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’.

Henderson’s vision, so Neat observes, was of a resurgent Scotland leading ‘the way towards the democratisation of the whole British Empire’. He appears already to have had that goal in mind as he travelled south to read modern languages at Cambridge, where F.R. Leavis encouraged him to ‘add modernist rigour to his Celtic romanticism’. He was part of a left-wing circle that included Raymond Williams, D.J. Enright and Maurice Craig, a Northern Irishman who remembered Henderson as ‘very loud-voiced, very insistently Scottish, and constantly singing’. During the two years he spent in Cambridge before the Second World War bore him off to North Africa, Henderson flourished as Cambridge’s own ‘Scots Commie’. At the Union and elsewhere, he argued the case for balladry and other forms of popular art. He attacked marriage from the perspective of ‘the complete Rabelaisian man’, and derided Spender and Auden as lightweights when compared with ‘the redoubtable Hugh MacDiarmid’. He interrupted establishment speakers, organised demonstrations, wrote ‘Songs of Sabotage and Sedition’ and, when the war started, campaigned against its extension into a global conflict that could be settled only by the total defeat of one side.

Henderson also found himself a home of sorts in Dry Drayton, a fenland village north-west of Cambridge. His host was Canon Allan Armstrong, a Church of Ireland priest and a socialist who had been driven overseas by the IRA and kept an open house in the rambling Georgian rectory – ‘shabby, genteel and sublime’, as Neat describes it. Henderson was among those who moved into its thirty or so rooms, joining a company that included various refugees from Europe. For two decades, Dry Drayton would provide ‘his one permanent address in the world’, and he kept returning to it until he was ‘too old to travel’.

Having spent the summer of 1940 working in a sawmill near Laggan in Inverness-shire, Henderson posted the manuscript of ‘Journey to a Kingdom’ to Raymond Williams in Cambridge, and headed south to become a private in the Pioneer Corps. He moved into military intelligence in 1941, and was posted to Cairo, where he worked as an interrogator, and, in his spare time, continued to write poetry ‘with a Scots/ Gaelic slant/Coming out of the early Pound’. His ballads reflected the appetites and prejudices of the soldiers for whom they were composed, and who embraced them with enormous enthusiasm. His more literary efforts include his best-known work, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, a series of poems driven by compassion for the German as well as the Allied dead.

Henderson, who went to war with a Gaelic New Testament in his left breast pocket to guard against bullets, followed the Eighth Army from Egypt to Tunisia and Algeria and then to Sicily, where he joined the 51st (Highland) Division for the operation that would knock Italy out of the war. The Sicily landings of July 1943 were only lightly opposed but Henderson put in a superb performance on the beachhead. He requisitioned a large white stallion from a nearby farm and rode down from the dunes; as one veteran remembered half a century later, he ‘wis gettin’ it to rise up on its hind legs, like in an oil painting! And the boys were all cheerin’.’ Splashing through the waves ‘wi’ his bonnet akimbo’, Henderson had Bonnie Prince Charlie in mind. ‘I felt like Tullibardine when the ship of the Prionnsa Ban sighted the Hebrides,’ he wrote. ‘With tears streaming, he pointed to the rocky, rain-driven trash of the skerries and said: “Sir, ye’re hame.”’

Henderson’s desire for change in Scotland was turned into an ‘all-consuming passion’ by the camaraderie of the 51st Highland Division, which felt to Henderson like a Scottish nationalist revolution in the making. He wrote radical articles for the 8th Army News (they were defended by Montgomery when Eisenhower objected), and delighted in the notion that when the division had finished in Italy its victorious men would sail home as the ‘Scottish National Army’ and turn their skirling pipes against Edinburgh and London. His song ‘Banks o’ Sicily’, a wonderful entwining of Scots, Gaelic and Italian elements, was so enthusiastically adopted by the soldiers that it went into circulation in Scotland before Henderson had even left Italy.

He saw the landings at Anzio, and the fierce fighting at Monte Cassino. He also did what he could to ensure that the Allied entry into Rome would be something other than the American triumph mocked so memorably by Malaparte in The Skin (‘Our bombers have done a good job,’ Malaparte’s victorious American general says, pointing to the Coliseum). Henderson drove his jeep into the city to the accompaniment of pipe and drums. Open-air concerts followed, with his pipers marching along Mussolini’s favourite routes and playing in front of St Peter’s. After Rome, Henderson drove around Tuscany with the partisans with ‘Bandiera Rossa’ – the title of the battle song of the Italian left – emblazoned over the bonnet of his illicitly acquired jeep. He was a free ‘voice and an ear’, tolerated as useful though quite beyond orthodox military control. Having pursued the war as a succession of red-ribboned Highland flings, Henderson eventually stepped up to receive the final capitulation of Italy. Put in charge of Marshal Rudolpho Graziani, he told him to prepare (and helped him to write) an order demanding the surrender of all Axis troops in Italy, and then lent him his own uniform so that he didn’t get murdered by partisans on the way to the Florence radio station from which Italy’s elegantly worded surrender was duly broadcast.

