Poet's archive captures sweep of history

Letters, manuscripts, and notebooks that offer unique insights into some of the 20th century’s major social and political upheavals have been acquired by the University.

The archive of documents belonging to the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson include first-hand accounts of events unfolding in 1930s Germany, the Second World War and Apartheid era South Africa.

Major cultural figure

Henderson, who died in 2002 aged 82, was one of Scotland’s most prominent cultural figures. He was a leading architect of the Scottish folksong renaissance and co-founder of the University’s School of Scottish Studies.

The archive includes unfinished and unpublished poems. There are also letters to and from major cultural figures such as American folk singer Pete Seeger, poet Norman MacCaig, and Scottish makar Edwin Morgan, and notebooks from his time serving in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War.

His private archive of more than 10,000 letters from almost 3400 correspondents, plus 136 notebooks and diaries, has been acquired by the University Library’s Special Collections from the Henderson family through the offices of the Hamish Henderson Archive Trust.

Campaigner against injustice

The material reflects his many interests, as a folksong collector, a cultural historian, a Scottish nationalist, and an international democratic socialist. A committed Europhile, he was also a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a campaigner against Apartheid and injustice in general.

From the late 1930’s there is information about Henderson’s attempts to help smuggle Jews out of Germany. In the cold war era there is correspondence with the American Embassy in London calling for clemency in the 1952 case of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were eventually executed for passing nuclear secrets to the Russians.

Henderson wrote the song “Men of Rivonia” in the 1960s in support of Nelson Mandela and the South African freedom fighters. The archive contains a letter of thanks from the ANC to Henderson. He met Mandela when the South African visited Glasgow in 1993 following his release.

Collector of Scottish songs and stories

Also included are many notebooks relating to Henderson’s fieldwork collecting old stories and songs during his time at the University’s School of Scottish Studies. There are many letters from people whom he recorded, which provide vital context to recent sound archive digitisation projects.

The Hamish Henderson archive is a fine research asset and connects very strongly with a number of other collections already held by the Library. It will enhance our existing strengths and help promote further development and funding of our holdings relating to Scottish Studies.

Dr. John ScallyDirector of Library and University Collections

It is expected that the Archive will be ready for consultation by researchers by the end of September 2013.

The University of Edinburgh gratefully acknowledges the help and assistance of the Hamish Henderson Archive Trust, the National Fund for Acquisitions, the Friends of the National Libraries and the Friends of Edinburgh University Library in acquiring the archive.

Related Links

Hamish Henderson Archive Trust

Celtic & Scottish Studies

University of Edinburgh Special Collections