Hamish Henderson

Hamish Henderson (1919 - 2002)
Photograph of Hamish Henderson by Roddy Simpson
Hamish Henderson © Roddy Simpson



To sum up Hamish Henderson as a poet, or even to classify or identify what could be termed 'the poetry of Hamish Henderson' is challenging. This is partly due to his almost mythic status as the founding father of Scotland's 20th-century folk renaissance, with its heady blend of culture and politics, but also because Henderson himself rejected modernist concepts of poetry and of being a poet.

Full Biography

To sum up Hamish Henderson as a poet, or even to classify or identify what could be termed 'the poetry of Hamish Henderson' is challenging. This is partly due to his almost mythic status as the founding father of Scotland's twentieth century folk renaissance, with its heady blend of culture and politics, but also because Henderson himself rejected modernist concepts of poetry and of being a poet. He collected, translated, composed and created in a wide variety of poetic and lyric forms, and 'Anonymous' was his highest ambition.

Go direct to a defining major work of Henderson's maturity, 'The Flyting o' Life and Daith' (1964).  A ‘flyting’ is the Scots word for a vigorous, abusive exchange of argument and invective in life or art, though in reality this particular dialogue is very measured, and grounded in medieval European ballad forms.

Quo life, the warld is mine.
The floo'ers and trees, they're a' my ain.
I am the day, and the sunshine
Quo life, the warld is mine.

Quo daith, the warld is mine.
Your lugs are deef, your een are blin
Your floo'ers maun dwine in my bitter win'
Quo daith, the warld is mine.

Through both language and form, this strives for anonymity – to be part of a folk tradition, expressing an elemental conflict. At the same time the strength of the Scots diction, the cunning balance between formality and colloquial speech, and the cumulative structural design add up to a considerable poetic achievement, not unlike the ballad poetry of Goethe.

There is however another dimension. ‘The Flyting’ is designed to be spoken and heard. It is most effectively performed by memory, and though Henderson's preference was to contain the duality within a single voice, the dialogue is also dramatically powerful when delivered by two voices.  This aspect is not secondary in the writer's purpose but primary, as Henderson's belief was that the 'poesis', the creation, only occurs when art is realised as a shared communication. In the performance and its reception is the energy, fusion or communion, which constitutes the creative act. Further, such an act is for Henderson inherently joyous, life-affirming, sexually resonant, in a manner that owes much to William Blake.

Quo daith, the warld is mine.
I hae dug a grave, I hae dug it deep,
For war an' the pest will gar ye sleep.
Quo daith, the warld is mine.

Quo life, the warld is mine.
An open grave is a furrow syne.
Ye'll no keep my seed frae fa'in in.
Quo life, the warld is mine.

There is aesthetics in this outlook, along with politics, anthropology and religion. But, whatever their origins, these ideas coalesce Henderson's activities as writer, collector, translator, critic, performer, and even magus. They bring together songs, poems, and ballads, and explain why any attempt to uncouple the work from its contexts results in distortion and misunderstanding. Here is the explanation for the diversity of Hamish Henderson's output – from satiric song to complex elegy –  which has often left puzzled commentators trying to explain why Henderson 'gave up writing poetry'. The answers sometimes suggested – waning powers or alcohol – mirror what was said about Robert Burns when he turned his energies to song-making and collecting.

James Hamish Scott Henderson grew up in a culture rich with balladry and poems. He was born in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, the illegitimate son of Janet Henderson, who brought him up to speak Gaelic. His first five years were spent in Glenshee, he attended primary school in Blairgowrie and then his mother got a job as cook-housekeeper in Somerset: ‘thus I heard and sang the folk songs of three nations [in five dialects and two languages] long before I had the faintest knowledge what a folksong was.’ Added to this was his later formal schooling at Dulwich College – by which time his mother had died – and Downing College, Cambridge, where he read French and German.