Britain’s Labour landslide of July 1945 was heartening, but Cambridge seemed an anaemic place to the returning Henderson. He hated the ‘asexual uranism’ of the university – ‘I could feel it infecting me … like a thin fog drifting in off the fens’ – and was probably most at home in the pubs or at the fairground on Midsummer Common, although Neat allows him a number of exceptional friends, including the economist Piero Sraffa (who had known Henderson’s hero, Gramsci) and the young socialist historian E.P. Thompson, who shared his mistrust of the merely literary ‘culture boys’.

He returned to Scotland, this time permanently, in the summer of 1946. Rebuffed by his father’s Glaswegian family, he embarked on a teacher training course in Edinburgh, before quitting for the Highlands, where he went quickly into action as a political champion of national revival: addressing the Highland Independence Party, opposing the king’s South African tour in 1947, proposing a ‘theatre workshop’ for every new town, conducting his own exercises in international relations by befriending the Behan family in Dublin. He began a lifelong skirmish with the BBC over its deference to the British intelligence services, its deracinated styles of presentation and its emasculation of folk culture. ‘On the lips of concert hall performers,’ Henderson declared, ‘most folk songs completely lose their character – what was robust becomes insipid, and what was simple becomes artful in the worst sense.’ He also attended the first meeting of the National Assembly of the Scottish Convention, held in Glasgow in March 1947. The argument, as Henderson pressed it in an article for the Voice of Scotland, was that Gaelic civilisation could be defended only by ‘energetic political action which will make life liveable in the glens and along the shores of the sealochs. And the indispensable preliminary to that is the existence of a Parliament in Scotland.’

He was among the founders of the Edinburgh People’s Festival, a forerunner of the Fringe, set up to challenge the International Festival, which had launched in 1947. The rival festival started in 1951, and scored particularly highly in 1953, greeting the year of the coronation with a programme focused on ‘Scotland and Ireland’ which drew Dominic and Brendan Behan to Edinburgh, and drew too the interest of the police. The People’s Festival was an initiative of the British Communist Party and, until proscribed by the leadership, the Labour Party too. But Henderson had attended various festivals organised across Italy by the Communist paper l’Unità, and insisted that the inspiration really came from Gramsci. Already embarked on his own translation of the prison letters, Henderson argued that Scotland was in exactly the sort of crisis that Gramsci described ‘when the old is dead – and the new cannot be born.’

Henderson’s was a life of balladry, passionate public argument (his flytings with MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig were particularly memorable), and direct action designed to raise the demoralised Scottish people from their apathy. In 1952 a symbolic coup was achieved by the reiving of the Stone of Destiny, pinched from Westminster and returned to Scotland by a young nationalist writer and singer called Ian Hamilton. Another opportunity arose not long afterwards, when the Post Office announced that the logogram EIIR would in future appear on all postboxes. Henderson was at a meeting held in Sorley MacLean’s flat to discuss how Scotland might respond. He and Bobby Watt formed a group that in practice barely existed, but nevertheless provoked the British security services by calling itself the Scottish Republican Army and adopting the new postboxes as its target. At the beginning of 1953, the first royally adorned postbox in Edinburgh was found filled with misfired gelignite. Six weeks later it was blown up properly, its front panel blasted 30 yards across the main road. Neat doesn’t establish for sure that Henderson was the ‘elderly man’ seen putting something into the box shortly beforehand, but that is his implication.

In January 1952 Edinburgh University established its School of Scottish Studies as a research department dedicated to ‘the study and conservation of the folk culture of Scotland’, and Henderson was there from the start. Neat reckons that his appointment may have been sanctioned by the security services, happy to have him confined to academia as a harmless antiquarian of song. The school remained his base for forty years. His first major find was in Aberdeenshire, where he came across the Horseman’s Word, an ancient society of ‘horsemen, ploughmen, farrowers and blacksmiths’. With its oaths, songs, rituals and veterinary practice, this brotherhood seemed to go all the way back to the primeval smithy’s harnessing of fire. Henderson felt alternately like Homer wandering through the ruins of Troy, and ‘as if I had stumbled into a Mau-Mau camp and been recognised as the brother of Jomo Kenyatta’.

