Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





Hamish Henderson 1919-2002

The 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 Mary’s 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.

Hamish’s 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.

His 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 didn’t think the traditional singers he was working with would like to be called ‘peasants’).

Numerous obituaries have lauded Hamish’s 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 Buchan’s 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 Hamish’s life was during the eighties when his constant companion was a mongrel dog named Sandy (named after Sandy Bell, the eponymous erstwhile proprietor of Hamish’s 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 attendance.

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 man.

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 Hamish’s 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.

Ian Spring

home | archive | contribute | subscribe | articles | reviews | letters | contact us

hosted by:

designed by:

supported by: