A transcript of the talk given at this year’s Annual LBPS Collogue by Gary West


Rona asked if I would say a word or two about Hamish Henderson this morning, who was born one hundred years ago last Monday (Nov. 11th) in Blairgowrie in Perthshire, and I'm delighted to do that.

I've nothing formal by way of a presentation, but he was a man who was a huge inspiration for me because I first met him when I was 17 years old when I went to the University of Edinburgh, and found myself quite by accident in the School of Scottish Studies, which I'd vaguely heard about, I think - but I'd actually gone to Edinburgh to do English Literature but I stood in the queue to sign up in Freshers' Week and didn't like the sound of the people around me, [laughter] so I went wandering and found a desk called Scottish History, which I thought was quite interesting, though I'd not done any history at school after second year, and then Gaelic, which I had done at school, and then this desk called The School of Scottish Studies. As I said I had heard of it but  wasn't sure what it did - I knew it vaguely did 'folk stuff' - and being a piper and someone who'd got into folk music, I signed up there. Within a couple of weeks I met this amazing character called Hamish Henderson. It was probably a class of about this size, around 20 or 30 people at that time, whereas the equivalent class I'm teaching at the moment is around 150. I suppose that's a good sign, in some ways.

Hamish would bumble in - I'm not sure if that's the right verb, but it's something like that. By that time he would have been in his sixties - this was the early 1980's - and although his official title was lecturer, he never ever gave us anything that you would loosely describe as a lecture. He just stood and chatted. And he was much more interested in us, he would go round the class and ask 'Where are you from?' - he was very posh, for someone from Blairgowire  - he didn't speak like anyone else Id ever met from Balirgowrie- there was a reason, of course, why he spoke like that, and we'll come to that - but he was really interested in the people that he was with, students in this case, and he'd go round the class asking where we were each from, and we'd tell him and them he would immediately tell you about the place you came from, and he would link into people that he had interviewed, from wherever you were from, and not just in Scotland. He was amazing in terms of his depth and breadth of knowledge of Scotland and its people, not just of its past people but its current people, the people that were current then in the 1980's. And when he heard I was from Pitlochry and said he was from Blairgowrie, he took me under his wing, I suppose, and when he knew I was a piper -  I have to say from the outset that he was hugely encouraging - but it was kind of a reciprocal relationship we had with the bagpipes. In fact we had a little ceremony on Monday where we unveiled a plaque in George Square, on the wall of the School of Scottish Studies, which is lovely because it is two doors down from the one for Sir Walter Scott, so he's right there on the same wall, and Freeland Barbour, the great accordion-player and composer came along and he said to me 'You know, where would Hamish have been if it wasn't for piping?' and I thought about that for a minute and I thought actually it's true, because he was hugely inspired by pipers and pipe music but was in turn very inspirational for a lot of us too.

So, I thought I would share a few thoughts about Hamish and try and bring it round to piping, which isn't difficult to do in his case, but I don't think you can ever really divorce one aspect of Hamish from the rest, because he was a kind of holistic person in many ways. So I'll say a little about his background, which is very important for understanding where he was coming from, his while attitude to the culture of Scotland and beyond. The story is fairly well-known so I won't dwell on it too long. He was born exactly one year to the day after the end of the Great War, a war that his mother had been involved with, as a nurse on the Western Front. She came back to Scotland - the exact details are a bit of a mystery- perhaps just as well - but anyway, Hamish appeared, just some months after she returned. There was no father figure, she was clearly a single woman, and to this day there is still quite a lot of intrigue as to who was Hamish's father; that question in itself has gathered quite a lot of folklore, and he delighted in teasing about it. Whether he knew or not, nobody is terribly sure, the chances are he probably did. But one of the great rumours was that he was the son of 'Bardy', who was the Marquis of Tullybardine, who later became the Duke of Atholl, and it's perfectly possible because the Castle after the war was still being used as a convalescent home and she was a nurse, so it is possible that, being a Perthshire girl, she went to work there and if she did have a liaison, a dalliance, with a member of the Atholl family, she would not have been the first, by all accounts. If you see the portrait of the Duke, which you can in Blair Castle, then it does add fuel to the possibility, certainly. But there's another character from Glasgow who Tim Neat, Hamish's main biographer, says was probably the father.

