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  • Hamish Henderson (1919-2002)
  • W. F. H. Nicolaisen and Margaret A. Mackay

Perhaps it was something of an omen that James Scott (Hamish) Henderson's birthday, November 11, 1919, coincided with Armistice Day, the day on which the first of the two great wars of the twentieth century came de facto to an end and the weapons were silenced; for only twenty-six years later, toward the end of another six years of large-scale and devastating hostilities, Hamish Henderson, a British intelligence officer in Italy, was actively involved in securing yet another such armistice. It was somehow ironic and yet fitting that the man who, as part of a Quaker organization, had helped to extricate young Jews from Nazi Germany just before World War II, should, having in a soldier's uniform served his country in a bloody war, then used his linguistic skills as an interrogator to bring about peace once again. As a Scot and a poet, he could not but translate his experiences into, on the one hand, composing new words to old pipe tunes, like his "Farewell to Sicily" or popular tunes of the day, like his "D-Day Dodgers" and, on the other, his wonderful Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1948 (see also his 1947 edition of The Ballads of World War II). Add to this his fervent love of his country, Scotland, his identification with the "common man," and his involvement in radical politics, and it comes as no surprise that his rousing "Freedom, come all ye" became a kind of underground national anthem. It is also fortunate for Scottish folklore studies that these various streams in his makeup were professionally channeled into his academic position in the School of Scottish Studies of the University of Edinburgh, an appointment that demanded so much contact with, and work among the "folk," especially those singing songs and telling stories as part of their traditional heritage. A poet himself (Collected Poems and Songs, ed. Raymond Ross, Edinburgh: Curly Snake Publishing, 2000), Henderson sought out and understood the creative individual artists of unrecognized ability in groups of low social status, a trait that made him such a successful field collector.

Henderson was born in Blairgowrie in Perthshire, only a stone's throw from the berry fields in which he later collected so much important material from the seasonal workers, especially the so-called travelers who became such a rich and largely unsuspected source for countless recordings made by Henderson and deposited in the archives of the School of Scottish Studies. A special issue of Tocher (no. 43 [1991]), devoted to Henderson's early collecting activities, provides telling samples, mainly of songs but also of reminiscences and other items of oral tradition, both in Scots and in Gaelic, garnered by Henderson in the course of his fieldwork. A complete discography of his recordings would, of course, be more extensive and impressive in both variety and substance.

Henderson's interest in Scottish oral tradition had its roots in his childhood, for he was brought up by his mother and grandmother, both of whom loved and sang songs. He attended first Blairgowrie Primary School and the local high school, but then moved with his mother to England, where he was a pupil at Teignmouth and later at Dulwich College, and eventually to Cambridge University. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he served, after a year as a noncommissioned officer in the Pioneer Corps, as an officer in the Intelligence Corps, a position that took him to the battles in North Africa and subsequently in Italy. After the war, he continued his studies in Cambridge. In 1946, he became acquainted with such collectors as John Lorne Campbell, Calum Maclean, and Seamus Ennis, [End Page 357] and their examples spurred him on to become a field collector himself. There were, however, no job openings for him in Scotland at the time. Instead, he began to train as a teacher, but before completing his training he took a post as district secretary of the Workers' Educational Association in Northern Ireland. The Somerset Maugham Prize for his Elegies for the Dead in...


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