BORNE ON THE CARRYING STREAM:  The Legacy of Hamish Henderson

Editor Eberhard Bort, University of Edinburgh ISBN 978-1-907676-01-7




La fuente y el arroyo de la canción añeja.
The fountain and the stream of the ancient song.
Federico García Lorca, ‘Balada de la Placeta’

November 1999. We did not know then that it would be the last Edinburgh Folk Festival. We knew it was Hamish Henderson’s eightieth birthday. And an illustrous crowd of musicians and singers paid homage to Hamish. A packed house at the Hub. Alison McMorland gave a breathtaking rendering of ‘The Flyting o Life and Daith’. Towards the end of a memorable night, ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ rang out, led by Hamish himself. Coming down from the stage, he stopped at his seat to pick up his trademark hat, donned it and—while the red sea of the audience parted in a standing ovation—made straight for the bar. A gallus moment.

A few hours earlier, David Francis, the director of the Edinburgh Folk Festival, had dispatched me to collect Hamish from his home on the southside of the Meadows. Riding up to the Hub, we chatted about his favourite German poets—Hölderlin, Heine and Rilke—whose poems he had translated into English and who had a profound influence on his own poetry. The following afternoon the cream of Scottish poets and songwriters would come together for a ceilidh in Hamish’s honour, from Eddie Morgan to George Burns, Angus Calder, Joy Hendry, Nancy Nicolson and George Gunn.

The following year, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Hamish Henderson’s Collected Poems and Songs were launched. At long last, thanks to the editorial efforts of Raymond Ross, Hamish’s work was made more widely accessible. Hamish, a ‘fully paid up member of the oral tradition’, had been reluctant to commit his poems and songs to print, rather relying on the ‘democratic muse’, hoping that others might be inspired to help carrying them along into the tradition. The Collected Poems and Songs completed what could loosely be termed a trilogy: a selection of his letters in 1992 and of his critical writings in 1996, both edited by Alec Finlay.

When we learned of Hamish’s death in March 2002, the committee of Edinburgh Folk Club decided to organise a festival in his memory, to be held around his birthday in November. We have called it the Carrying Stream Festival, as this best reflects Hamish’s concept of folk culture. On the suggestion of our committee member Roddy Macdonald we also commissioned the artist Jan Miller to produce a papermaché bust of Hamish which was revealed at the first Festival, then found a home in Sandy Bell’s, Hamish’s inofficial office, before we loaned it to the National Museum where it now graces the ‘Scotland: A Changing Nation’ exhibition.

The Festival has, ever since, celebrated the rich legacy Hamish Henderson has left us with—be it as a collector of folk songs, ballads and stories, as one of Scotland’s finest songwriters, as translator from Gaelic, French, German, Latin and Greek, or as political activist. We thus honour and celebrate the father of the Scottish folk revival. Without him, who knows whether there would be an Edinburgh Folk Club? Every autumn we try to bring together singers, musicians, storytellers and poets, established names, tradition bearers of renown, and young talents, both from Scotland and—Hamish was a small ‘n’ nationalist and a big ‘I’ Internationalist—from other countries. Thanks are due to all my fellow committee members over the years since we embarked on the Carrying Stream venture: the late Iain MacLennan, Andy May, Roddy Macdonald, John Jessiman, Ian Hardie, David Ferrard, David Vivanco, Heather McKenzie and Allan McMillan.

Hamish’s trust in the carrying stream of the tradition is the inspiration behind the Festival, as it has inspired the folk revival for the past sixty years or so. No fear of contamination—let art forms cross-fertilise, have fusions, cross-overs, the well is there, ‘the fountain and the stream/ of the ancient song’. It was in that spirit that he endorsed the daring musical explorations—the ‘brave new music’—of Martyn Bennett. It was in that spirit that he entered into the flytings with Hugh MacDiarmid about the role of folk song and folk culture as ‘resources … of unrivalled beauty and power… resources hardly comprehended as yet, let alone tapped.’