The point being really that as a single mother in a rural place like Blairgowrie, and then she moved up to Glenshee, it wasn't really the done thing. Hamish always felt she was a little bit isolated, a little bit shunned. When Hamish's grandmother died, his mother's mother, who Hamish was very close to, Janet, his mother, took the chance to leave the area altogether and from Perthshire they went right to the south of England.

So Hamish was an only child and felt very much that he was an outsider, right from the start, and I think that explains quite a lot about his attitude to his life and his work. Also, he was born on a border, a border between the Lowlands and the Highlands of Scotland. In fact he was born and lived right on the fault-line. In Glenshee at the time Gaelic was still being spoken by the older people - it was on its way out - but in Blairgowrie itself it was Lowland Scots - if you were to stand where he was from, depending on which way you were facing, in one ear you've got a Gaelic tradition and in the other a Scots tradition. So  that border, that partly one thing, partly another, not entirely both, not entirely either, was something he talked a lot about, when he was talking to us as students, and I think that slightly peripheral aspect of being not quite in society was something that he felt very much. None more so than when, very sadly, his mother died, not long after the move south. So he was alone in the world. He was a very bright boy, and she had fixed him up with a school in the south of England, the headmaster of which was a Scot, and he took him under his wing - in fact he became his guardian after his mother died. Hamish then won a scholarship to Dulwich College, a very highfalutin school in England, but I think that that early experience of being alone in the world - well he didn't talk about that so much, but he did write about it.

[Here Gary displayed a copy of The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics]

I thoroughly recommend this brand-new collection of his poems that was launched this week, edited by Corrie Gibson who is a very fine, young scholar Buy it! It's amazing. It's got all his songs, all his poetry - about a third of this has never been published before.

I came across a very moving verse - written when he was quite young, a poem called  ‘Ballad of the Twelve Stations of my Youth’. He probably wrote this in his twenties, thinking back to his childhood. He never really talked about his mother's death much but there's this very moving verse:

"Brighton, last night to the flix, and now I'm sitting in a dressing-gown on the rumpled unmade bed, There's a trunk in the room and plates and morning sunshine and Mrs O'Byrne saying my mother's dead"

So that's how the news came to him, because he was a border, that his mother had gone, and he decided  'I'm alone in the world - I'm just going to face it, to get on with the rest of my life' - as indeed he did.

He had a scholarship to Dulwich so he was very well educated, I think that's where the posh accent came from - although he was very fluent in Scots; if you listen to any of the many thousands of interviews in the School of Scottish Studies of him interviewing people, he could slip into the accent of whomever he was interviewing - he was very much a people person.

He then went to Cambridge, and Cambridge at the time, in the 1930's, was pretty left-wing - well of course several famous spies came out of there. But even by Cambridge standards he was a pretty radical left-wing figure, and he was doing a huge amount of agitation, and trying to put Scotland on the map - he never forgot where he was from, even though he had only lived in Scotland for the early part of his childhood, having moved down to England when he was 9 or 10 I think it was, and he was trying, in the debating societies of Cambridge and so on, to put Scotland on the map. What he hated was what had come out of the first part of the 20th century, what was being put forward as Scottish culture, Scottish music - Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe, the drawing room version of Gaelic song, Margery Kennedy-Fraser and so on, and he was a big supporter of the literary renaissance led by Hugh MacDiarmid. Although later they came to public blows about the conflict between 'high-art' and 'folk-culture'  -in which MacDiarmid took the high-art side and Hamish the folk culture side - he was a huge admirer of what MacDiarmid had done and was later to mimic it in trying to put a folk revival in place in the manner of the literary revival that had taken place a generation earlier.

Then of course, war broke out. Hamish actually tried to join up with, I think it was the Seaforth's - one of the regiments of the 51st Highland Division. He had very poor eyesight so they didn't take him but the recruiting sergeant said to him 'You'll be called up soon enough' and of course he was. He went into the Pioneer Corps initially, which is very interesting, so he was a pacifist in some senses and yet he saw the writing on the wall. He used to tell us stories about this - in the first half of 1939 he was in Western Europe helping to get vulnerable people out, Jews, Gypsies and so son. He smuggled out quite few young people, some of whom, he stayed in touch with later in life

The Pioneer Corps was the non-combatant corps so a lot of the sons of Italian Scots, and Italian Scots themselves, were in the Pioneer corps, despite the fact that their fathers. the heads-of-household in Scotland, had been rounded up, imprisoned in Donaldson's School for the Deaf. then sent to the Isle of Man and then on a ship called the The Arandora Star' which was torpedoed off Newfoundland - a very powerful metaphor for the Italian experience, but their sons, who were Scottish, were often put into the Pioneer Corps so that - a small blink to humanity, I suppose - they weren't sent to fight their cousins.

