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Born to a single mother in Blairgowrie, 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 Modern Languages at Downing College, Cambridge in the years leading up to World War II, and as a visiting student in Germany ran messages for an organization run by the Society of Friends aiding the German resistance and helping to rescue Jews.
World War II
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. He was quite effective as an interrogator due to his command of six European languages and deep understanding of German culture.
He took part in the Desert War in Africa, during which he wrote his poem Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica, encompassing every aspect of a soldier's experience of the sands of North Africa. On 2 May 1945, Henderson personally oversaw the drafting of the surrender order of Italy issued by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.
Henderson collected the lyrics to "D-Day Dodgers," a satirical song to the tune of "Lili Marlene", attributed to Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn, who served in Italy. Henderson also wrote the lyrics to "The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily", set to a pipe tune called "Farewell to the Creeks". The book in which these were collected, Ballads of World War II, was published "privately" to evade censorship, but earned Henderson a ten-year ban from BBC radio, preventing a series on ballad-making from being made. His 1948 poetry book about his experiences in the war, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, received the Somerset Maugham Award.
Folk song collector
Henderson threw himself into the work of the folk revival after the war, discovering and bringing to public attention Jeannie Robertson, Flora MacNeil (see Flora MacNeil, Gaelic singer), Calum Johnston (see Annie and Calum Johnston of Barra) and others. In the 1950s, he acted as a guide to the American folklorist, Alan Lomax, who collected many field recordings in Scotland. (See Alan Lomax, Collector of Songs).
People's Festival Ceilidhs
Henderson was instrumental in bringing about the Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh in 1951, which placed traditionally performed Scottish folk music on the public stage for the first time as "A Night of Scottish Song". However, the People's Festival, of which it was part, was planned as a left-wing competitor to the Edinburgh Festival and was deeply controversial. At the event, Henderson performed The John Maclean March, to the tune of Scotland the Brave, which glorified John Maclean, a communist and Scottish nationalist hero.
However, the event marked the first time that Scotland's traditional folk music was performed on a public stage. The performers included Flora MacNeil, Calum Johnston, John Burgess, Jessie Murray, John Strachan, and Jimmy MacBeath. The event was extremely popular and was regarded as the beginning of the second British folk revival.
Henderson continued to host the events every year until 1954, when the Communist ties of several members of the People's Festival Committee led to the Labour Party declaring it a "Proscribed Organisation". Losing the financial support of the local trades unions, the Peoples Festival was permanently cancelled. Henderson's own songs, particularly "Freedom Come All Ye", have become part of the folk tradition themselves.
Dividing his time between Europe and Scotland, he eventually settled in Edinburgh in 1959 with his German wife, Kätzel (Felizitas Schmidt).
Henderson 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 frequented the folk clubs 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. Henderson held several honorary degrees and after his retirement became an honorary fellow of the School of Scottish Studies. For many years he held court in Sandy Bell's Bar, the meeting place for local and visiting folk musicians.
Henderson was a socialist, and beside his academic work for the University, he produced translations of the Prison Letters of Antonio Gramsci, whom he had first heard of among Communist Italian partisans during the war. The translation was published in the New Edinburgh Review in 1974 and as a book in 1988. He was involved in campaigns for Scottish home rule and in the foundation of the 1970s Scottish Labour Party. Henderson, who was openly bisexual, was vocal about gay rights and acceptance.
He died in Edinburgh on 8 March 2002 aged 82, survived by his wife Kätzel and their daughters, Janet and Christine Henderson.
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.
In 2005, Rounder Records released a recording of the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh as part of The Alan Lomax Collection. Henderson had collaborated heavily with the preparations for the release.
In August 2013, Edinburgh University announced that it had acquired his personal archive of "more than 10,000 letters from almost 3400 correspondents, plus 136 notebooks and diaries", dating from the 1930s to the end of his life. These will be kept in the Special Collections department of the main library.
Discussions around national identity and constitutional resettlement in Scotland, especially those surrounding the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, have often invoked Henderson's legacy. Politicians and cultural commentators alike describe their admiration for his song 'Freedom Come-All-Ye' and lend their voices to those touting it as an alternative national anthem. As a radical democrat whose political beliefs were closely bound up in the study of folk culture and high literature, Henderson's work expresses a tension between romantic nationalism and socialist internationalism which has been reaffirmed in public life in Scotland since his death.
- Hamish Henderson (1947) Ballads of World War II, Caledonian Press, Glasgow OCLC 6824582
- Hamish Henderson (1948) Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, J. Lehmann, London OCLC 2806224
- Alec Finlay, editor (1992) Alias MacAlias: Writings on songs, folk and literature, Polygon, Edinburgh ISBN 978-0-74866-042-1
- Alec Finlay, editor (1996) The Armstrong Nose: Selected letters of Hamish Henderson, Polygon, Edinburgh ISBN 978-0-74866-191-6
- Raymond Ross, editor (2000) Collected Poems and Songs, Curly Snake Pub., Edinburgh, Scotland ISBN 978-1-90214-101-5
- Eberhard Bort, editor (2010) Borne on the Carrying Stream: The Legacy of Hamish Henderson, Grace Note Publications ISBN 978-1-907676-01-7
- Eberhard Bort, editor (2011) Tis Sixty Years Since: The 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh and the Scottish Folk Revival ISBN 978-1-907676-10-9
- Timothy Neat (2012) Hamish Henderson: Poetry Becomes People (1952-2002), Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh ISBN 978-0-85790-487-4
- Corey Gibson (2015) The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0-74869-657-4
- "Dr Hamish Henderson". The Scotsman. 11 March 2002. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
- "Dr Hamish Henderson". The Scotsman. 10 March 2002. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
- Neat, Timothy (11 March 2002). "Books: Hamish Henderson". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
- Neat, T. (2007, rep. 2009), Hamish Henderson - The Making of the Poet, Volume I, p. 165.
- Norman Buchan on Hamish, Tocher no 43, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1991, p 19-21
- Antonio Gramsci, Prison Letters, translated and introduced by Hamish Henderson, Pluto Press 1996.
- Neat, Timothy: Hamish Henderson: Poetry Becomes People
- Hamish Henderson Archive Trust Press release, August 2013, retrieved 8 August 2013
- Corey Gibson, The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics, Edinburgh University Press, 2015
- Ballads of WWII (2014) The Jack Horntip Collection
- Arnold Rattenbury (23 January 2003). "Flytings". London Review of Books. 25 (2). ISSN 0260-9592.