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Hamish Henderson

1919 - 2002


James (Hamish) Scott Henderson was born on 11 November, 1919, in Blairgowrie to a single mother who introduced him to folksong and brought him up to speak Gaelic. He was educated at Blairgowrie High School and Dulwich College, London, and studied modern languages at Cambridge. As a visiting student in Germany he acted as a courier for a Quaker network which helped refugees to escape the Nazi regime. He himself left Germany just before the outbreak of World War II. 

He served as an intelligence officer in Europe and North Africa. From the experience of war came his poem 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, though the work was not published for many years. It was a sensitive subject in Italy at the time and Henderson was asked to leave the country. 

In 1951 he accompanied the American folklorist Alan Lomax on a collecting tour in Scotland, the beginning of an upsurge of interest in Scottish folk material and tradition. Henderson became a collector, and later a permanent member of staff with the newly-founded School of Scottish Studies in the University of Edinburgh. His particular field of activity for some years was with the ‘tinkers’ or travellers who gathered from all over Scotland each summer for the berry-picking at Blairgowrie. Henderson said that collecting in ‘the berryfields of Blair’ was like sitting under Niagara Falls with a tin can. Perhaps his greatest achievement, among many, was his discovery of the singer and storyteller Jeannie Robertson, the heir to generations of tradition. 

Parallel to Henderson’s research ran his close involvement with the folk revival in Scotland, beginning with the Edinburgh People’s Festivals in the early 1950s. This ‘alternative’ event, organised by the Labour movement, was arguably a forerunner of the Fringe. Folk clubs sprang up and modern folk songs, often with a political message, became common currency, one of the most notable being Henderson’s ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’. 

Henderson held several honorary degrees and after his retirement became an honorary fellow of the School of Scottish Studies. In 1983 he refused an OBE in protest at the nuclear arms policy of the Thatcher government. He died in Edinburgh on 8 March 2002, survived by his wife Kätzel and their two daughters.


Because of the great importance of Hamish Henderson’s work in the field of folksong, it was perhaps easy to overlook his own poetry, and his Collected Poems and Songs did not reach publication till 2000. Nevertheless, several of his songs, such as ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ and ‘The John Maclean March’, are already classics, possibly sometimes sung as folksongs by people who do not realise they are Henderson’s own compositions. 

His war experiences gave rise to two very different volumes of poetry. Ballads of World War II (1947) contained both soldiers’ songs collected on war service and some of his own work, including ‘The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers’ and ‘The Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily’. The soldiers’ songs are given in a full unexpurgated version and the book was privately published to avoid trouble with the censor. 

In contrast, the poem sequence Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948) is outstanding in its serious, clear and compassionate view of war. Throughout, Henderson sees the German soldiers as his brothers, men like himself and his companions, caught up in a conflict they neither understand nor want. A letter of congratulation at this time told him ‘You are that rare man, a poet.’ Yet the writer added, ‘You must not forget that your songs and ballads are not trivialities – they are quite as important as the Elegies.’ 

This judgment was proved true over the next forty years, as Henderson’s songs commented on causes and injustices in Scotland and much farther afield. ‘The Ballad of the Men of Knoydart’ continued to have relevance until the very end of the twentieth century in the debate on ‘Who owns Scotland?’ His anti-apartheid anthem ‘Rivonia’, written in 1964, with its refrain ‘Free Mandela!’, was sung at demonstrations and, it is said, heard by Mandela himself while imprisoned on Robben Island. 

Greatest of all in this genre is ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’ (‘Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin’), speaking for social justice, inclusion and understanding throughout the world. It has often been suggested as a new Scottish national anthem, but Henderson was among those who demurred on the grounds that internationalism, not nationalism, is its theme. 

In ‘The Flyting o’ Life and Daith’, following an old Scottish literary tradition, life contends ‘The warld is mine … I am the day, and the sunshine’, while death points out that famine, cruelty and injustice still hold sway. Predictably for readers of Henderson’s work, life has the last word.

Two volumes published in the 1990s show Henderson to be an equally articulate and incisive writer in prose. Alias MacAlias (1992) collects essays on folksongs, folktales and people of the folk revival, together with other writing on literature and politics. The Armstrong Nose (1996) is a selection of letters, including two famous ‘flytings’ of 1959-60 and 1964 with Hugh MacDiarmid about poetry and folksong, topics on which the two poets held widely differing views. Henderson’s voice in these letters and essays is as distinctive as in his poetry.

Reading Lists

Hamish Henderson Editions

Ballads of World War II (1947)

Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948; revised 1990)

Alias MacAlias: Writings on Songs, Folk and Literature (1992)

Collected Poems and Songs (2000)


Hunter, Andrew R., ‘Hamish Henderson: the Odyssey of a Wanderer', Cencrastus 47 (1994) pp. 3-6.

McNaughton, Adam, ‘Hamish Henderson - Folk Hero’, Chapman 42 (1985) pp. 22-9.

Morgan, Edwin, ‘The Sea, the Desert and the City: Environment and Language in Graham, Henderson and Leonard’, Crossing the Border (1990) pp. 273-91.

Ross, Raymond, ‘Hamish Henderson: In the Midst of Things’, Chapman 42 (1985) pp. 11-8.

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