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Volume I of Timothy Neat’s Hamish Henderson, a Biography (Polygon Books, 375 pp, £25.00), explores the early life of Hamish Henderson, the poet, folk-lorist, soldier, communist and nationalist, one of contemporary Scotland’s most dazzling intellectual stars. 
Henderson was born in 1919, the illegitimate son of a respectable Scots nurse, herself the daughter of douce, bourgeois Dundonians and recently returned from war service, and of an unknown father.  The more likely candidate for Henderson’s paternity,  James Scott, an impulsive Glasgow engineer, was legally married but almost certainly had an affair with Henderson’s mother, subsequently lived with another woman by whom he had children and may have, at a later date again, lived with Henderson’s mother.  The alternative, less likely, candidate is the Marquis of Tullibardine.  From conception Henderson then, was a mix of stolidity and licentiousness.
Raised in Glenshee, on the borderland of Doric and Gaelic, his mother and he then moved south and he was enrolled in an English prep school.  After his mother’s death, he spent part of his boyhood in the Clapham Boys Home, an Anglican orphanage, a period he essentially obliterated from any recounted version of his life.  He also however won a scholarship to Dulwich College, originally a charitable institution and one of London’s great private schools.  From Dulwich he went to Downing College, Cambridge, where he read modern languages from 1938 to 1940.
His anti-fascism, Scottish Republicanism and incipient communism all developed in political activism in the Cambridge Union and against Chamberlain, appeasement and what Henderson saw as the initially half-hearted execution of the war.  In the midst of that however, he defended Roy Campbell, the superbly talented but pro-fascist South African poet, an auger of future unpredictable stances on matters literary and political.
By 1940, having graduated, he was private in the Pioneer Corps and despite his incipient nationalism, took “great satisfaction to be actually combating the most reactionary force in the world today”.  His linguistic skills propelled him to a commission in the Intelligence Corps.  In January 1942 he sailed for Africa.
Henderson served with the Highland Division in the Western Desert, in Sicily and Italy.  He wrote bawdy ballads, adopted en masse by the Eighth Army.  He produced Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, ultimately to gain him the Somerset Maugham Award, a paean to not only his beloved Highlanders but to the soldiers of all nations who perished in the Desert.  He produced songs such as The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily and the Ballad of the D-day Dodgers, which have entered the Scottish folk tradition.  In Italy he liaised with the Communist partisans, for whom he developed an unstinting love and admiration and from whom he assimilated another hugely influential strand, the writing of Antonio Gramsci.  In April 1945 Henderson accepted the surrender of Graziani, the first Axis capitulation of the War.
The war over, he returned to Cambridge, worked for the Workers Educational Association in Belfast, became a key part of the burgeoning Scottish literary scene, and became involved in the organisation of the Edinburgh People’s Festival, the explicitly political precursor of the Fringe.  Henderson had welcomed the post-war Edinburgh Festival.  He was never antagonistic to what other Marxists would have dismissed as bourgeois culture but, recognising that it was likely to have ‘an establishment bias’ and to be hostile to ‘Scotland’s indigenous cultures’, he wanted more.  Ewan McColl, Joan Littlewood, the Communist Party, the Edinburgh Trades Council, Henderson and others established the People’s Festival, to which, in 1953, Henderson introduced the great ballad singer, Jeannie Robertson.  1953 was also however to be the last People’s Festival since the Labour Party and the STUC, executors of McCarthyite intolerance, placed the People’s Festival, on their proscribed lists, effectively denying it any assistance from the Labour movement.
Henderson then became involved in the campaigns against the entitlement of the new British queen as ‘Elizabeth II’.  Henderson was an active supporter of the Scottish Republican Army, with its war waged against pillar boxes bearing the new, and unacceptable, royal cipher.  For a man whose life centred on ‘real’ struggles, it was a curious diversion.  He had also however become intensively involved, with Alan Lomax and others in collecting traditional Scottish songs, Jeannie Robertson, being but one of their ‘finds’.  This ultimately led to the formation of the School of Scottish Studies, the work which was to be Henderson’s monumental gift to Scotland.
In his youth Henderson wrote what could stand as his epitaph: “Every night I should offer up thanks …. that I escaped the degenerate respectability of a crazed Scotch Calvinism at the age of eight.”  We also should give such thanks.  As poet, politician, publicist and partisan, Henderson made a unique contribution to the Scotland which seems to be emerging in the century of which he saw only the first two years.  It was however his work as a collector of Scotland’s indigenous cultures which marked out Henderson’s greatest contribution to his country.  We await with enthusiasm the publication of Volume II of Neat’s work and the telling of that story.
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 6 January 2009:

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