At the Carrying Stream Festival 2009, celebrating what would have been Hamish’s ninetieth birthday, and the publication of Timothy Neat’s second and final volume of his groundbreaking biography, we organised a panel at the Storytelling Centre, under the auspices of its director, Donald Smith, to discuss the role of Hamish and his work in the twenty-first century. One very interesting remark stuck in my mind. Donald Smith observed that there seemed to be a divide between Hamish’s contemporaries, those who knew the man, those with an anecdote to tell that sums the man up, a tale from Sandy Bell’s, a reminiscence of encouragement, of time spent in his company—and, on the other hand, those who have come after or never met him in their lives. In the audience was a student from Edinburgh University, engaged in writing a PhD thesis on Hamish Henderson, and he remarked how little he could find in writing about his subject, but that nearly everyone he spoke to had a warm-hearted story to tell. Donald made the point that there seems to be an in-crowd, the initiated, those who speak with great fondness of their idol, and those who are slightly baffled, perhaps feel excluded because they lacked that key to unlock the Hamish phenomenon—divide, as it were, between those who always speak fondly of ‘Hamish’, and those who would use ‘Hamish Henderson’.

Hamish once gave the ‘Immortal Memory’ at an Edinburgh Folk Club Burns Night which, as Jean Bechhofer recalls, was in danger of becoming the never-ending memory, as it ran for a solid hour or so—that is the stuff legends are made of. Or take Angus Calder’s vivid reminiscence of Hamish presiding over a typical ‘impromptu colloquium’ on an afternoon in Sandy Bell’s.  ‘Everyone, it seems, has a memory of Hamish Henderson,’ Mark Wade observed:

For some, the image is of this gentle giant of a man holding out a microphone, collecting the songs, the poetry, the voices of a thriving folk culture. For others the picture is of a freedom fighter, a socialist whose songs popularised the heroic achievements of ordinary people. For still more, perhaps, it is a recollection of an inveterate performer, the poet of the public bar, for whom singing and reciting are as important as anything on the printed page.

In the words of Frank Bechhofer (who composed the graduation address when the University of Edinburgh conferred an honorary degree on Hamish): ‘It is fitting that a man so committed to the oral transmission of culture should himself have been so memorable a personality’, but what about those who never had the privilege to meet that ‘slightly shambling figure with the distinctive hat’?

Donald Smith’s observation rang a bell. At the Carrying Stream Festivals, we had noticed that those events branded explicitly as celebrations of Hamish drew a different audience than the more general folk nights trying to reflect Hamish’s broad church approach to the traditional arts. While the first have often resembled family gatherings, sometimes highly emotional affairs, the latter have been frequented by folk who perhaps did not care too much about the Hamish connection (and certainly the ‘in-crowd’ has tended to be selective and shown less interest in the latter). It is a gap that needs to be bridged. The Carrying Stream Festival itself, and also this volume, can hopefully play a part in this bridging exercise.

A constant of the Festivals has been the annual Hamish Henderson Memorial Lecture, supported by Edinburgh City Council, and the idea was, from the very beginning, to collect these and make them available in a publication. The inaugural lecture was given by Fred Freeman, followed since by Ted Cowan, Margaret Bennett, Timothy Neat, Geordie McIntyre, Ewan McVicar, Pino Mereu, Michael Russell MSP, and Sheila Stewart. Due to time constraints and other commitments, not all of them can be present in this volume, but six of the lectures are at the core of the following pages, complemented by commissioned pieces and revised versions of previously published essays.

The contributions range from friends and comrades of Hamish’s like Geordie McIntyre, George Gunn or Ewan McVicar, from his closest collaborator in the School of Scottish Studies, Margaret Bennett, from Sheila Stewart who first met the burgeoning folk collector in the berry fields of Blair, from his biographer Timothy Neat and his occasional publisher Joy Hendry, to Pino Mereu, Hamish’s friend from Rome (and organiser of the Hamish Henderson Folk Club in the Italian capital), the poets Tessa Ransford and Tom Hubbard, Rob Gibson MSP, the former co-organiser of the Highland Traditional Music Festival, the critic Mario Relich, the singers Steve Byrne and Brian McNeill—and that PhD student from the panel session at the Storytelling Centre, Corey Gibson. Some of them have never met Hamish Henderson—but that is he point: only if people who have not known Hamish personally can be persuaded to take an interest in his work, will his legacy matter for the present and the future.

There are three main parts to this book. The first section is dedicated to song-writing and song-collecting. Hamish Henderson wrote some songs which have entered he tradition, like the ‘Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers’ or ‘The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily’. The two songs he was most proud of were ‘The John MacLean March’ and ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’. Encountering the latter was a slow-burning but life-changing event for Brian McNeill, one of the founders of the Battlefield Band, as he recalls in his brief but affectionate memoir. ‘No Gods and Precious Few Heroes’, one of his most famous and powerful songs is clearly inspired by Hamish Henderson, using a line from the ‘First Elegy’ as its title. Geordie McIntyre, himself a respected collector and writer, approaches his subject wearing his singer’s hat, weaving in and out of Hamish’s songs and associating them with others, among them his own, which were inspired by them. ‘All songs are ghosts/ And long for a living voice’, he quotes the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly; for him, ‘Big Hamish was such a voice: of and for the people.’

Turning to Hamish’s role as collector, Ewan McVicar shares some of his research into children’s songs in Scotland with us, on which he has published an important book, and points out the sometimes under-rated role Hamish Henderson played in collecting children’s songs and rhymes, showing us some of the ‘small gems’ of Hamish’s harvest. ‘As early as 1946, Hamish Henderson was advocating the systematic collection and study of Scots folksong as part of a radical agenda for the democratisation of the Scottish literary renaissance.’ His role as a ghillie for Alan Lomax, recording the ‘primitive’ music of Scotland, made him the ideal recruit for the newly-founded School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where these recordings formed the corner-stones of an ever-growing archive.

In the late 1940s Hamish had helped Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl to set up ‘fringe shows’ during the newly-founded Edinburgh Festival at the Epworth Hall, mildly lampooned by Robert Garioch in ‘Embro to the Ploy’:

The Epworth Haa wi wunner did
behold a pipers’ bicker;
wi hadarid and hindarid
the air gat thick and thicker.
Cumha na Cloinne played on strings
torments a piper quicker
to get his dander up, by jings,
than thirty u.p. liquor, Hooch aye!
in Embro to the ploy.

It is Hamish’s claim to have been in at he start of what would become the Edinburgh Fringe. In the early 1950s, Hamish was involved in putting together the Edinburgh People’s Festivals, ‘In many ways,’ he would later state, ‘that programme of the ’52 People’s Festival is my finest work of art.’

Margaret Bennett, Scotland’s leading contemporary folklorist, well-kent not just this side of the Atlantic but also in North America, and particularly in Appalachia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, reflects on Hamish Henderson’s pivotal role in transatlantic folklore studies—all the more noteworthy, given the fact that Hamish never set foot on American or Canadian soil.

In 1953, Hamish had ‘discovered’ Jeannie Robertson, an ‘unknown tinker woman’ whom Alan Lomax would soon praise as the finest ballad singer in the world. Hamish himself thought of this ‘discovery’ as ‘the most important, single achievement’ of his life.14 It was the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship between him and the travelling community. Maurice Fleming recalls:

‘Go amongst the travellers,’ he told me, ‘and here are a few songs to ask for.’ He scribbled a quick list of titles. At the top was ‘The Berryfields o’ Blair’… The following week I wrote him: ‘You were right! The fields are full of songs. I have found nearly all the ones you asked for – and the woman who wrote ‘The Berryfields’.’

Before I knew it a tape recorder from Edinburgh arrived at my door and all else was forgotten as I filled tape after tape. Belle Stewart, the singer who wrote ‘The Berryfields’, and her talented family became great friends and their home in Rattray, over the river from Blair, was a collector’s dream house… Soon Hamish himself arrived in town and a hectic time was had by all. It was at sessions in and out of doors that summer that some of the best material held by the School of Scottish Studies was collected.

