His Bonnet Akimbo

Patrick Wright

  • Hamish Henderson: A Biography. Vol. I: The Making of the Poet (1919-53) by Timothy Neat
    Polygon, 416 pp, £14.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 1 84697 132 7
  • Hamish Henderson: A Biography. Vol. II: Poetry Becomes People (1954-2002) by Timothy Neat
    Polygon, 395 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 84697 063 4

There are those, even among his friends, who remember Hamish Henderson as a chaotic figure who could most often be found soliloquising in Sandy Bell’s, a favourite pub near Edinburgh University. Was he one of the ‘lowest of men’, spilling whisky and sliding off his stool as he launched into another ballad? Or was he a seer, defying body and convention to ‘soar like an eagle’ in the way of the blessed inebriate in Richard Thompson’s song ‘God Loves a Drunk’ (‘His shouts and his curses they are just hymns and praises/To kick-start his mind now and then’)?

Timothy Neat writes not in order to leave his late friend in a heap on the floor, least of all the floor of the hostelry that Henderson had long since helped to establish as ‘the hub of the Scottish Folk Revival’. Instead, he seeks to establish him as a ‘genius’ who may have embraced whisky as a kind of sacrament. ‘It may well be,’ he said in the long obituary he wrote for the Guardian at the time of Henderson’s death in March 2002, ‘that the new Scotland – with its parliament, its renewed cultural confidence, its renewed dominance of British politics – owes more to Henderson than anyone else.’ Although not himself invited to the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the ailing Henderson is said to have been delighted that one of his admirers, Sheena Wellington, stole the show with her rendition of Burns’s ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’.

Neat is a Cornish-born art historian, beekeeper and film-maker who moved to Scotland in the late 1960s. Between 1999 and 2002 he published five highly regarded oral histories of traditional Highland life and culture, which share many of their sources with Henderson, with whom Neat had been singing, travelling and raising glasses for many years by the time of his death. Now they seem like preliminary tremors produced in anticipation of this volcanic biography.

Henderson’s mother, Janet, had served as a nurse in the First World War, then returned to lose her own battle in Britain. Thirty-nine and unmarried, she became pregnant within weeks of the armistice, much to the horror of her well-off Dundee family. Neat penetrates the various legends put about by Henderson, who didn’t at all mind if people took him for the bastard son of the eighth or ninth Duke of Atholl, the Duke of Argyll or various other contenders, including an unnamed Italian count and diverse novelists and officers, Irish as well as Scots. Henderson, we are told, understood ‘the mystery of “origination”’ to be ‘one of the great creative forces’, and had little interest in revealing the truth about a father who turns out to have been a maritally entangled commercial traveller and the black sheep of a respectable Glasgow family.

Bundling up her infant, Janet withdrew from Blairgowrie to the Spittal of Glenshee, where she rented a cottage. Neat treats this as a passage between opposed cultures and inheritances: from mean-spirited middle-class Calvinism (Henderson would write of ‘my blue-blooded and black-hearted family’) to the older world of the Grampian plateau and Ben Gulabin, the mountain that loomed in Henderson’s imagination ever after. The one was sanctimonious and cruel in its intolerance: a grim mixture of capitalist individualism and censoriousness. The other was ancient, welcoming and blessedly free of life-denying ideas of respectability: a world of Neolithic stones and the Sidhe, ‘the fairies and old peoples of Scotland’, whose early 20th-century descendants saw the Gaels as ‘threatening latecomers’. Henderson, who spent his first five years there, remembered it as ‘a fully bilingual community full of songs and stories’, a rooted world of crofts and farms stirred by travelling tinkers, stone-breakers and mendicant old soldiers, where a small boy could take lessons from ‘Dancy Reid, one of the last travelling Highland dance teachers’.

Eventually, Henderson’s mother took a position as a cook-housekeeper in a large house near Yeovil: a part of Somerset still rich in traditional song. She managed to send Hamish to board at a small prep school on the coast near Teignmouth, where he impressed the headmaster, who became his guardian after his mother died. Henderson acted as the school bard and ‘theatrical entrepreneur’, and had the first of his many seer-like experiences. He won a scholarship to Dulwich College, and for four and a half years from January 1934 stayed at Ingleton House, a boys’ home in Clapham run by the Anglican Society of the Good Shepherd, and wrote poems, comic operas and humorous essays in the Ingletonian Raconteur. Revelling in the works of Blake, Ruskin and Samuel Palmer, he was inspired by the idea that ‘reality is a thing that has to be reinvented continually.’

With no family to confine him, he used school holidays to venture out. A ‘seasoned hitch-hiker’ by the age of 16, he visited the far west of England and the Welsh Marches, as well as Scotland: he cycled through the Highlands in 1935 and, a year later, attended a Bothy Nicht at the Imperial Hotel in Aberdeen where he heard the ballad singing and stories of John Strachan, an Aberdeenshire farmer who became one of his most important sources. In ‘Journey to a Kingdom’, an unpublished poem written in 1938, Henderson leaves no doubt that these northern excursions were conscious acts of homecoming. In the summer of that year, he took a train north but got off at Carlisle in order to make his way across the border on foot. His journey took him to bothies, youth hostels and hotel bars, where he could be found ‘singing himself drinks’ and seeking out the old songs and stories. In Glencoe an old man told him of the massacre of 1690, remembered at only ‘third hand’. On Skye, he stayed with crofters in Uig, and became all the more convinced that the ‘Ossianic force of Scotland’s song tradition’ still had the power to awaken the people. Dismissing art that existed for its own sake as ‘bad art, art gone rotten’, he knew that a ‘richer and sweeter’ human spirit could be found ‘in a Dublin tenement or a Hebridean “backhouse”’ than in any arty bourgeois townhouse. And that was what he set out to prove over the decades that followed. He became a passionate song hunter whose research tools included a Rudge 500cc motorbike, a tent, innumerable bottles and a habit of testing the ‘human will’ of his compatriots by ‘doing a Henderson’: a method of sponging that prompted one victim into reviving an obsolete Scots word – ‘to sorn’ was ‘to come for supper and lodge for a month’.

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