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Hamish Henderson

Hamish Henderson


Born: 1919 in Blairgowrie
Died: 2002 in Edinburgh
First Book: Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (John Lehmann, 1948)
Awards: Somerset Maugham Award in 1949 for Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica; voted Scot of the Year in 1983 by listeners of Radio Scotland.

James (Hamish) Scott Henderson was born on 11 November 1919 in Blairgowrie, exactly a year after the armistice that marked the end of the First World War. A poet, singer-songwriter, folklorist and cultural and political activist, he is generally acknowledged as the father of the Scottish folk revival.

He was brought up in Blairgowrie by his single mother, who introduced him to folk songs and brought him up speaking Gaelic. He often spoke of his Perthshire childhood, recalling how, at the age of five, he understood ???what the Clearances meant’ first-hand when he and his mother were evicted from their cottage because she could not afford to pay the rent.

He was educated at Blairgowrie High School before receiving a scholarship to Dulwich College, London, from where he went on to study modern languages at Cambridge University. While still a student, he travelled to Germany to act as a courier for the Society of Friends, a Quaker network, which helped refugees escape the Nazi regime. He fled Germany itself on 27 August 1939, only days before the outbreak of war.

During the war he worked in military intelligence in both Europe and North Africa, serving with the 51st Highland Division. Later, he worked covertly with the Italian partisans. Intelligence reports that he gathered prior to the invasion of Sicily in June 1943 were crucial to the success of the Allied invasion into Italy, and on 29 April 1945 he was present when Marshall Graziani, the war minister in Mussolini’s last government, drew up the Italian surrender order, the first major surrender of an Axis army in the West.

The experiences of the Second World War inspired his poetry sequence Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, which received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1947. A lifelong socialist, he used the prize money to travel to Italy to work on his translation of the Prison Letters of Antonio Gramsci, the philosopher and founder of the Italian Communist Party. Due to the perceived sensitivity of the work, publication was delayed until 1974, when the translation first appeared in two special editions of the New Edinburgh Review, and was subsequently published in book form in 1988.

In 1951 he accompanied the American folklorist Alan Lomax on a ???collecting tour’ of Scotland, which marked a new era of public interest in Scottish folk material and tradition. Henderson went on to become a collector, and later a permanent member of staff of the newly founded School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Throughout his life Henderson lived for long periods at a time with the travelling people of Scotland, collecting songs, classical ballads and stories which had been passed down in their strong oral tradition. The work conducted in this area is often regarded as his greatest achievement.

The singer-songwriter, often referred to fondly as ???Comrade Captain’ by his friend Sorley MacLean, was also a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Anti-apartheid Movement. His song, ???The Men of Rivonia (Free Mandela)’, written to a Spanish Republican tune, was sung on Robben Island during Mandela’s imprisonment there.

Working closely with teachers such as Morris Blythman and Norman Buchan, he helped inspire a new generation of singers, including the likes of Jean Redpath, Jimmie MacGregor and Josh McCrae, and other revivalist singers, such as Dick Gaughan. At the School of Scottish Studies he granted access to many of the university’s materials to any enthusiast who approached him, even if they were not matriculated students.

He was a stalwart of the Traditional Music and Song Association, and acted as its president until 1983. In that same year he turned down an OBE in protest of the Thatcher government’s nuclear-arms policy and was subsequently voted Scot of the Year by listeners of Radio Scotland.

He died in Edinburgh on 8 March 2002 aged eighty-two, survived by his wife Kätzel and their two daughters, Janet and Christine.

Picture by Gordon Wright

Related books

Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica
Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica
£9.99