That was in the summer of 1954. Fleming would later reminisce: ‘When I invited Hamish to come to Blairgowrie, I had no idea that I was bringing him home.’ In more than one way—Hamish had been born here and had spent his early childhood here, but he should also find a home with the Stewart family. Sheila Stewart pays heartfelt homage to Hamish in this volume and has been invited to give the annual Hamish Henderson Memorial Lecture 2010. In the book about her mother, Belle Stewart, she wrote:

Hamish Henderson opened the door for us to come out of our seclusion and be accepted by society as having something to offer them, but only in the folk scene. My mother and father often said they thanked Hamish for doing this because at least some folk in the world accepted us for what we were.

George Gunn not only claims the bard—or, rather, the fili—for the Gunn clan and for Caithness, he also continues the story about Hamish among the travellers—his ‘discovery’ of the Stewarts of Remarstaig. George is a long-standing associate of Hamish’s. In an interview on his publisher’s website he says:

Through Joy [Hendry] I met Hamish Henderson who, probably more than any single person, has both inspired me and taught me so much about literature, politics and art. So it’s a continuing thread of experience and influence I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to – what Hamish called ‘the carrying stream’.18

Another connection to the north-east of Scotland connection is explored by Gary West, the Head of the School of Scottish Studies, and a fine piper to boot: Hamish Henderson’s kenspeckle use of pipe tunes from the North-East for some of his songs.

Tom Hubbard, peripatetic academic and poet, looks beyond Scotland, on the parallels between Hamish Henderson and Bela Bartók as collectors of their national folk song tradition. Like Bela Bartók, Pino Mereu remarked to Timothy Neat, Hamish believed that ‘folk music is like a human being–it changes minute by minute.’ Bartók ‘made the attempt of purifying Hungarian folk music, getting rid of additions and deformations, restoring the freshness and strength of the originals.’

Where Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodaly were researching the folk-music of Hungary, the Scots were contorting their musical heritage into the drawing-room ballads of Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser. It was Henderson and his colleagues from the School of Scottish Studies who, in the 1940s and afterwards, scraped the varnish off, and rediscovered a wealth of music which had remained stuck in the throats of fisherfolk, farm labourers, gypsies and travelling harvesters.

In the second section of the book we turn to Hamish the poet. As Paul Scott wrote in his review of Timothy Neat’s first volume of his Hamish biography, ‘He is largely ignored in the schools and universities and by writers of literary history and anthology editors.’ Indeed, Robert Crawford and Mike Imlah did not find space for any of his poems in their New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000). Worse, even an article that specifically addresses Rilke’s influence in the English-speaking world, and discusses the likes of C Day Lewis, W H Auden, Stephen Spender and Edith Sitwell, manages to completely ignore Hamish Henderson, and to add insult to shameful negligence for the Cambridge-educated Henderson, it appears in a book published by Cambridge University Press. The MacDiarmid industry seems to bear some grudge against Hamish Henderson, perhaps stemming from the flytings of the 1960s, or from personal animosities—or how is it to be explained that neither Alan Bold’s MacDiarmid—a 550pp-plus biography—nor Nancy Gish’s centenary volume on MacDiarmid ever mention Hamish?  Strange, if one reflects on the fact that Hamish was always championing Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry. Robert Crawford’s 830 pp history, Scotland’s Books, devotes a half page to Hamish, mentioning the Elegies but then focusing solely on his folk collector role.

We think now may be the time for a reassessment of Hamish Henderson’s poetry. Mario Relich and Tessa Ransford bring their own poetic sensitivities and perspectives to Hamish’s work, while Timothy Neat holds up the mirror to see how Hamish’s poetry is reflected in the work of his peers, nationally and internationally.

The strange neglect of Hamish’s poetry is particularly puzzling when it comes to his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica — which won him the coveted Somerset Maugham Prize. Although this sequence of poems about the desert war in North Africa make him, for Douglas Gifford, ‘the greatest Scottish World War Two poet,’ Nigel Alderman and C D Beaton’s Concise Companion to Post-war British and Irish Poetry (2009) seems to be too concise to have room for Hamish Henderson. And Hamish Whyte discusses George Campbell Hay and Sorley MacLean in his Modern Scottish Poetry (2004), but ignores the Elegies, despite claiming the 1940s as the key decade for Scottish poetry.