Diversity is evident from Henderson's early manhood which was shaped by the Second World War and his military service in North Africa and Italy. The popular ballads of the soldiers and the political song-making of the Italian partisans, with whom Henderson liaised as a Military Intelligence Officer, reignited a deeply felt connection with folksong which led back to his Scottish origins. Henderson actively collected and recorded this wartime material but also contributed to it with his own pieces, some of which, such as 'Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers' were ascribed to 'Anonymous’ – for him the supreme accolade.  The song is an instant response to an alleged, widely reported remark by Lady Astor about troops on the Mediterranean front, and sung to ‘Lili Marleen’:

We're the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy –
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
        8th Army scroungers and their tanks
       We live in Rome – among the yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy…

Naple and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn't go to fight there – we went there for the ride.
        Anzio and Sango were just names
        We only went there to look for dames –
The artful D Day-Dodgers, way out in Italy.

The structure is again cumulative, with the repetition and staged progression essential to the unfolding a song in performance. Humorous irony is kept in play until the last two verses deliver their devastating charge:

Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot,
Standing on a platform and talking tommy-rot.
       You, England's sweetheart and its pride,
       We think your mouth's too bleeding wide
That's from your D-Day dodgers – in far off Italy.

Many song-makers might have stopped there in righteous anger, but Henderson adds depth, tragic irony:

Look around the mountains in the mud and rain –
You'll find the scattered crosses – (there's some which have no name),
         Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
         The boys beneath them slumber on.
Those are the D-Day dodgers who'll stay in Italy.

Hamish Henderson was to exhibit the same capacity to combine occasion, craft and popular impact with 'Rivonia', which became an anthem of the South African anti-apartheid movement, and 'The Freedom Come-All-Ye', the anthem of an as yet unrealised Scottish socialist republic. This is poetic art, poiesis, in social and political context.

Another important and enduring composition from the war years is 'The 51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily'. Henderson's poetic artistry is particularly evident here, since the song is set to a bagpipe tune 'Farewell to the Creeks' and the verbal structure echoes the interweaving pattern of theme and variation in pipe music. Anyone who tries to memorise the song quickly realises how subtle and complex the balance of repetition and change is through the piece. It cannot be selectively quoted without obscuring that cunning overall design appealing to ear, eye and motive sense. It also continues to be widely performed.

During the same war years, and through till 1947, Hamish Henderson was  working on a series of 'Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica', a sustained  reflection on civilisation and its traumas, set within the North African campaign. This remains Henderson's major production in more conventionally understood poetic form, and it won him many literary accolades. The War was immensely formative but also deeply hurtful in its effect on Henderson, and this great statement was effectively his catharsis and cleansing – such an act does not bear repetition. The Elegies, too, are poetry in personal, social and political context.

There are many movements and registers in the Elegies but all are woven into  impressive symphonic composition. There is heat of battle:

the crashing breakers-hurled rubble of the guns.
Dithering darkness, we'll wake you! Hell's Bell's
blind you.                                                                    

There is political passion

We'll mak siccar!
Against the bashing cudgel
against the contemptuous triumphs of the big battalions…
mak siccar
                  against the executioner
against the tyrannous myth and the real terror
mak siccar

There is tender colloquialism –  'Here's another “Good Jerry”!/Poor mucker. Just eighteen' – with morally charged reflection,

No blah about their sacrifice: rather tears or reviling
of the time that took them, than an insult so outrageous.
All barriers are down: in the criss-crossed enclosures
where most lie now assembled in their aching solitude
those others lie too- who were also the sacrificed
of history's great rains, of the destructive transitions.
This one beach where high seas have disgorged them like flotsam
reveals in its nakedness their ultimate alliance.

Then finally, the purpose of it all, clearly articulated:

So the words that I have looked for, and must go on looking for,
Are worlds of whole love, which can slowly gain the power
To reconcile and heal. Other words would be pointless.

And that brings us full circle to the animating core of Henderson's work in all forms, at all stages of his career, though variously expressed. This, in an interview of 1966:

What Wilde wrote in De Profundis has some bearing on this… when he says that the object of love is to love. To feel itself in the joy of its own being. To a certain extent this is poetry too, one shouldn't divide it between the moment of creation and the created completed thing. It's the joy of itself to feel itself in being…to have this sensation of the thing moving and being and in existence, and not dead and failing... this has always with me taken the shape of direct communication, not so much communication via the printed page, although I have published things here and there. I have preferred to read poetry out, and if it is a song, to sing it.

