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‘Poetry Becomes People’, the second volume of Timothy Neat’s biography of Hamish Henderson (Polygon Books, £25), completes the life of one of modern Scotland’s architects. The first volume, ‘The Making of the Poet’, (reviewed in Scottish Review, 6 January 2009) ends with Henderson starting his career as a collector of folk music.
     Above all, Henderson, in his work for the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, recognised the wealth of songs and stories, in Gaelic and Scots, maintained through countless generations, by Scotland’s travelling people. Bella Higgins, the Stewarts of Fetterangus, the Highland Stewarts, the Williamsons and Jeannie Robertson, were voices and personalities brought to a universal audience by Henderson. He not only gave the world scores of wonderful musicians and storytellers but rescued songs such as ‘The Fause Knight’, which the great collectors of the 19th century, Grieg and Duncan, concentrating on the more ‘respectable’ farmers and bothy labourers and not thinking to tap the traveller source, had entirely missed. Hear these wonders on the School of Scottish Studies double album of ‘The Muckle Sangs’.
Henderson ranged further. Willie Scott, the border shepherd, became an internationally known singer because of Henderson. The Langholm Common Riding, the Padstow May Day dance and the folk scene of Brittany, were all grist to his collecting mill. He understood the significance of the American folk revival and recognised the roots of Dylan’s music. He was the great encourager, of Billy Connolly, Aly Bain, the Boys of the Lough, Jean Redpath and many more. He recognised their link to a mythic past as well as to a new tradition.
Neat’s book does more than justice to Henderson the collector and encourager. Where it is less satisfactory is in its avowed purpose of an autobiography. Its thematic, rather than chronological, approach leaves the reader uncertain of cause and effect or of development and continuity. It is crammed full of detail, contains countless single references to passing singers, poets, journalists and academics and could encompass its truly relevant elements in perhaps two thirds of its bulk.
Where it succeeds is painting the many hues of Henderson, the almost contradictory elements which made him bigger than any of his parts: the poet, the folklorist (collector, organiser, teacher, facilitator), the political activist; the Episcopalian, communist, nationalist, internationalist. Perhaps only an Episcopalian, Gramscian nationalist could make the point that the survival of the Jacobite songs of Scotland has less to do with their Jacobitism and more with their rebel content.
Some of his contradictory elements however did not easily coexist. His own poetic muse seems largely to have deserted him once he became engaged in the folk process and, although he was to write magnificent songs, especially those against apartheid and the anthemic ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, he never repeated the poetic successes of his war-time ‘Elegies for Dead in Cyrenaica’.
Neat certainly captures the tetchy, argumentative Henderson, especially in revealing the great ‘flytings’, the intellectual jousts with his fellow poets, especially with MacCaig and MacDiarmid. These were serious disputes around major intellectual issues. MacDiarmid and MacCaig were entirely suspicious of Henderson’s faith in folk traditions. Henderson saw them as patrician and elitist. Yet the difference was greater than that. Henderson ultimately revels in the great archetypes, in both emotion and mystery. He may in his youth have been a communist: he was never a Marxist.
For all his disputatious character, Hendeson was the epitome of generosity, both material and emotional, and never more clearly shown than in his ultimate refusal to hold grudges in respect of either MacDiarmid or MacCaig. He was generous also in his championing of the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Henderson also, like so many Scots, personified a deep schism between his surface character and his deeper self. The bon viveur, the eternal communicator, the man for whom drink was an increasingly essential social lubricant, was also awkward and emotionally insecure.
Neat hints that at points Henderson believed he might have had a role as a political leader. What a waste that would have been. He was one of Scotland’s strongest voices in support of the struggle against apartheid. He campaigned actively in support of the miners in their doomed struggle of 1984. He played a significant role in the struggle for a Scottish parliament. Yet his political contributions were ultimately secondary to his cultural contributions.
Almost without thinking his work has been assimilated by others. In ‘End of a Campaign’, his First Elegy, he stated that there ‘were no gods and precious few heroes’. That phrase has been turned into a song by Brian McNeill, the title of an album by Dick Gaughan, the title of a book by Christopher Harvie. In a hundred years’ time, Henderson’s great works will be remembered, not as his, but as part of a much wider Scottish tradition. He would be content with that.
This article first appeared in The Scottish Review on 7 January 2010:

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