David Kennedy, by contrast, does give space to Hamish’s Elegies in his recent work and points out how he ‘prefigures the late-twentieth-century elegist’s refusal to submit to the ultimate end of the genre: detachment from the dead.’ He continues:

Henderson makes this explicit in the final elegy of his sequence when he writes of the dead that ‘their sleep’s our unrest, we lie bound in their inferno–/ this alliance must be vaunted and affirmed, lest they condemn us!’ The poet’s job is to ‘carry to the living/ blood, fire and red flambeaux of death’s proletariat.’

He seems to follow on from Edwin Morgan’s perceptive reading of the tenth elegy:

The tenth and last elegy (‘the Frontier’) makes clear that Henderson sees how his duty as an elegist must include something more than remembrance, there must be something more active, if the dead are to be appeased, more active even than Wilfred Owen’s warnings. The dead will hold us in contempt if we fail to change society, reform government, make freedom and justice efficacious.

Joy Hendry, in her introductory piece to a BBC radio broadcast she put together in 1990, the transcript of which is published here for the first time, brings together that astonishing array of Scottish World War Two poets, and we can only marvel at the unity of spirit and their ‘sympathetic imagination’ which is the hallmark not just of Hamish Henderson’s Elegies, but also of Sorley MacLean’s ‘Gaor na h-Èorpa/The Cry of Europe’ and the poems of Tom Scott, Robert Garioch, Ian Campbell Hay and Norman MacCaig. They all wrote from their immediate experience. By contrast, it took Edwin Morgan two decades before he could address his war experience in North Africa. But in his poem ‘North Africa’, he names his fellow war poets from Scotland.

The third section of this volume offers perspectives on Hamish Henderson’s politics and his role and influence as a political activist. As Eddie Morgan commented, based on his reading of the tenth elegy, it is not difficult to see ‘in passages like that… a carry-forward into Henderson’s later work with ballad and folk-song, his involvement with CND and protest politics, his exegesis of Gramsci.’ The war experience had a huge influence on Hamish Henderson’s thinking. It was ‘the most dramatic period of a life-long opposition to fascism and oppression,’ and it brought him in close contact with the Italian partisans. That story is movingly told by Hamish’s friend Pino Mereu from Rome. A direct result of Henderson’s friendship with the partisans was his interest in the Italian Communist thinker Antonio Gramsci which led to him becoming the first to translate Gramsci’s Prison Letters into English and thus to introduce him to the British Left.

It is all the more astonishing how many British books on Gramsci omit any mention of Henderson’s pioneering work. Neither Roger Simon’s Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (1990), which is introduced by Stuart Hall, who shared an Edinburgh platform with Hamish on Gramsci in 1987, nor Steve Jones’s Gramsci (2006), nor Anne Showstack Sassoon’s Gramsci and Contemporary Politics: Beyond Pessimism of the Intellect (2006), nor Nigel M Greaves’s Gramsci’s Marxism: Reclaiming a Philosophy of History and Politics (2010) make mention of Hamish Henderson. Yet, Greaves may have the key to explain Henderson’s keen interest in the Sardinian Marxist: ‘Gramsci seeks not to destroy the main tenets of Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism, but to humanise and reinvigorate them.’

As Corey Gibson shows, Hamish was drawn to the Prison Letters because he was particularly interested in Gramsci’s remarks about folk culture. Henderson was aware of the Janus-faced nature of folk culture, embedded in Gramsci’s ‘creative clash of contradictions’ —backward looking, reactionary, on the one hand, but also taking sides in the struggle for emancipation, freedom and equality: ‘Scottish folk-song is part of the submerged resistance movement which reacted against the tyranny of John Knox’s Kirk at a time when the Kirk was making a bid for absolute rule in Scotland.’ Marxists were quick to condemn folklore and folk song to the dustbin of history, and the Hugh MacDiarmid of the famous flytings in 1960 and 1964 is polemically representative of this. Others seem more ambiguous, some closer to Hamish. Walter Benjamin, for example, could express admiration for the power of folk tales—‘This story from ancient Egypt is still capable after thousands of years of arousing astonishment and thoughtfulness’ —but, in accordance with most of the Frankfurt School thinkers, he was also convinced that the art was firmly of the past:

Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant.