hendesron fieldwork

Hamish Henderson recording in the field

So Hamish was amongst that; then he went to the Intelligence Corps, as a lot of Cambridge people did, but he always wanted to be attached to the 51st Highland Division, and he eventually got that. So he fought in the front line in the North African Campaign, and was, by all accounts, a very successful intelligence officer in terms of  - ‘interviewing’, I suppose is the best way to describe it, - chatting with prisoners of war, Italians and Germans- he was fluent in German, French and Italian. His interrogation technique was basically to sing to them and then ask them to sing songs back to him and then he would write them down - he was 'collecting' in the war, and actually published a lot of these songs after the war, which have been re-published here [in Gibson's new book] as ‘Ballads of the Second World War’, and these ballads weren't just Scottish, but German and Italian too.

He got his wish at the end of the African campaign, when things moved back to Europe and to Italy and Sicily by being attached to the 51st Division. He arrived in Sicily not seeing himself as an invader - depending on you politics, of course, either this was an invading army or a liberating army - he saw himself very much as liberating the Italian people from the strong stranglehold of fascism- and a lot of Italians thought that too. So when they got into Sicily there was quite a warm welcome for the troops and when they landed he certainly felt that that was how they were being accepted - as a liberating force rather than an invading army.

And from there, they left Sicily onto mainland Italy went to Rome, up into Tuscany and when the fascists decided to surrender, Hamish was the man who basically wrote out the surrender statement and got it signed and had it broadcast. He was always someone who liked to make a splash and had made sure that there was a radio recording unit there so that this Italian surrender could be broadcast. So he had a major part to play in world politics during the second world war.

Then back to Rome and that's where he got really involved with the Italian partisans, the communist resistance, and particularly discovered, as you might know, the workings of the Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist philosopher who had been locked up - he was from Sardinia, where a lot of your reeds might have come from, perhaps - by Mussolini, but wrote his philosophies while incarcerated, and Hamish was the first person to translate them into English.

Then Hamish came back to Scotland determined to start a folk revival, and we are part of that; if Hamish had not done what he did, would we be here right now?-  question mark - discuss; who knows?

But he didn't come back to start a revival that was bringing back quaint old tunes and songs - he had an agenda, a very politicised agenda, which was, as he said, to put Gramsci in action. Gramsci was all about- well he wrote about many things but he wrote quite extensively about folk culture and he said  that it doesn't suit the powers to encourage folk culture because that real culture of the people, whoever the people might be - it's a dangerous thing to let the people actually celebrate their own culture because then we can't control it, 'we' being the authorities. Hamish thought that was very true, and as I said he came back to try and say that the folk revival in Scotland is going to be Gramsci in action, and in many respects it was  - that's exactly what he did.

The rest, as they say, is history. He wasn't the founder of the School of Scottish Studies, that's not quite accurate; the school was founded before he was involved. He worked for the WEA, the Workers Education Association, which is still very strong today, of course. He worked in Ireland, he worked in Scotland - he was a man of the people right from the start, in that sense, before he got a job at the School of Scottish Studies. He and Calum MacLean - Hamish taking the Scotsspeaking areas, Calum, the brother of Sorely MacLean the poet, the Gaelicspeaking areas, and off they went with their tape-recorders around Scotland, literally knocking on doors saying 'You got any stories - You got any tunes?'

There's a couple of lovely recordings, which have been transcribed and published, I think I'm right in saying, in Common Stock, of conversations about Frankie Markus, of the folk memory of this old piper, who had been playing bellows-pipes.

That's a basic background to Hamish, but I want to pick up on a couple of things specifically to do with piping. He was a big believer that you can't just take from tradition. Each generation has a responsibility to add to that tradition, hence his 'carrying stream' idea, that simple replication of what has gone before is not good enough, because you will never develop your culture if you're just copying what's gone before. The idea, I suppose, that lies at the heart of his movement was, understand what's come before, immerse yourself in what's come before, but take it in the direction that you want to take it. It's not so much that, again you can use lots of metaphors with this 'carrying stream', not so much that you 'divert' the stream, but what it's carrying is the detail of the tradition, and so you have an influence in what you might throw into the stream, if you like, and Hamish threw a lot into the stream. Like Burns and others, he took certain things from the tradition and then moulded them and added to them and put some brand new things into the tradition too.

