Hamish Henderson 1919-2002
death of Hamish Henderson, noted Scottish poet and folklorist and
the father of the Scottish Folk Revival, in March this year,
sparked a spontaneous show of national grief, with hundreds packing St
Marys Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh for the funeral, tributes
posted in every corner of the national media, and poems and songs recited
in his honour across Scotland and further afield.
Hamishs appeal was both national and international. He loved Scotland
and championed its culture and arts, but he opposed Fascism (he had encountered
Hitler in thirties Germany), fought with the Italian partisans when serving
as an army intelligence officer (he personally accepted the surrender
of the Italian troops from Marshal Graziani), championed the cause of
Nelson Mandela long before it was common or fashionable to do so, and
was the first to translate Gramsci into English. His award-winning war-time
collection of poems, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, remains
a classic of the genre.
dedication to internationalism typifies the stance of this international
journal Imperium and, as an example of this dedication, I include
a transcript of his best known song, The Freedom Come-All-Ye, often
called an international anthem (it was defeated by the abyssmal Flower
of Scotland in a poll for a new Scottish national anthem) below, with
some annotations for those not familiar with the Scots dialect.
Hamish was also committed to interdisciplinarity and, in his fifty-odd
years as an academic at the University of Edinburgh, did more than seemed
humanly possible to bring scholars from every discipline and every corner
of the world together. I well remember some years ago, when the University
had finally agreed to allow an honours degree to be offered by the School
of Scottish Studies, Hamish railing against the pedantic decision of the
Faculty to name it a degree in Scottish Ethnology, rather
than simply Scottish Studies or Scottish Folklore. (He also once refused
to write a piece for the Journal of Peasant Studies because he
didnt think the traditional singers he was working with would like
to be called peasants).
Numerous obituaries have lauded Hamishs qualities as a poet, a scholar
and a political activist. However, in the 25 years that I knew him, what
struck me most was his irreverence, unfailing good humour and refusal
to accept any hidebound orthodoxy. His favourite folksong collector was
not Gavin Greig or Francis James Child but the persevering Peter Buchan,
a northerner often snubbed by Scott or Kirkpatrick Sharpe and almost bankrupted
by his peers. Despite Buchans sometimes sycophantic Toryism, Hamish
had a great regard for his common touch and, when singing or reciting
a bit of bawdry would often state that Auld Peter, who collected
the ribald Secret Songs of Silence, would love it.
He championed the work of Buchan and also his namesake, the late David
Buchan, whilst still demonstrating that the latter's excellent work The
Ballad and the Folk was based on a substantial misconception. While
Spike Milligan and others lampooned William McGonagall, Hamish wrote an
article claiming his place in a northern Irish tradition of popular poetry.
His curiousity knew no bounds and he once researched a folksong found
as a few words scratched on a shard of pottery. He planned, but never
completed, a series of documentaries on individual songs similar to the
Song Histories of Robert Ford, another unrepresented collector.
A quixotic period in Hamishs life was during the eighties when his
constant companion was a mongrel dog named Sandy (named after Sandy Bell,
the eponymous erstwhile proprietor of Hamishs favourite bar). Hamish
was tremendously fond of Sandy who was an incorrigible rogue, effectively
debarring Hamish from his local Italian restaurant. Sandy would try to
escape from the crack in Sandy Bells to the nearby Meadows à
la recherche de l'amour, and Hamish would then inveigle myself or
another companion to try to hunt him down!
Hamish was irredeemably untidy. He used to keep a bundle of precious old
broadsheets and chapbooks in a pile beside used newspapers in his kitchen,
but in his office in what was, effectively, the attic of the School of
Scottish Studies, he would shuffle the piles of papers and reveal some
stunning manuscript or book or letters from around the world. An unlikely
mix of visitors would often meet and the conversation could range from
the films of Fritz Lang through Rabelais to the poems of C P Cavafy. Songs
would be sung in Scots, Italian or Gaelic, etc, according to those in
A healthy lust for life always typified his attitude. Once, during the
Edinburgh Festival, when, if memory serves me, he actually slipped on
a banana skin and broke his leg, I visited him in hospital to find him
far from despondent, regaling his visitors with story and song. However,
Hamish also had a great respect for death, exemplified in his fine poem
The Flyting of Life and Daith. In 1980, I met him in the Green
Hotel, Kinross when the death of his great collaborator in another flyting',
Hugh Macdiarmid, was announced. The last time I saw him, some weeks before
his death, I brought news of the death of the Glasgow poet, Freddy Anderson
and, despite his infirmity, I could sense him striving to recall some
whimsical memories of Freddy.
Once Hamish told me that he imagined that when it was his time to go,
the bells would ring out over Auld Reekie and his friends would drink
a dram to him at the bar in Sandy Bells. A great many Tomatins and Glenmorangies
were toppled throughout Edinburgh this March in memory of this inspirational
The Freedom Come-All-Ye
Roch the wind in the clear day's dawin
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie ow'r the bay,
But there's mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o' the warld the day.
It's a thocht that will gar oor rottans
A' they rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay
Tak the road, and seek ither loanins
For their ill ploys to sport and play.
And nae mair will the bonnie callants
Mairch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw,
Nor wee weans frae pit-heid and clachan
Mourn the ships sailin' doon the Broomielaw.
Broken faimlies in lands we've herriet,
Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair;
Black and white, ane til ither mairriet,
Mak the vile barracks o' their maisters bare.
So come 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 and painted room.
When MacLean meets wi's freens in Springburn
A' the rose and geans will turn tae bloom,
And a black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o' the burghers doon.
ll 1-2 A non-specific image of stormy weather, but especially familiar
as a view from Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth.
ll 3-4 The local becomes the universal, and the Great Glen
(specifically an area to the east of Fort William) becomes the world.
The metaphor of the wind is developed it is the wind of change.
ll 5-8 Rottans are rats. The change in society will flush them out.
ll 9-10 The callants are the young men sacrified to war.
ll 11-12 Children (across the world) from both Highlands and Lowlands
(the country and the city) lament as the ships take their fathers to war.
ll 13-14 The end of Scottish imperialism ie, Scots as the soldiers
of Empire as exemplified in another (martial) anthem to Scotland.
ll 15-16 The ecstatic image of races and cultures united destroys oppression.
ll 19-20 Food, drink and comfortable abode. The Scottish (Celtic)
tradition of hospitality but also a universal virtue.
ll 21-22 John MacLean, the leader of the Red Clydesiders at the beginning
of the twentieth century was a Scottish socialist hero. Here he symbolically
returns to his home in Glasgow (the subject of another of Hamishs
songs, The John MacLean March). Freedom then, figuratively, blooms.
ll 23-24 The burghers (small town officials) but also the oppressors and
opponents of freedom are, in this powerful epiphany, destroyed. The black
boy frae yont Nyanga could be seen as Nelson Mandela. However, the
power of the final trope is in its anonymity ie, freedom is not
the preserve of heroes or revolutionaries, but of anyone, anywhere. This
marvellous last line defies the common tradition of the Scottish anthem
and its deification of war-like heroes such as William Wallace and Robert
the Bruce. Scotland forsakes its colonial past and embraces freedom as
an international, rather than national, and universal virtue.