Familiar with German culture and history, Hamish was acutely aware of the abuses of folklore by the Nazis which built on the Romantic notion of the ‘Volk’. Critical of this Romantic concept of ‘the people’ as an ‘organically developed, homogeneous entity,’ the Austro-Marxist Ernst Fischer’s view is more differenciated: ‘In folk songs, the tradition of a far distant collective is often mixed with elements which come from the conflict between the “people” and the ruling class.’ For José Lemón, capitalist production was ‘eliminating the authentic voice and nature of folklore,’—it was no more than ‘a historical phenomenon associated with precapitalist modes of production, socially marginal sectors, or children.’

Hamish Henderson put more confidence in the vitality of folk traditions, rejecting the low opinion of folklore that characterised much thinking on the Left: ‘If we haven’t learned by now that folk-song has enormous resilience, and that after the late-night final there is always a final night edition, and so on into the dawn, we shall never learn.’ He emphasised ‘the possibilities of a political utilisation of folklore—the fostering of an alternative to official bourgeois culture, seeking out the positive and “progressive” aspects of folk culture,’ as explored by Italian folklorists in the wake of Gramsci.

And if Hamish’s claim that the folk revival was ‘Gramsci in action’ holds truth, this is, in a narrower sense, certainly the case for the inspiration Hamish’s use of folk songs and ballads for political action gave to some of the most poignant political campaigns of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, from his ‘Ballad of the Men of Knoydart’ and the campaign for land reform to ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’, dedicated to the Glasgow Peace Marchers in 1960. Rob Gibson dips into the rich tapestry of political activism in the Highlands, encouraged by, and in the spirit of, Seumas Mòr. And the use of political song, of satirical ditties and campaign chants continues. Alistair Hulett spent an entire Wee Folk Club night at the Royal Oak regaling us with songs, mostly grafted onto popular tunes, for the campaign to save the Glasgow Southside Baths; and David Ferrard and Roy Bailey introduced Edinburgh Folk Club audiences to the songs they had collectively written on the Peace March from Faslane to the Scottish Parliament.

Whether ‘old Labour’46 or ‘small c communist’,47 Hamish Henderson was a home ruler in the John MacLean tradition. He was a founder-member, frequent visitor and participant in the ‘Vigil for a Scottish Parliament’ which was maintained for 1997 days, from 1992 to 1997, at the foot of Calton Hill.48 And it would surely have pleased him to see the lines from ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’—Scotland’s ‘Internationale’—inscribed on the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament. Shortly after his death, the Parliament honoured Hamish Henderson with a debate, initiated by Cathy Peattie MSP.

‘His memory always we’ll revere/ For all he loved and held so dear,’ rhymed Bob Bertram—whom Hamish had hailed as an ‘excellent folk poet’ as early as 1964 — on the day of Hamish’s funeral. As Timothy Neat notes in this volume, ‘a stream of songs and poems’ were penned in the wake of Hamish’s demise: by Ian and Neil MacDonald, Elizabeth Stewart, Geordie McIntyre, Donald Smith and Donald Meek. His name and legacy is honoured by ‘Hands up for Trad’, Simon Thoumire’s brainchild, which hands out the annual Hamish Henderson award—hitherto, among others, to two founders of Edinburgh Folk Club: Ian Green and John Barrow. Busts of Hamish can be seen in Edinburgh Park, in the National Portrait Gallery, the Scottish Storytelling Centre and—our modest contribution, as already mentioned—in the National Museum. Apart from the Carrying Stream Festival in November, Colin Fox and comrades have revived the idea of the Edinburgh People’s Festival in August, complete with a Hamish Henderson lecture.

