus paid homage to Hamish, Owen embarks on a trenchant discussion of the history and nature of sectarian singing. This, too, is relevant in any discussion of Hamish Henderson – he had a healthy aversion to any form of bigotry and sectarianism, as can be seen in his letters protesting against triumphalist Orange marches and those exposing Catholic nationalist bigotry. His work in Belfast in the late 1940s had been most instructive.

The final chapter attempts to follow up on Hamish’s political activities, his interventions and the evolution of his political outlook, from his pre-War Cambridge communism to the nationalism of the National Covenant, the CND marches and anti-apartheid campaign, his involvement in the short-lived Scottish Labour Party, his turning down that OBE from the Thatcher government, the anti-Poll Tax protests, and his unwavering commitment to Home Rule for Scotland.

At the Carrying Stream Festival in 2008, Pino Mereu, the organiser of the Hamish Henderson Folk Club in Rome, gave a moving Lecture on Hamish among the Italian partisans. Earlier this year, he published a sequence of poems on the Anzio Pipe Band. His twin inspirations were Hamish’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948) and The Final Cut (1983) by Pink Floyd. Like Pino, Roger Waters (who wrote all the songs for The Final Cut) lost his father at the six-month battle of Anzio. To lift morale in what had become a “killing zone,” Hamish did not only write songs for the English and Scottish battalions under siege, he also formed what became known as the Beachhead Pipe Band, touring the Anzio battlefield and visiting field hospitals. The Pipe Band took part in the Allied advance on Rome, playing its part in the celebrations:

Hamish informed the Scottish brigade commanders that the entry into Rome must not be a purely American triumph. He insisted that the Beachhead Pipe Band should play a major role in the celebrations and that it could put an indelibly Scottish signature on the Liberation – like nothing else.

Or, as Hamish expressed it in ‘The Roads to Rome’:

But noo ye’ll hear the pipers play
Afore St Peter’s Dome
And Scotland tells the world today
That oor road led to Rome.

The reception by the Italians was enthusiastic and, on Hamish’s suggestion, a radio broadcast was made and ‘via Movietone News … the sound of the Pipe Band – conceived in blood on the Anzio Beachhead – went round the world.’

Pino’s poems are intensely evocative of the Anzio experience; they are personal reflections on the battle, the fallen and the survivors, about loss, memory and history, and they take us right into the battle zone and the carnage of Anzio itself. We invited the renowned Scots poet and translator Tom Hubbard to ‘transcreate’ the poems into Scots and, together with a slightly more prosaic English translation (for those of us with neither Italian nor Scots), we present them at the heart of this volume.

Maurice Fleming who, urged on by Hamish Henderson, had in the 1950s become a ‘scout’ for the School of Scottish Studies, tracking down singers and storytellers in Perthshire, particularly among the Travellers in berryfields of Blair, shares some choice reminiscences with us of the early and formative years of Hamish in Blairgowrie. We follow that chapter with the famous song Maurice ‘discovered’ for Hamish, Belle Stewart’s ‘The Berryfields o Blair’.

In the 1960s, Hamish had a triumphant return to Blairgowrie, when the newly-formed Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland (TMSA) organised the pioneering Blairgowrie Folk Festivals. Jim Bainbridge, melodeon player extraordinaire, was there, and – although those were the 1960s – he does remember the second and third of the festivals which he attended and played at.

Ewan McVivar gives us a glimpse at the Scottish Folk Revival at work, in the correspondence between Hamish and Arthur Argo who, fifty years ago, founded the Aberdeen Folk Club. Arthur Argo (1935-1981) was the great-grandson of folk collector Gavin Greig and a tireless promoter of the folk revival, collecting and recording with Hamish Henderson in the north-east, working for the BBC as radio producer, and publishing Chapbook, the leading magazine of the Revival.

Alison McMorland provides some background to her labour of love, editing the life-story of Elizabeth Stewart of the Fetterangus Stewarts. Again, Hamish Henderson’s encouragement is duly noted, but also his respect for the travelling people and their vital contribution to keep traditional Scottish oral culture alive – as is evident in Elizabeth Stewart’s remarkable repertoire of songs and stories.

Fred Freeman gave the very first Hamish Henderson Memorial Lecture at the inaugural Carrying Stream Festival in November 2002. Here, he discussed the emergence of Hamish’s poetic and song-writing voice, focusing on his ‘unhomogeneous’ use of languages and registers. George Gunn uses Hamish as his reference point for a meditation on the positioning of poetry and the poet in contemporary society. Hayden Murphy, himself a noted Irish poet and, between 1967 and 1978, the editor, publisher and distributor of Broadsheet, recalls his association with Hamish as a fellow Festival goer, and also how some of his poems found their way into Broadsheet.

