Rarely has a speaker had a more appreciative audience than those privileged on 18th January to hear Dr Fred Freeman’s insightful and musical tribute to the Scots folklorist, Hamish Henderson.
Currently professor of Scottish Music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Dr Freeman was a colleague and friend to Hamish Henderson until his death in 2002 at the age of 82.
Henderson was born in Blairgowrie in 1919 to a single mother. His grandmother was a staunch Episcopalian Jacobite, while his mother was a singer of Gaelic songs. Tradition, song, story, passing tinkers and highland chiefs, a travelling highland dance teacher, Latin and Greek – these were the normal and marvellous facts of Henderson’s boyhood. And with a genius for language, he became conscious that he should be “a remembrancer”, a poet of his highland people and of Scotland.
This unusual boyhood and his subsequent wartime experiences contributed to his complex character which would bring him into frequent conflict with the Scottish literary “establishment”. It also imbued him, said Dr Freeman, with the unshakeable belief in “art as life, not life as art, and that literature, to be literature, must desire to be life, not an idea of life”.
In summer 1939, after speaking in the Cambridge Union, Henderson was hired by the Quakers as a courier, bringing Jews out of Germany. That September he tried to enlist in the Cameron Highlanders but, on account of poor eyesight, was told to await call-up, when he joined the Pioneer Corps as a sergeant.
Commissioned in 1941, he worked as an intelligence officer in the Western desert, in Sicily and throughout mainland Italy. Promoted to captain in 1943, he fought with the partisans, captured and interrogated numerous prisoners, was mentioned in dispatches, and personally accepted the surrender of Italy from Marshal Graziani. He kept the signed document in his pocket till his death.
After the war Henderson completed his Desert War Poems – 10 elegies and one “heroic song”. War Poetry on a par with Wilfred Owen’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s a generation earlier, in Dr Freeman’s view. Elegies For The Dead In Cyrenaica won him the Somerset Maugham award for poetry in 1949. He translated poetry from Gaelic, French, German, Latin, Greek – much of it into Scots. Of course, having strong opinions, he had enemies, but he knew that his mission to revalidate the oral tradition was important beyond any measure of published articles.
Introduced to the portable tape recorder while in Italy, Henderson saw its potential and returned to Scotland with a mission – to record for posterity the folk music of Scotland. He suspected the tradition was strong, but what he found was better than he or anyone imagined. The great songs and singers were there in their hundreds – in tinker tents, bothies and stables; in miners’ clubs, on fishing boats and in farmers’ kitchens. The second phase of Henderson’s life had begun. He became a folklorist and, in 1951, with Calum MacLean, Gaelic scholar, he established the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Always wary of pretension, Henderson was never at ease in Edinburgh’s literary circles, but was entirely at ease in Sandy Bell’s bar – a working men’s pub which he sought to turn into a 20th-century version of an 18th-century howff, where music, song, intellectual debate and eccentricity flourished.
Putting Henderson’s life and work into context, Dr Freeman interspersed his talk with recordings of songs written by his friend and colleague, such as Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers, and the great anthem Freedom Come All Ye. Undoubtedly our eyes and our ears were opened to aspects of Hamish Henderson which few of us knew previously.