But there have been disappointments too. Neither Edinburgh University Library nor the National Library, nor the Mitchell in Glasgow showed an interest in Hamish’s library—which therefore had to be sold off. Donald Smith pays homage to a lifetime in books. And maybe there is something in it that books assembled over a lifetime then find new homes and new readers, as another aspect of the carrying stream. More worrying, and indeed shameful, has been the lack of interest in Hamish’s archive of papers and letters. A Hamish Henderson Trust has been formed recently, on the initiative of Steve Byrne, aiming at the preservation of the archive for the nation and at making it available for researchers. In his concluding chapter of this volume, Steve Byrne gives us a glimpse of the ‘kist of riches’ the archive at the School of Scottish Studies truly is, and the exhilarating story about its digitising which will help to secure and widen the legacy of Hamish Henderson, whose collecting in the early 1950s provided the foundation for it. One more reason to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the School in 2011 and Hamish Henderson’s massive contribution to it.

This volume does not set out to make extravagant claims. Hamish was no Scottish messiah. But he definitely deserves more than the one measly mention he gets in Rob Young’s Electric Eden, a 660-odd pages story of Britain’s folk music, a perplexing case of shallow digging and myopic Anglocentrism. Hamish was, and is, an important figure in contemporary Scottish, British and international cultural and political history. He is, Chris Dolan rapturously affirms:

our Woody Guthrie, our Alan Lomax and Studs Terkel, our William Blake (for writing what should be our national anthem, Freedom Come-All-Ye), and much more besides. Nationalist and internationalist, radical and lover of tradition, peacemongering soldier, family man with gay outbursts, academic and poet with the common touch: Henderson was a man of many parts…

A man of many parts indeed. He was ‘at once a practical realist and an emotional visionary, who thought with his heart.’ Or, in Dick Gaughan’s words, ‘a mass of contradictions’—which leads him to conclude:

Perhaps the only way to remember and understand Hamish is to embrace the apparent contradictions—poet and polemicist, Internationalist and Nationalist, warrior and pacifist, realist and romantic, traditionalist and modernist, brashness masking shyness, intellectual confidence hiding personal insecurities.57

Maybe it is just what you get when you cross the Democratic Intellect with the Democratic Muse? Anyway, ‘Hamish’s life is with us—his story, his poetry, his songs: the music he collected grows beside us as we grow. If you think about wars, emigration, racism, unemployment, socialism, nationalism—you will find everything in his poetry, in his songs, in the words he spoke. Hamish’s ideas are still fermenting in our consciences.’

Hamish—‘Gramsci in action’—overcame the pessimism of William Butler Yeats, who saw himself surrounded by ‘ghost voices’, standing at ‘a precipice which marks the imminent and seemingly irrevocable death of the folk tradition.’ He believed that the ‘ghostly voice’ was ‘still alive, still renewing itself in the carrying stream.’ While both Yeats and Henderson were folk collectors and adapters of folklore and writers of folk songs, they could not have been further apart in the political outlook. The aristocratic elitism of Yeats was something Henderson detected in his flyting partner Hugh MacDiarmid and, given his experience in Germany before the war and during his campaign in North Africa and through Italy, he never dilly-dallied with fascism, as both MacDiarmid and Yeats did. His credo was summed up in a letter during the apartheid protests: ‘Freedom is never, but never, a gift from above; it invariably has to be won anew by its own exercises.’

But one thing now connects Hamish Henderson with the Irish national poet. Yeats rests at Drumcliff Churchyard, ‘Under Bare Ben Bulben’. That mountain in County Sligo shares the same linguistic root as Gulabeinn, the ‘curlew’s mountain’ in Perthshire to the north-east of the Spittal of Glenshee (Glen of the Fairies) on which Hamish wanted his ashes to be scattered by his long-standing associates George Gunn, Angus Calder and Timothy Neat.

Geordie McIntyre’s ‘From Gulabeinn’, which was first published in the Carrying Stream Programme of 2009, has since been recorded61 and is, in Jim Gilchrist’s words, ‘a stirring evocation of the Perthshire hill which the late Hamish Henderson, patriarch of the Scottish folk revival, loved—and on which his ashes were scattered.’ Geordie was inspired by Timothy Neat’s description of this memorable mission, particularly the moment the ashes were released when, ‘through fissures in the rocks, plumes of white ash shot up all around us in the heather —as though a family of dragons had woken.’