Since his death in 2002, Hamish Henderson has been honoured in many ways: festivals, memorials, Tim Neat’s two-volume biography, books, lectures and awards in his name. The Scottish Parliament had a debate on 27 March 2002, based on a Motion by Cathie Peattie MSP, where MSPs across the parties paid their respects.

When the parliament opened, a quotation from ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ was chiselled into a slab of Corennie Granite from Aberdeenshire on the Canongate Wall:

So, cam’ all ye at hame wi’ freedom

Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom
In your hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam

 Can find breid, barley bree an’ painted room.

He would have liked that. And maybe the Parliament finds a way of commemorating him inside the building as well in future times? But the best way of commemorating him is to engage with his work. The future of Hamish’s letters and papers is key to that.

The signs are very promising that, ten years after Hamish Henderson’s death, the negotiations about his archive are nearing a satisfactory conclusion. Having that archive in the public domain, eventually, properly curated and made available for research purposes will open a new chapter for Scottish folklore studies and help to secure Hamish Henderson’s legacy for future generations. Steve Byrne and Chris Wright of the Hamish Henderson Trust are to be congratulated for cataloguing and temporarily archiving the collection from July 2011 to March 2012. Making Hamish’s papers and letters – more than 10,000 of them – more widely accessible while many of his friends and colleagues are still active in public life – people ideally placed to conduct research and promote his legacy – will undoubtedly help to keep the life and work of Hamish Henderson in the public consciousness now and in the future.

The trust plans to complement the inventory of Hamish’s correspondence with a similar catalogue of his manuscript items, which include poems and songs as yet unpublished. Then there are his many notebooks and diaries, which contain an array of information on all aspects of his career. The thousands of other items, including newspaper clippings and articles, photographs and other papers must also be properly recorded and detailed.

There is plenty of work waiting for curators and researchers interested in Hamish Henderson’s life and legacy.

The then Education and Culture Deputy Minister, Elaine Murray MSP, closed the Parliament’s debate in 2002 with the following words:

Hamish Henderson supported many causes, including nuclear disarmament, the anti-apartheid movement, international socialism, home rule and, possibly, independence for Scotland.

Hamish Henderson’s work will help us to appreciate the value of our living tradition. To appreciate and value our Scottish culture and traditional arts would perhaps be the greatest memorial to Hamish Henderson that we could create. In celebrating our culture and in celebrating Scotland, we celebrate him; in celebrating him, we celebrate our culture.

If this book can play its humble part in doing just that, it has served its purpose. I am again deeply grateful to Gonzalo Mazzei of Grace Note Publications for is immeasurable input and enthusiasm. I can only hope it gives him as much pleasure as me that these books on Hamish Henderson and the Scottish Folk Revival are published in Perthshire, the place that, as Maurice Fleming reminds us, made the man.


The Chapter

At Hame Wi’ Freedom’: The Politics of Hamish Henderson

Eberhard Bort

So came all ye at hame wi’ Freedom
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom.

Tom Nairn felt very sorry that Hamish Henderson could not see the Meadows in Edinburgh teeming with protesters in July 2005, when a huge number of people gathered there to ‘Make Poverty History’. Surely, he would have been on the march for independence which led from the Meadows to Princes Street Gardens, on 29 September 2012. Or would he? It is of course a hypothetical question – more than ten years after his death in 2002. But an intriguing one. After all, he died as a card-carrying member not of the SNP, nor the Scottish Socialist Party, but of Scottish Labour, which he had – ‘perhaps surprisingly for some’, as Steve Byrne put it – joined around the time of the 1997 General Election victory.

How does that square with all those claims about Henderson being a ‘republican socialist’ and ‘the most dangerous left-wing nationalist in Scottish politics’? Did he change his views? Perhaps mellow in old age?

Putting Gramsci into Practice

Before the war, when studying French and German at Cambridge, Hamish Henderson became a communist, influenced by Cambridge Marxists E P Thompson and Raymond Williams, but his communism was coloured by his Episcopaleanism and a very strong cultural nationalism. He began championing Hugh MacDiarmid’s and Sorley MacLean’s poetry. In Germany, in 1939, he came face to face with ‘the Nazi cult of Hitler.’ He helped a network set up by a Quaker organisation wich helped Jews to escape Nazi Germany. When the war came, he enlisted to fight against fascism.