In July 1953, he made an even more arresting discovery. Following a tip picked up in Aberdeen’s Castlegate Market, he knocked at the door of a little house at Causewayend. It was opened by a woman wearing an apron. Sensing her imminent retreat, Henderson quickly broke into a verse of ‘The Battle of Harlaw’, prompting Jeannie Robertson to let him in so that she might teach him to sing it properly. Scotland’s travelling clans were widely despised and persecuted as a ‘historical anachronism’, but Robertson revealed a marvellous tradition of ballad composition and performance that was ‘very much alive’.

Hearing these songs, Henderson felt vindicated in his dispute with his Edinburgh colleagues, who had assumed that their job was to gather up the remains of dead traditions in a final ‘vacuum clean’. Convinced he had discovered a living tradition of songwriting, he went on to campaign for a renewal which, by the end of the 1950s, was finding expression all over the world. It was typified by the rapid projection of Jeannie Robertson as ‘the world’s greatest folksinger’ – a progress hardly slowed by Ewan MacColl, who promised to help, but pinched her songs and hastily recorded them himself. Robertson was one of many traditional singers – field labourers, tinkers, fish filleters, butchers – who found themselves fêted as bearers of a tradition that for decades had seemed moribund and despised.

David Craig, then a Marxist literary critic studying in Cambridge, went to Edinburgh to do some research in the early 1960s. He told Neat that ‘song was in the air, and the influence of Hamish everywhere apparent.’ Robertson and Jimmy MacBeath were among the elders of this movement, but Henderson encouraged younger figures too: Billy Connolly during his period as a banjo player, and Robin Williamson, a founder of the Incredible String Band, who is said to have been ‘close to Henderson’ for many years before he started to thrive as one of ‘the wild rovers of the folk revival’.

Henderson was quite capable of condemning ‘leafless, commercial, pop-folk skulduggery’, but for him the folk revival was never a matter of grimly holding on to old stories and songs. Just as he had argued with collectors who thought the tradition dead, he would oppose those, including MacColl, who tried to confine it to ‘authentic’ forms. He disliked ‘the phonus balonus of MacColl’s censorious Puritanism’ and went along, apparently quite gleefully, with the current that brought folk into a new coupling with rock and roll. The tradition was one of unaccompanied song, but Henderson was in favour of bands that would help popularise the music for new audiences. Indeed, Britain’s ‘first music video’ is said to have shown the Corries singing Henderson’s version of ‘The Braes o’ Killiecrankie’ on location in the famous pass.

Henderson carried his songs into battle whether on behalf of gay rights or against nuclear weapons and apartheid – as in ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ and his Mandela song ‘Rivonia’. According to Neat, it was largely thanks to his influence that ‘Celtic folk music was at least as important as black music as a catalyst of change’ in America in the 1960s. Looking back on her own fifty-year career in the US, the Scottish-born singer Jean Redpath remembered meeting Henderson in Edinburgh as a student in 1959: ‘He opened doors, windows, prospects for me that I had no reason to suspect till then.’ The Scottish revival found links to Pete Seeger, and younger figures too: Joan Baez, Richard Farina, who composed an instrumental called ‘Hamish’, and Bob Dylan, who used to sing Henderson’s ‘Banks o’ Sicily’ and who heard more of his songs from Redpath. Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ are cited as evidence of Hamish’s contribution to the development of folk as a ‘popular art of the future’.

Neat frames his discussion of the challenge taken on by Henderson in Scotland with two rhetorical questions. Were the members of Scotland’s Highland communities a ‘remnant’ people such as Karl Marx had identified: ‘left over from an earlier population, forced back and subjugated by the nation which later became the repository of historical development’? And was his country further condemned, thanks to its lack of truly galvanising and transformative writers, to remain the Scotland Yeats had declared the ‘fruit of Robert Burns and Scott’ – ‘not a nation’ at all, but merely ‘a province with a sense of the picturesque’?

I thought about that challenge when I attended a performance in Lochcarron by the Gaelic band Daimh. Their piper and singer, Calum Alex MacMillan, had a charming way of pausing to apologise for the fact that so many of the Hebridean songs in his repertoire seemed to be sagas of loss, migration and sadness. Yet he dispelled any suspicion that the small audience gathered in that Highland village hall might enjoy wallowing in defeat with a great blast of frenzied piping in which Gaelic and Galician rhythms were entwined.