He loved the bagpipes, however, and it's no accident that quite a lot of the songs he wrote were to pipe tunes. I mentioned the 51st Highland Division and I mentioned Sicily and that's probably one of the ones that you think of. He heard the pipes and drums of the 153 Brigade marching into one of the villages in Sicily playing 'Farewell to the Creeks', and he used to say that when it came to the third part of the tune, and they were all about to leave Sicily for the mainland of Italy, ' I was just singing 'fare weel you banks of Sicily' - and there's a lovely recording in the School of Scottish studies, which I published in the book I wrote a few years ago called 'Voice of Scotland' where, after the war he went to find Pipe Major James Robertson who had composed Farewell to the Creeks in the First World War, and they're having a chat and having a conversation. James Robertson was a janitor in Banff Academy by then, having fought in the First World War in the Gordon Highlanders, he was actually a Lowlander, southern Lowlander, from Clarkston, this part of the country, rather than the north-east, but then moved to the north-east when he was quite young. He played in the pipe band under G S Mclennan. Hamish went to see him in 1952. I really like this because, you know how we Highland pipers, we all like to cite our pedigree, of who taught us and who they were taught by, and all of that stuff. So I was taught by Iain Duncan, and Iain Duncan was taught by- his first teacher was James Robertson. So I've got a kind of direct link in that sense. So this is Hamish talking to James Robertson [Gary read from the book] 'So when did you compose Farewell to the Creeks, now? And Jimmy Robertson says 'Oh I think I composed it about 1915'. 'Oh aye, during the war itself?- 'Yes, in fact it was composed on a piece of yellow blotting paper. I have the original bit yet.'- 'Oh, have ye still got it? And where did you compose it?'- 'It was in Germany, I was a prisoner of war at the time.' - He had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Mons, August 1914, so right at the start of the war, so he spent virtually the entire war as a prisoner, probably a good thing,  in retrospect, not in the trenches but as a prisoner of war - 'Oh I see, and what were ye thinking of, when ye made the title, Farewell to the Creeks?' - 'Well, I was thinking about the Creeks of Portknockie, as a matter of fact. I remember my uncle stayed in an old house there and when I was a boy I went on holiday once, and the place was called the Creeks; I saw it recently, in fact, first time for many years, and this particular locality, aye they called it the Creeks. I remember it was pretty stormy and the waves were washing high up against this other wall of the house.  It's known in Portknockie as the Creeks, this particular part'. And Hamish says 'Aye, and are there inlets in it?' He said ‘Yeah, yeah, just all over the Morayshire coast.' And Hamish said, ‘D'you know, when I first heard that tune I didn't know who had composed it, but I was sure that it was related to this north-east coast, you know. Seems to me to spring just as naturally out of it as the Bothy Ballads spring from the soil inland, ye know? I heard it played for the first time, to my remembering it anyway, when I was in Sicily, in the square Linga Glossa, the massed pipes, the pipe band of the 153 Brigade played it. Would you sing it over?'. And Jimmy diddles the whole tune - it's beautiful, actually, it's a lovely thing. And Hamish says 'My God, that's a fine tune.' And there was another, Pipe Major Hepburn of the Turrif pipe band, present there as a well, and he said to Hamish, 'You put words to that didn't you?' And Hamish said 'Yeah, I put words to it' and he says to Jimmy 'Did I ever sing you the words?'- 'No. What were the words?’ I love this moment, because they're coming together, two really creative forces, in many ways, a tune from a war and a song from a war, and the first time that he heard it. And Hamish says 'Ah well, I composed it when the Highland Division were leaving Sicily, you know, and it was the time when the units were going out to embark and there was this sense of leaving and I heard the massed pipe band of 153 Brigade play your tune there, so the two ideas just sort of came together in my head, and I made this ballad, when I sang it at the time and it goes like this' and then he sings the tune.

We were going to have a tune weren’t we? We were going to play some of these tunes? Do you want to get your pipes? [The gathering then set about playing’ Freedom Come All Ye’. ‘Fareweel Ye Banks o Cicily’ and The Song of the Gillie More’.]

[Ed; The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics by Corey Gibson is published by Edinburgh University Press, 2015 and is available from their website.]