The war in the African desert inspired his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948), but it was the camaraderie among the soldiers which sharpened his sense of community. In Italy, fighting side by side with the partisans, he was introduced to the work of Antonio Gramsci, ‘probably the most original communist thinker of the 20th century in Western Europe’, according to the late Eric Hobsbawm:

Hamish was the first translator of Gramsci’s prison works into English but in many ways he was also the first to put Gramsci’s prison writings into practice. Gramsci’s philosophy fitted very well with Hamish’s own developing views of a more humanistic socialism rooted deeply within and developing organically from Scottish/Celtic working class community and culture.

There is some confusion as to whether Henderson ever joined the Communist Party – although he regularly worked with Communists and in Communist-led organisations, for example as secretary to the Scottish USSR Friendship Society, as well as with Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean. He also wrote regularly for the Daily Worker. While Bill Scott maintains that Hamish ‘never actually joined the Communist Party,’ Dick Gaughan claims that he ‘left the party over Hungary in ‘56.’ And Tim Neat wrote in 2002 that Hamish had been ‘ in turn a member of the Communist party, the Labour party and the Scottish Labour party.’ Maybe Angus Calder got it right by describing as ‘small c communism’ what provided Hamish ‘with his perspective on human life.’ Alex Wood came to the conclusion that Hamish ‘may in his youth have been a communist: he was never a Marxist.’

He was certainly not a Marxist theoretician. Corey Gibson has shown that his interest in Gramsci was deeply personal and affectionate – he felt an affinity between his Scots origin and Gramsci’s Sardinian roots, picking up on the similarities in the language situation, and the existence in the shadow of a much larger and more powerful neighbour – Sardinia being, in Chris Harvie’s words, ‘the Italian equivalent of the Highlands’. He was less interested in the political theory – Gramscian terms like ‘cultural hegemony’ or ‘traditional and organic intellectuals’ are, Gibson writes, ‘conspicuous in their absence.’ What Henderson found fascinating were the remarks Gramsci made about folk culture in the Prison Notebooks:

In Gramscian terms, ‘folklore’, as a world-view, is necessarily ‘subaltern’ rather than ‘hegemonic’; existing in opposition to “official’ conceptions of the world’ and offering a counterpoint of perpetual resistance, due to its very existence.

Henderson was aware of the Janus-faced nature of folk culture, as emphasised by Gramsci – forward- and backward-looking. For him, the burgeoning Scottish Folk Revival became a conscious translation into practice of Gramsci’s theories, a constant emphasis of ‘the possibilities of a political utilisation of folklore – the fostering of an alternative to official bourgeois culture, seeking out the positive “progressive” aspects of folk culture.’

Causes and Campaigns

Throughout his life, particularly after returning from the war, Hamish Henderson took up causes and engaged in political campaigns, from writing the ‘Ballad of the Men of Knoydart’ (1948) in support of the Highland crofters and radical land reform to the anti-Poll Tax protests of the late 1980s.

His stint in Belfast as a WEA (Workers Education Association) secretary in the late 1940s reinforced his anti-sectarianism; he was, as it were, inoculated against it – he had, as he wrote retrospectively in 1974 about his time in Northern Ireland, ‘assembled a fair-sized collection of sectarian publications originating on both sides of the religious divide.’ He also strove to bridge other divides – Highland and Lowland, urban and rural workers, Irish and Scots, as superbly demonstrated in his ‘John MacLean March’ (1948), written at the very beginning of his stay in Belfast for the twenty-fifth anniversary of MacLean’s death in Glasgow:

Hi, Neil whaur’s your hadarums, ye big Hielan teuchter?
Get your pipes, mate, an’ march at the heid o’ the clan.
Hullo Pat Malone, sure I knew you’d be here son:
The red and the green, lad, we’ll wear side by side.
Gorbals is his the day, and Glasgie belongs tae him:
Ay, great John MacLean’s comin’ hame tae the Clyde.

Hamish would speak out against triumphalist Orange marches and against Catholic bigotry.

Hamish attended the first meeting of the Scottish Convention in 1949. Despite his doubts about its efficiency, he gave its plans for the Scottish Covenant, a plebiscite for what he later called ‘an exceedingly moderate measure of Home Rule,’ his full backing. It achieved over a million signatures, but no concrete results. ‘The Labour Government of the day,’ Hamish wrote to Tribune in 1966, ‘had conveniently forgotten the pro-Home Rule opinions of Keir Hardie, James Maxton and other pioneers of the Labour movement.’ Tim Neat sums up Hamish’s political outlook in the early 1950s:

He wanted a Scottish Parliament and he wanted Scotland to take the lead in the international pursuit of world peace. He was a socialist with strong communist leanings but he saw socialism not as a form of party government but ‘the process’ by which Scotland would govern herself, look after her own, and pursue peace and wellbeing in the world.

