Hamish Henderson

Hamish Scott Henderson, (11 November 1919 - March 8 2002; Scottish Gaelic: "Seamas MacEanraig" ("Seamas Mòr")) was a Scottish poet, songwriter, socialist, humanist, soldier, and intellectual.

He has been called the most important Scots poet since Burns, catalyst for the folk revival in Scotland, discoverer of Jeannie Robertson, the man who accepted the surrender of Italy on 19 April 1945, the author of the "Freedom Come-All-Ye", the outspoken Germanophile and avowed Anti-Nazi, and one of the bairns of Adam, Seamas Mòr.

Born illegitimately in Glenshee, Perthshire, Henderson eventually moved to England with his mother. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Dulwich School in London; however, his mother died shortly before he was due to take up his place and he was forced to live in an orphanage while studying there.

He studied at the University of Cambridge in the years leading up to World War II, spending spare time running messages for the Quakers in Nazi Germany, and working to smuggle Jewish people out of the country up to the outbreak of war.

Although he argued strongly for peace, even well into the early years of the war, he became convinced that a satisfactory peace could not be reached and so he threw himself into the war effort. Joining as an enlisted soldier in the Pioneer Corps, he later applied for and received a commission in the intelligence corps as an interrogator (speaking six European languages and having an excellent knowledge of European culture, he was extremely effective in this role).

He took part in the Desert War in Africa, which produced his Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica, encompassing every aspect of a soldier's experience of the sands of North Africa, and even in the midst of the struggle against Nazism reaching out to find the common ground between German foot-soldiers and the Jocks of the British 51st (Highland) Division. Henderson formally accepted the surrender of Italy.

Henderson's complexities make his work hard to study: for example, Dick Gaughan's commentary on the song-poem The 51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily, while insightful, does not take into account the traditional divide between pipers and drummers in the Scots regiments, the essential key to one reading of the text.

Henderson threw himself into the work of the folk revival after the war, discovering and bringing to public attention Jeannie Robertson. He was instrumental in bringing about the People's Ceilidhs, celebrations of traditional Scottish culture that foreshadowed the modern Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Dividing his time between Europe and Scotland, he eventually settled in Edinburgh in 1959 with his German wife, Katzel.

He collected widely in the Borders and the north-east of Scotland, creating links between the travellers, the bothy singers of Aberdeenshire, the Border shepherds, and the young men and women who in Edinburgh.

From 1955 to 1987 he was on the staff of the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies which he co-founded with Calum Maclean: there he contributed to the sound archives that are now available on-line.


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