A melancholy nursing of ancient grievances may have accompanied some folkish expressions of anti-imperialism, yet Henderson’s stance on the national question was not that of a kilted chauvinist standing at the bar and reciting ‘fee fi fo fum’ at witless English invaders. Neat points out that he condemned MacDiarmid’s ‘Anglophobia’ as ‘a racist anti-Englishness’. He had no desire, he said, to retreat behind a ‘Tartan Curtain’: MacDiarmid’s striking of poetic attitudes was ‘politically infantile’, and exactly the kind of consolation that a genuine Scottish resurgence would render unnecessary. Though without respect for ‘the debased cosmopolite’, Henderson was convinced that ‘a good nationalist must first be a good internationalist’. Folk music, as he saw it, was part of ‘the Eternal Human Underground that stands against authoritarian government and culture. It stands against war and for protest. It embraces the bawdy and stands for “human truth against the mummy-wrappings of sexual convention”.’

Henderson’s idea of the folk revival was explicitly influenced by Gramsci and his formulation of the ‘national-popular’. There are links to be made, too, with the ideas of Ernst Bloch, who warned in the late 1920s of the potency of ‘non-synchronous’ culture – traditions, narratives and folkish symbols that orthodox Marxism might dismiss as anachronistic relics, but which he saw being rekindled in the National Socialist imagination – and with the concerns of Walter Benjamin, whose backward-looking ‘angel of history’ has been widely perceived as the emblem of a discontinuous age in which the past can be secured in the present only through a measure of aestheticisation.

By 1969, Henderson was speaking with justified pride of ‘the “join” we have made between the old and new’. That join extended horizontally across peoples and cultures, not just vertically into the past. Many of the songs, riddles and stories he had collected belonged to travellers and could hardly be expected to derive from a single point of origin. He associated traditional songs with ‘the heritage of a country whose ethnic multiplicity has been one of the chief sources of its energy and resilience, as well as its vulnerability’. He was all for ‘organic, mongrel, international developments’, and welcomed the wandering paths taken by those he described as the ‘wild rovers’ of the folk revival: fusions such as those pioneered by Davey Graham, a guitarist of Scots/ Guyanese parentage, who incorporated Arab, Indian and African elements into his music, and by the Incredible String Band, which by the late 1960s was being hailed (and deplored) as a musical ‘global village’ in which East met West and a whole lot more besides. These horizontal joins are still evident in the sound of Daimh, following the bagpipe as it travels the Celtic fringe from Stornoway to Pontevedra in Galicia, or in the songs of Dick Gaughan, which include references to the death of the Chilean singer Victor Jara, murdered under Pinochet in 1973, and the plight of the Native American activist Leonard Peltier, convicted of murdering two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and imprisoned since 1977. The statements of far-flung solidarity come with a hint of apology, too – not least for the Highland resonances once exploited by the Ku Klux Klan.

Alex Salmond recently floated the idea that Scotland should adopt a new national anthem. Proposing a competition, he stated his own preference for ‘Scotland Will Flourish’ by the Corries – a celebration of national resourcefulness, he claimed, quite untouched by the anti-Englishness that should now be consigned to the past. In England a ‘second folk revival’ is underway. In his autobiographical manifesto The Progressive Patriot (2006), Billy Bragg finds Defoe’s insistence on the mongrelism of the ‘true-born Englishman’ confirmed by the hyphen in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and, rather wonderfully, by the huge Ancient British and later Roman camp on which his Essex hometown of Barking now stands. Bragg also performs as a member of the Imagined Village, which sets out to build an ‘inclusive, creative community’ by bringing English folk traditions into dialogue with other British music: English performers, including Bragg, Martin and Eliza Carthy, play alongside the bhangra drummer Johnny Kalsi, Sheila Chandra, a London singer with a South Indian background, and the sitar player Sheena Mukherjee. Benjamin Zephaniah contributed a ‘retold’ version of the famous border ballad ‘Tam Lin’, in which the faery queen’s spellbound captive, whose rescue is central to the traditional song, becomes an asylum-seeking refugee. The Imagined Village has combined its performances with public discussions about English identity, including Paul Gilroy’s suggestion, in After Empire (2004), that Britain faces a choice between embracing ‘multiculture’ (an experienced ‘conviviality’ that is not the same as anybody’s programmatic ‘multiculturalism’) and the dire consolations of ‘postcolonial melancholia’.

Far from representing a retreat into locality, or a defence of ‘authentic’ popular roots against a host of hated modern developments, the Imagined Village seeks to articulate a world in which all traditions are likely to be unsettled by the currents that also bring them into contact. Some of the summer festivals may still be touched by the old hippy cosmology, yet it is surely this more recent expression of the global commons that serves as the guiding principle of the 21st-century folk scene. There aren’t so many pipers in the English version, but Hamish Henderson might have raised his glass all the same – though not, perhaps, to Richard Thompson, who could be seen last June trading his customary beret for a top hat and accepting an OBE from the queen.