He campaigned simultaneously against a planned rocket rage on Benbecula and for the release of the black singer Paul Robeson from prison in the US. In the late 1950s, the campaign for nuclear disarmament gained momentum, and Hamish was one of the first to join in by writing campaign songs. It came to a head when the British Government, in 1960, announced that a US submarine base would be established in the Holy Loch, north of Glasgow, where submarines with nuclear Polaris missiles were to be stationed. The protests produced what Morris Blythman called ‘the first real singing campaign ever undertaken in Scotland,’ culminating in the 1962 Folkways recording Ding Dong Dollar, full of agit-prop adaptations like

Oh ye cannae spend a dollar when ye’re deid

 No ye cannae spend a dollar when ye’re deid

 Singing, Ding Dong Dollar, everybody holler

 Ye cannae spend a dollar when ye’re deid.

Hamish Henderson did not only write the sleeve notes for the record, he also contributed its most lasting song: ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ (1960). Written in the spring of 1960 for its time – he dedicated it to ‘the Glasgow Peace marchers’ against nuclear weapons – it transcends it. Its imagery of the ‘roch’ winds of change, its rejection of military imperialism, of Scotland’s historical involvement in British imperial wars, and its anti-apartheid message envisage a future of peace, justice and equality, reminiscent of the final verse of Robert Burns’s ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That’. It is an anthem of Scottish internationalism, a song, in Duncan Glen’s words, that belongs ‘to all time and all people.’

Its final lines, ‘And a black boy frae yont Nyanga / Dings the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon,’ point towards Hamish’s next major campaign. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 had ‘brought the brutality of Apartheid to the consciousness of the world.’ In 1963, Nelson Mandela and nineteen fellow members of the African National Congress (ANC) were captured on ‘Rivonia’, a farm in South Africa were they had taken refuge. Impressed by Mandela’s speech from the dock, and outraged by Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island, Hamish responded with ‘Rivonia’ (1964)

They have sentenced the men of Rivonia
Rumbala rumbala rumba la
The comrades of Nelson Mandela
Rumbala rumbala rumba la

He is buried alive on an island
Free Mandela Free Mandela
He is buried alive on an island
Free Mandela Free Mandela.

Pete Seeger sang it, it was picked up by the black South African group Atté, and a version of it occupied the No.1 spot in the Tanzanian charts for five months. It was also smuggled into Mandela’s prison and, when Mandela eventually came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom of the City, twenty-nine years later, on 9 October 1993, he and Hamish sang ‘Rivonia’ from the balcony of the City Chambers. Hamish Henderson had never tired in his campaign against the Apartheid regime. In December 1969, when the South African Springboks stopped at Murrayfield on their Rugby Union tour, the Anti-Apartheid campaign demonstrated in solidarity with the ANC’s boycott policy, and Hamish not only denounced (in a letter to the Scotsman) ‘the tacit connivance of a Labour Government,’ but threw himself into the midst of what became known as ‘the battle of Murrayfield’. He was arrested when, after the ‘battle’, he went to the police headquarters in the High Street to protest against police brutality. In January 1970, he was fined £30 for ‘causing an obstruction outside Edinburgh City Police Station.’

Had the Second World War been fought to allow South African Apartheid to flourish, he asked, and defended international solidarity with the ANC against accusations that ‘militant’ demonstrations were counter-productive. He reminded those critics of the ill-conceived appeasement of the 1930s and, again in a letter to the Scotsman, came up with a beautiful phrase that would make a good epitaph:

Freedom is never, but never, a gift from above; it invariably has to be won anew by its own exercises.

Other campaigns in the early 1970s concerned demonstrations against the ‘milk-snatcher’ Margaret Thatcher’s education policy, support for the Upper Clyde shipbuilders, and forming the Edinburgh Chile Solidarity Committee after the CIA-engineered overthrow of the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973. In 1974, he demonstrated, side by side with John Smith and Gordon Brown, against admission charges to national galleries and museums.

Also in the early 1970s, Hamish Henderson intervened in the sexual liberation debate on behalf of ‘personal sexual happiness’. Himself bisexual, he did not like the word ’gay’, but castigated the ‘hoary misconceptions and prejudices relating to homosexuality’ and the ‘panic fear of homosexuality … endemic in puritan patrist societies. While that letter to the Scotsman had remained unpublished, a year later, in 1972, he reiterated ‘the self-evident truth that the homosexually oriented person has as undeniable a right to personal sexual happiness as anyone else.’ This time the paper carried his letter in which he declared the ‘dichotomy of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” … highly artificial,’ and noted, citing Marshall Luhan, that the world was rapidly changing, ‘and that these changes include a new tolerance for and interest in differentness.’ In December 1974, he supported an Edinburgh meeting of the International Gay Rights Congress.

1973/74 saw, at long last, the publication of The Prison Letters of Antonio Gramsci (in three consecutive issues of New Edinburgh Review). Hamish was, at that time, involved in the preparations for The Red Paper on Scotland, to be edited by Gordon Brown who was the Rector of Edinburgh University. Hamish’s influence on Brown, as Owen Dudley Edwards shows in his chapter in this volume, must not be underestimated – it shows, for example, in the phrase that he used in a letter to Hamish where he describes The Red Paper as ‘a speculative document, which attempts to correct the futile dichotomy between nationalism and internationalism.’ Eventually, Hamish was prevented by illness from contributing to The Red Paper, but he was involved in the next step that followed: when the break-away Scottish Labour Party was set up to advocate radical Home Rule in 1976, by the likes of Jim Sillars (since 1970 Labour MP for South Ayrshire), John Robertson (Labour MP for Paisley) and Alex Neil (Labour researcher) and John McAllion, Hamish joined that party at its inaugural meeting and became one of its activists, becoming the chair of the Edinburgh branch. David Ross told Tim Neat:

It was quite a branch, with the journalists Neal Ascherson and Rory Watson, the political philosopher Tom Nairn and Sorley MacLean all members. Hamish took the whole thing very seriously indeed.

It was short-lived. A row over the association of SLP members with the International Marxist Group led, despite the best efforts of Hamish Henderson, to the party’s disintegration. Jim Sillars joined the SNP, was elected an MP again, became deputy convener of the party (and is today one of the arch critics of Alex Salmond inside the SNP); John McAllion joined Labour (and would later become an MP for Dundee East and an MSP, before joining the Scottish Socialist Party in 2006), Alex Neil also joined the SNP, became an MSP in 1999 and is currently Health Secretary at Holyrood. Another SLP veteran, Colin Boyd, would later become Lord Advocate.

As the SLP faded into the void, the next battle was already looming. Maggie Thatcher ante portas. But it is surprising that The Armstrong Nose contains only one letter each for 1978 and 1979 – one about MacDiarmid’s plagiarism with the fine line that ‘Plagiarists of genius are the justified sinners of literature,’ and the other a letter to Hamish about an issue of Tocher. No mention at all of the 1979 referendum!

It was the disappointing outcome of the referendum which helped to topple the Callaghan government at Westminster and opened the doors of No.10 Downing Street to Margaret Thatcher. All Tory promises made by Ted Heath and Alec Douglas-Home about a more advantageous devolution deal for Scotland were reneged on, and the Thatcher government began to impose policies on Scotland, despite having only a minority of Scottish MPs.

In the wake of the Falklands War of 1982 – Hamish would later describe it as her ‘letting the genie of jingoism out of the bottle’ – Hamish Henderson was informed by Downing Street In December 1983 that he was offered an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the New Year Honours List. He tore up the letter and flushed it down the toilet, but also wrote back to Margaret Thatcher’s office that ‘in view of her suicidal defence policies’ he could not see his way to accepting this honour. In a statement to the media, he expanded his response, saying that he could not ‘be bought off by an honour offered by a British government advancing policies that I have spent my life opposing.’ A month later, the listeners of BBC Radio Scotland voted him ‘Scot of the Year’. And Brian McNeill celebrated the occasion by composing a Strathspey, ‘Hamish Henderson’s Refusal’. Imagine the horror, had he accepted the OBE in the very year the government would wage its war against the miners. All in all, a perfect vignette to illustrate the 1980s in Scotland.

Five years later, Hamish Henderson was involved in the anti-Poll Tax campaign. He called the tax ‘utterly immoral’ and ‘utterly stupid’ and vowed ‘to fight this one out to the bitter end.’ He backed the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament, singing ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ in front of 25,000 demonstrators in the Meadows in Edinburgh on 12 December 1992. He was a founder-member and active supporter of ‘Democracy for Scotland’ and their Vigil at the foot of Calton Hill.

After the resounding Yes-Vote in the referendum of 1997, the first elections for a Scottish Parliament in nearly 300 years were held in May 1999, Many thought that ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ would have made a great song to inaugurate the Parliament with – but Burns’s ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’ pipped it to the post. Hamish watched the official opening of the Parliament on 1 July 1999 on television, having not been invited among the great and famous to attend in person. But he enjoyed Sheena Wellington’s singing of Burns.

