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About Hamish Henderson

Hamish Henderson (1919–2002) was a major poet, songwriter and political activist who has been acclaimed as the father of Scotland's post-war Folk Revival.

Born in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Henderson won a scholarship to Dulwich College and went on to read modern languages at Downing College, Cambridge. Visits to Nazi Germany in the late 1930s imbued him with a lifelong hatred of Fascism. During the Second World War, he served as an intelligence officer in North Africa and Italy, and on 2 May 1945, Henderson oversaw the formal surrender of Italy by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. His war experiences inspired his award-winning poetry collection Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948) and songs such as ‘The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily’. The war also instilled Henderson with a passion for song-collecting, the first fruit of which was the anthology Ballads of World War II (1947).

Immediately after the war, Henderson took on a number of teaching posts, including one at a German high school teachers' summer school in Bad Godesberg, and another working with German prisoners of war in Comrie, Perthshire. Between 1948 and 1949, he was also a district secretary for the Workers' Educational Association. In these years he began writing and publishing literary and political criticism, poetry and songs (in both Scots and English).

In 1951 Henderson was appointed a lecturer and research fellow at the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies. His work there as a song collector provided a major catalyst for the Scottish Folk Revival. His many writings, for both academic and non-academic audiences, displayed a keen and deep appreciation of internationalism, foreign literature and people's culture. In his promotion of folk culture, he also showed great relish for intellectual sparring. Particularly celebrated is his 'flyting' with the 'obdurately anti-folksong' Hugh MacDiarmid in the pages of The Scotsman in 1964.

Throughout Henderson’s life, he corresponded with many of the most prominent individuals of the day, including figures from the worlds of literature, politics, music, theatre, and academia. As a political activist, he played a major role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the anti-Apartheid struggle, and wrote extensively on land rights.

Among Henderson’s best-known songs are the internationalist anthem ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’, the pro-land-reform ‘Men of Knoydart’, and ‘Rivonia’, an impassioned plea to release Nelson Mandela. These are all now part of the folk tradition themselves. Major publications include Prison Letters of Antonio Gramsci (1974), Alias MacAlias: Writings on Songs, Folk and Literature (1992), and The Armstrong Nose: Selected Letters of Hamish Henderson (1996).

Further Reading

  • At Hame wi' Freedom: Essays on Hamish Henderson and the Scottish Folk Revival, ed. Eberhard Bort (Ochtertyre: Grace Note, 2012)
  • Bort, Eberhard, Borne on the Carrying Stream: The Legacy of Hamish Henderson (Ochtertyre: Grace Note, 2010)
  • Anent Hamish Henderson: Essays, Poems, Interviews, ed. Eberhard Bort and Tessa Ransford (Edinburgh: Grace Note Publications, 2015)
  • The Hamish Henderson Papers: A Commemorative Collection of Essays, ed. Steve Byrne (Edinburgh: Hamish Henderson Archive Trust, 2013)
  • Timothy Neat, Hamish Henderson: A Biography (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2007-2009)

Online Resources

Includes a biographical profile, a selection of poems, lists of biographical and critical resources, and links to publications by and about Hamish Henderson in the Scottish Poetry Library's online catalogue. The Scottish Poetry Library is open to everyone to use and free to join.