Henderson’s friendships extended into many spheres which may have seemed incompatible but were brought together in his enormous energies, voracious reading, extraordinary linguistic ability and deep commitment to socialist politics. Among other notable achievements, he translated the prison letters of Antonio Gramsci; accompanied the American folklorist Alan Lomax on a collecting tour of Scotland which proved the impetus for the folk revival in Scotland; discovered the singer and storyteller Jeanie Robertson, who carried the tradition of the travelling people – and locating that tradition was also Henderson’s great work; became one of the founding members of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh; and effectively laid foundations for the Festival Fringe.

His biographer and friend, Timothy Neat, wrote in the Guardian (11 March 2002):

Henderson emerged as one of the few intellectuals in Scotland able and  willing to take on Hugh MacDiarmid: their public confrontations, particularly  about the literary value of the folk tradition, were seminal and, in retrospect,  these two very different poets can be seen to stand as the twin piers of  ‘revolutionary thought’ in modern Scotland, archetypal representatives of  Apollonian and Dionysian energy. They were Robespierre and Danton:  MacDiarmid the small, ascetic, atheistic Presbyterian, Henderson the Falstaffian, Episcopal libertarian.

He was offered a CBE in 1983, but refused it on account of the pro-nuclear policies of the Thatcher government, which he campaigned against. He lived to see the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, for which he had also campaigned, and died in Edinburgh on 8 March 2002, aged eighty-two. He was survived by his wife Kätzel (Felicitas Schmidt), whom he had married in 1959, and their two daughters. His funeral service in St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh was attended by 1500 people, the coffin preceded by a piper, and the ‘Freedom Come All-Ye’ sung at his departure.

Hamish Henderson wrote his own elegy, meditated over a number of years, and blending into a personal poetic testament.

Under the earth I go

On the oak-leaf I stand
I ride on the filly that never was foaled
And I carry the dead in my hand.

There's method in my madness!...

Change elegy into hymn, remake it –
Don't fail again. Like the potent
Sap in these branches, once bare, and now brimming
With routh of green leavery,
Remake it, and renew.

Maker, ye maun sing them…
Tomorrow, songs
Will flow free again, and new voices
Be borne on the carrying stream.


Donald Smith


Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (London: John Lehmann Ltd, 1948; republished by EUSPB in 1977 with introduction by Sorley MacLean, and by Polygon in 1990, 2008)

Alias MacAlias: writings on songs, folk and literature (Edinburgh: Polygon: 1992)

The Armstong Nose: selected letters of Hamish Henderson, edited by Alec Finlay, (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1996)

Collected Poems and Songs, edited by Raymond Ross (Edinburgh: Curly Snake Publishing, 2000)

Selected Biography and Criticism

‘The Flyting o’ Life and Daith’ [special feature on Hamish Henderson] Chapman, 42 (Winter 1985)

[A tribute to Hamish Henderson] Tocher, No. 43 (1991)

Colin Nicholson, ‘For our own and the others: Hamish Henderson’ in Poem, Purpose and Place: shaping identity in contemporary Scottish verse (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992)

Hamish Henderson’s long March [special feature on Hamish Henderson] Chapman, 82 (1995)

Duncan Glen, ‘Hamish Henderson: poetry becomes people’ in Selected Scottish and Other Essays (Kirkcaldy: Akros Publications, 1999)

Mario Relich, ‘”Apollyon’s Chasm”: the poetry of Hamish Henderson’, The Dark Horse, 12/13 (Winter 2001-2)

Timothy Neat, Hamish Henderson: a biography.
Volume 1 The Making of the Poet (1919-1953) (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2007)
Volume 2 Poetry Becomes People (1952-2002) (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2009)

Other Useful Info


Held by the Hamish Henderson Estate – please contact the SPL.