Now that the Parliament was safely established, the Vigil, having lasted 1979 days, was ended, and a ceremony was held on Calton Hill on St Andrews Day 1999 to mark the occasion. Hamish attended and, after the singing of ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’, he addressed the congregation:

Freedom. A few years back it seemed a puff of wind would blow all this out. But today, it is not a question of why but when. I will not live to see it – but I wish you all the very best.

Scotland’s Voice

So, had he lived, would he have joined the Scotland Yes campaign? Would he have spoken at the rally in Princes Street Gardens, alongside Alex Salmond, Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan? Surely, he would throw his considerable weight behind the independence campaign? Was that not his life’s ambition? Well, it is more than likely.

John McAllion would have no doubt, going by his contribution to the Scottish Parliament debate on Hamish Henderson in 2002:

He struggled for home rule all his life, not as an end in itself, but as a means to his goal of ultimate independence for Scotland, which he always wanted to see.

And Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialist Party introduced the subject of his Hamish Henderson lecture at the 2012 People’s Festival (in itself a homage to Hamish) as ‘a socialist, an internationalist, and advocate for independence and a modern Scottish republic.’

For many, ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ seems to urge: Go for independence, be ‘at hame wi’ freedom, / Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom.’

We certainly have had a few hoodies croaking fer [sic] doom recently and blatantly using the media – including the ‘impartial’ BBC – to spread their propaganda. As I remember the old Scots, a ‘hoodie’ was someone who was likened to a hoodie craw which was considered to be selfish, opportunistic and unreliable. (One who would raid his neighbour’s nest when he was from home.) So Hamish tells us that our attempts to establish our independence will come under verbal attack from the hoodies in our community, and he was not wrong there.

As nuclear disarmament was a constant concern of Hamish Henderson, Andy Anderson certainly has a point in stressing that aspect of the song – after all it was written for that cause in the first place:

Because it is now clear and indisputable that a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum will kill off the weapons of mass murder stored under the mountains between beautiful Loch Lomond and Loch Long, as far as Scotland is concerned. It is now also clear that what is left of ‘Britain’ after Scotland leaves will be most unlikely to be able to retain a nuclear weapon of mass destruction and to find a “suitable” home for it.

This could finally bring the political class in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, to a realisation that their imperialistic dreams are over and that ‘Great Britain’ is no longer a ‘leading power’ in the modern world needing to show its muscle all over the globe to keep the subjugated ‘subjects’ in order. Just as it kept Scots, Irish, Welsh and English subjects in order for so long.

This could bring nothing but good to all the people living in these islands and create a better and stronger basis for us to continue to work together as good reliable neighbours.

‘What of Hamish’s lasting political influence?’ asked Bill Scott:

Would we have a Scottish Parliament today without his efforts to revive Scottish folk culture? Well Angus Calder considered that and concluded, ‘… that without the regeneration of national consciousness marked by the folksong revival, the relaunch of the SNP as a serious political force in the 1960s would not have happened, and neither would Labour’s lagging re-conversion to home rule’.

But Henderson’s optimistic vision of the future is still to be realised. Scottish recruits still make up nearly one third of Britain’s frontline troops in Afghanistan. Weapons of mass destruction are still here (and not in Iraq). So when will this Scotland of our dreams come into being? Only when Henderson and MacLean’s vision of an independent, socialist Scotland comes into full bloom.

Indeed, many quotations can be summoned in support of that assumption. When Hamish Henderson still hoped the ‘lamentable breach’ in the SLP could be healed, he spoke, in 1976, of ’Scotland moving forward towards independence.’ A year later, in his letter to the ‘Muckle Toun’ of Langholm urging it to honour Hugh MacDiarmid – ‘all too long without honour in his own home town’ – he spoke of his expectation that 1977 would be ‘undoubtedly the year that Scotland will make a major step forward towards independence – the goal that Christopher Murray Grieve has devoted his life to help bring about.’

Yet, he was not always that clear. Often, his preferred term was Home Rule – something perhaps more akin to ‘Devo Max’. But the terms get frequently blurred as, for example, when he demanded at a CND rally in 1962: ‘Scotland must be in the United Nations. (…) We need a Scottish Voice. We need Home Rule!’ Now, Home Rule, according to usual parlance, would denote a high degree of autonomy, but not independence. And anything short of independence would not give Scotland a seat in the United Nations.

Often he spoke of ‘autonomy’ – as in 1968, when he expected that the response to the ‘Wilsonite fiasco’ would be an SNP victory in Scotland:

As soon as it gets a chance, the electorate will undoubtedly bid a ‘soldier’s farewell’ to the raddled rump of the Labour Party in Scotland, and entrust the SNP with the job of negotiating our necessary and long-overdue autonomy.