From Gulabeinn (for Hamish Henderson, 1919-2002)

From Gulabeinn’s bell-heathered slopes
His dust was scattered to the sky
Particles of song unite
With trilling curlew cry.

This mystic hill ‘of youth and age’
Towers o’er the Fairy Glen
Banner-bright in May morn light
To welcome Hamish home.

From Glenshee to Sicily
A’ the airts the winds do blaw
‘Come gies a sang’ cried Seamus Mòr
Let the music flow.

A song to cheer a weary heart
Ane to drive away dull care
Tales of comradeship and hope
That we all can share.

Rabbi Burns and Thomas Paine
Gramsci, Lorca, John MacLean
Listen to their clarion call
Let peace and freedom reign.

All the sacrifices made
Do not let them be betrayed
Raise your voices, stand as one
Is the song—from Gulabeinn.

Is it not uncanny that at the foot of this hill, as Ossianic legend has it, Diarmuid and Gráinne found their last resting place?

Beneath thy grey stones, O Ben Gulbein,
The brown-haired chief is laid.
His blue eyes are sleeping forever
Under thy green grassy shade.

Timothy Neat’s biographical effort has been a milestone in the ongoing project to give Hamish his due and to show why his work still matters, why his life still inspires. This volume is but a modest further offering which will, we hope, underline Hamish’s contemporary relevance. It may be uneven, given the diversity of contributions, but we trust its kaleidoscopic range of angles and perspectives will find favour, both with readers already familiar with Hamish Henderson’s life and work, and with those who encounter him for the first time.

Thanks are due to Ian Spring for all the work he has done for this publication; thanks also to all our contributors—and apologies to all who could have contributed but were not asked this time or had to decline. Big thanks to Gonzalo Mazzei for coming to the rescue, ensuring that the book could be launched at Hamish’s 91st birthday—in the end it seems very appropriate that this book on Hamish should be published by a Perthshire press. This volume will by no means be the last word on Hamish’s legacy. The Carrying Stream Festival will, hopefully, continue, and also the Hamish Henderson Memorial Lectures. So, perhaps, in due time, another volume beckons.

Tomorrow, songs
Will flow free again, and new voices
Be borne on the carrying stream.

References: complete references in the book -BORNE ON THE CARRYING STREAM: The Legacy of Hamish Henderson Editor: Eberhard Bort, University of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-1-907676-01-7



  • Introduction Hamish Henderson: The Democratic Muse Eberhard Bort
Song-Writing and Song-Collecting
  • Champion of the Oral Tradition Brian McNeill
  • A Singer’s Perspective Geordie McIntyre Hamish Among the Travellers Sheila Stewart 
  • Wee Gallus Weans: Hamish Henderson as a Collector of Children’s Lore Ewan McVicar
  • Perthshire to Pennsylvania: The Influence of Hamish Henderson on Transatlantic Folklore Studies Margaret Bennett
  • A Fili from the Province of the Cat: Hamish Henderson and Caithness George Gunn
  • Hamish Henderson and the Piping Tradition of the North-East Gary West
  • Hamish Henderson and Béla Bartók: ‘Bridgeable Chasms’ Tom Hubbard
  • Apollyon’s Chasm: The Poetry of Hamish Henderson Mario Relich
  • Encompass the Crossed-Sword Blades: Hamish Henderson’s Poetry Tessa Ransford
  • Hamish Henderson: As the Poets Saw Him Timothy Neat
  • The Scottish Accent of the Mind— The Sympathetic Imagination: Scottish Poets of the Second World War Joy Hendry
  • Hamish Among the Partisans Pino Mereu
  • ‘Gramsci in Action’: Antonio Gramsci and Hamish Henderson’s Folk Revivalism Corey Gibson
  • Headful of Highland Songs: Journeying Hopefully Thanks to Seumas Mòr Rob Gibson
  • Libraries of Love and Passion: Hamish Henderson’s Library Donald Smith
  • Riches in the Kist: The Living Legacy of Hamish Henderson Steve Byrne