In 1983, the phrase was slightly changed to Scotland ‘taking its place as a self-respecting – and respected – nation, with a reasonable chance of managing its own affairs.’

And is ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ only about nuclear weapons in Scotland, is the ‘roch wind’ only blowing here – or rather ‘in the great glen o the warld the day’? And if it were so directly and solely about Scotland’s independence, why did Henderson himself describe it as an ‘anti-nationalist song’? David Stenhouse called it ‘Scotland’s Internationale’ – an internationalist, rather than a nationalist anthem.

Nationalism – Internationalism

Why this ambiguity? Henderson was a nationalist. But he was also a committed socialist and internationalist. A key to this internationalist nationalism of Henderson’s is his British Army background – not just a window on British imperialism, but the very experience of British solidarity in fighting the dark forces of fascism. Also, there was his proximity to the Communist Party of Britain – whose aspirations were British and international – and thus arch-unionist.

He was close to Lawrence Daly’s Fife Socialist League. Daly had written in 1962:

A Scottish Parliament could certainly contain a majority of Labour and radical members. There is every chance that it could not only revitalise Scotland’s economic and cultural life but that it might well set the pace for the progressive social transformation of the rest of Britain.

This British dimension is also present in Hamish’s friend Norman Buchan’s famous quote from Whither Scotland, a decade later:

The key argument is that if we remove all Scottish political control and influence over what all accept is a single economic entity in the United Kingdom, then we are left inevitably to be controlled by that total economy. Consequently, we would have less say than we have now over our own fate. Paradoxically, total separatism means less independence.

But the main reason for Henderson’s ambiguity about nationalism is his championing of linguistic and cultural diversity as the ‘best guarantee against … overbearing nationalist sentiments.’ Alec Finlay observed, ‘as cultural confidence has grown it has become more possible, necessary even, to acknowledge Scotland’s linguistic and cultural diversity, and champion this as strength rather than weakness.’ There was also, in the background, his awareness that ‘the anonymous ballad-makers … were operating in a zone which ignored national and political boundaries;’ and there was, most important of all, ‘his identification with that most dispossessed group of all, the travellers, who cannot be placed within conventional national borders.’

This ‘heterogeneous sense of nationalism’ he found shared in Federico Garcia Lorca, whom he quoted approvingly in a letter to the Scotsman in 1966:

I am a Spaniard through and through, and it would be impossible for me to live outside my own geographical frontiers: but I hate the Spaniard who is that and nothing else, and wants to be nothing else. I am the brother of all men, and I abhor the man who sacrifices himself for an abstract nationalistic idea, just because of a blindfolded love of his country. The good Chinese is nearer to me than the bad Spaniard. I sing Spain, and I feel it in my very marrow; but I am, above all, a citizen of the world, and a brother of all men. Therefore I do not believe in frontiers.

Over and over, Hamish Henderson attacked those with too narrow a focus on ‘Scottishness’, citing instead Antonio Gramsci, Bert Brecht, Karl Kraus and the Basque Miguel de Unamuno who were at times scathingly critical of their own countries, and yet ‘not the betrayers but the fulfillers of their respective national traditions.’ He rejected ‘McDiarmid’s separatism and anglophobia’.

A melancholy nursing of ancient grievances may have accompanied some folkish expressions of anti-imperialism, yet Henderson’s stance on the national question was not that of a kilted chauvinist standing at the bar and reciting ‘fee fi fo fum’ at witless English invaders.

Rejecting ‘the excesses of nationalism’ was part of ‘his endeavor to encourage a vision of national consciousness composed in terms of a diverse people rather than a homogeneous nation.’ In ‘To Hugh MacDiarmid’, Henderson confronts head-on his fellow poet’s ‘separatism and anglophobia’: ‘I don’ wanna step behin’ dat tartan curtain…’

Hamish Henderson never joined the SNP. As to the reasons for that, Jack Brand may have a clue to offer in his study on Scottish nationalism:

Whereas the early days of the SNP had seen literary figures like R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Compton Mackenzie in important positions, the small, defensive post-war SNP was in no sense an attractive environment for them. It seemed to outsiders like a tiny body of purists intent on navel gazing.

According to Tim Neat, Hamish was ‘briefly tempted to join the party’ after Winnie Ewing’s Hamilton by-election victory of 1967. But then the ‘1320 Club’ appeared on the scene, with Hugh MaDiarmid as a prominent member – an organisation which Henderson saw as the ‘self-elected Elect’ and a threat to the democratic nationalist cause:

I … am absolutely convinced that about the only thing that can now seriously hinder Scotland’s development into a self-respecting adult community in effective control of its own affairs is the big-headed presumption of the ‘self-elected Elect’. It is surely more than ever vital that the advance to Home Rule, so urgently needed, should not only be democratic but be seen to be democratic.

He commended the SNP on its good sense to put some distance between the party and this elitist, semi-secretive group.

But Hamish Henderson seems not to have been, to use a phrase of Robin Harper’s, as ‘gung-ho’ about independence as some of his ardent fans would like to believe. Or, maybe Hamish was ahead of his time, realising that Devolution, Home Rule and Independence were all part of a continuum of autonomy, and that in the interdependent late twentieth- or twenty-first centuries absolute independence was, even more than in previous eras, impossible. Or what are we to make of the SNP’s independence plans – keep the Queen, keep the pound, and keep Nato?

Democratic Intellect

So, let us go back to the question – would Hamish Henderson be out and about if he were still alive and campaign for a Yes vote in the Referendum? Let us indulge in some speculation – here is a scenario:

He would have, probably very publicly, torn up his Labour membership card when Tony Blair dragged Britain into the Iraq war in 2003; he would have joined the mass demonstrations, particularly the anti-war protest on 15 February of that year, which counted nearly 100,000 participants in Glasgow. Certainly, he would have been part of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005. He would have welcomed the SNP victories of 2007 and 2011. He would have shared a dram with the Occupy movement in St Andrew’s Square. And in 2012 he would have been one of the prominent figureheads of the Scotland Yes platform.

Or would he? Could he have tried to rally support for the Devo Max option – sensing, as a pragmatist, that a majority for further devolution was much more likely than one for outright independence? Or perhaps because Raymond Ross was right in characterising him as ‘an Old Labour man and a veteran Home Ruler’?

Was that perhaps the reason he did join the Labour party in 1997? Why not the SNP? Or Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party (like Angus Calder)? Did he feel that, under Donald Dewar, Labour had returned to the ideals of the ‘early Labour pioneers’ and Home Rulers John Maclean and Keir Hardie? Or did he think, back then, that the Labour party’s proposals were the best offer possible at the time? Anyway, he seems to have seen no contradiction between his membership in the Scottish Labour Party and his life-long commitment to Home Rule and, as many of his interventions hint at, to Scottish independence – or, as Jack Brand had it, ‘some form of independence for Scotland.’

One thing is clear: Hamish Henderson’s life was that of an activist. Professional, cultural and political activities are inseparably entwined in his life – from his earliest days as a young Communist and anti-fascist through the campaigns for land reform, for peace and nuclear disarmament, against apartheid, for gay rights, against Thatcherism and the Poll Tax, and for Scottish self-government. ‘Yet,’ as Alex Wood contends, ‘his political contributions were ultimately secondary to his cultural contributions.’ For Raymond Ross, 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 life’s work, his very motivation, could perhaps be best described by that telling phrase of George Elder Davie’s.

In the Scottish Parliament, Michael Russell also stressed the cultural and humanitarian side of Hamish:

Like all cultural nationalists – in the best sense of the term – Hamish Henderson was also an internationalist. The two stances are indivisible. They both arise from a curiosity about and identification with the question of our humanity and our relationships with one another.

We can be pretty certain that Hamish Henderson would have welcomed the Referendum – the freedom for all Scots to decide their constitutional future. And whichever way the Sots vote in 2014, they will exercise their right of self-determination. Hamish would, I suppose, have been ‘at hame’ with that freedom, whatever the outcome.

As Arnold Rattenbury commented, ‘Around such a figure myth and legend quite naturally swirled and, sometimes with his own help, stuck.’ Once it is fully catalogued and accessible, the Hamish Henderson Archive will surely offer further clues about Hamish’s politics.


        • Acknowledgements
        • Photos and Illustrations
        • Introduction Eberhard Bort
        • Hamish Henderson: The Early Years Maurice Fleming
        • ‘The Berryfields o’ Blair' Belle Stewart
        • ‘The Provost was a’ for it’: The Blairgowrie Festivals, 1967-1970 Jim Bainbridge
        • Dear Hamish … Yours Aye, Arthur Ewan McVicar
        • Challenge and Response: Elizabeth Stewart and the Fetterangus Stewarts Alison McMorland
        • The Anzio Pipe Band Pino Mereu and Tom Hubbard
        • A New Voice on the Carrying Stream Fred Freeman
        • Occupied Spaces: A Look at Modern Scottish Poetry George Gunn
        • Hamish Henderson and Broadsheet: Putting the Teeth in Context Hayden Murphy
        • Sectarian Songs Owen Dudley Edwards
        • ‘At Hame Wi’ Freedom’: The Politics of Hamish Henderson Eberhard Bort
        • Contributors