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Hamish Henderson

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Hamish Henderson, Blairgowrie's most notable son in modern times, was born in the town on Armistice Day, 1919. His grandfather, Alexander Henderson, was a retired silk mercer who had been in business on the High Street, Dundee.

He moved to Blairgowrie with his wife and unmarried daughter Janet and they lived at Ramleh, perth Road. Hamish was born to Janet at Ramleh. After the death of her parents, Janet took Hamish to live at other addresses in the town, including one in Emma Street where he was remembered by a neighbour as a small boy in a kilt. A lady who lived in Perth Road also remembered him as a wee boy in a kilt.

He was a pupil at the Blairgowrie School, later renamed Hill Primary. Here the head infant mistress, Miss peterkin, recognised his promise and gave him great encouragement. A bond was formed and the two kept in touch until her death

Before leaving Perthshire, Hamish and his mother were for some time in a cottage at the Spittal of Glenshee where he overheard and memorised Scots songs. He already had an ear for a song through his mother who loved singing and had a repertoire in Scots, Gaelic and French. One of his earliest recollections was of her marching through Ramleh singing the Marseillaise! After those first years of schooling in Blairgowrie,Hamish's education was continued in England. There was a school in Devon followed by scholarships for Dulwich College, London and Downing, Cambridge, where he became proficient in French and German. Sadly, by this time his mother had died.

As a student he took every opportunity to travel abroad and he also made return visits to Scotland, exploring its furthest corners, often on foot, talking to people, forming his ideas, and always picking up songs.

Folklorist, Author, Poet, Songwriter
born Blairgowrie, November 11th, 1919
died Edinburgh, March 18th 2002


Hamish Henderson had a distinguished war record. He was commissioned as an Intelligence Officer in 1941 and served in the Western Desert, in Sicily and all through Italy. He fought with the Partisans and had the honour of personally accepting Field Marshall Graziani's signed surrender.

Throughout his war service he was scribbling poems and songs in all odd places and times. Two of his songs spread like wildfire among the troops, the satirical D-Day Dodgers and, still popular, The Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily (Fareweel, ye Banks o' Sicily), nostalgic words put to a pipe tune.

Released from the army he came back to Scotland to complete a sequence of poems he had started in North Africa and Italy. Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica was published to acclaim in 1948 and won the Somerset Maugham poetry award. The poems stand as a moving tribute to the gallant men on both sides of the conflict.


Hamish was now about to set out on what he has grown to see as his life's mission: to fish the waters for Scotland's lost folklore and restore it to the people. He knew that traditional story and song still lived on the lips of ordinary folk. But it was disregarded, largely ignored. If it was not quickly gathered up and given its rightful place, it was in danger of fading from the collective memory.

Edinburgh University was opening a School of Scottish Studies to collect, to study and to teach. Hamish joined the team, becoming, as Joy Hendry has put it, the central spring behind the Folk Revival in Scotland.

The field expeditions he and others made from the School's headquarters at 27 George Square are a turning point in the history of our folklore. Using a reel to reel recorder Hamish gathered music, ballads, folktales and reminiscences. The quality and sheer quantity astonished the folk world, attracting international attention. His lectures, at the IUniversity and to the public at large, spread the message, His infectious enthusiasm inspired his colleagues and broke down barriers.

The 'folk scene' developed and clubs sprang up all over the country. Young people flocked to them, discovering their heritage. Tradition-bearers were persuaded to perform on stage what they had hitherto done in the kitchen or at local ceilidhs. The Aberdeen ballad singer Jeannie Robertson, street singer Davie Stewart, the DBorder shepherd Willie Scott and wandering Jimmy MacBeath: these and others appeared in Hamish's landmark People's Festivals in Edinburgh, forerunner of the Fringe.


To Hamish's unbounded delight, his hometown, Blairgowrie and Rattray, proved to be as rich a hunting ground for songs as any district in Scotland. In the 1950s it was still the mecca for travelling families in the fruit-picking season. He camped alongside them, made friends with them. The evenings, when picking was done, were spent recording. He described the experience: Four or five similar ceilidhs might well be going on in the same berryfield, and the excited collector would have to decide whether to stay on at the first campfire of his choice or move to another, from which, maybe, he could hear tantalising fragments of a rare Child ballad, or the high flamenco-like cadences of a Gaelic tinker love lament. Recording in the berryfields was like holding a tin-can under the Niagara Falls.

There were local tradition-bearers too. The Stewarts of Blair, Alex, Belle and two daughters Cathie and Sheila, made a huge contribution to the School's archives and were natural performers who took their music and songs to audiences at home and abroad.

Through the presence of these and other local families, and the annual influx of fruitpickers, the town began to gain a reputation as a folksong centre. For several years it hosted an annual festival run by the Traditional Music and Song Association. Always sung on these occasions was Belle Stewart's own lively description of berrytime as she had known it in her young days.


In a period when many intellectuals were drawn to the Left, Hamish Henderson became a lifelong Socialist. Always ready to support a cause, he was a familiar figure at protests against fascism, South African apartheid laws and on CDND marches. In Italy he had discovered the Leftist philosopher Antonio Gramsci and made an English translation of his letters from Prison.

From his home in Edinburgh he crossed swords with the poet Hugh MacDiarmid who dismissed the work of the Scottish School of Studies as irrelevant. Their 'flyting', conducted in the Press, became a popular public spectacle. The two men ended up the best of friends.

Several of Hamish's original songs found their way into the oral stream, among them his Freedom Come All Ye, The John MacLean March and Men of Rivona (call to free Mandela from jail). A selection of his letters appeared under the title The Armstrong Nose while Alias MacAlias was a collection of his writings.

With his friend Tim Neat he collaborated in the making of documentary films. In 2002 the Scottish Arts Council gave Tim Neat a grant towards a biography of Hamish Henderson. Tim's researches have revealed masses of materials on Hamish's life as well as boxes of hitherto unseen manuscripts.


Hamish received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Dundee and Aberdeen but declined the offer of an OBE in protest against Margaret Thatcher's nuclear policy. He was soon afterwards voted Scot of the Year by Radio Scotland listeners.

Hamish Henderson was, for many, an inspiring figure. His influence on people and events in Scotland is incalculable. On a personal level, many will testify that it was impossible, in his company, not to be swept along on the tide of his exuberance. His eloquence was unquenchable, his optimism unbounded.

In later years, when his physical health was declining, he looked back on his field visits to Blairgowrie, and the friends he made there, with warm affection.

In 2003, the year after his death in an Edinburgh nursing home, Blairgowrie, Rattray and District Local History Trust decided to commission a bronze head for permanent display in the local branch library. Grant Aid was received from the lottery organisation Awards for All and Rural Tayside Leader. The Perthshire-based sculptor Anthony Morrow, long an admirer if Hamish, eagerly accepted the commission. The bust is a permanent symbol and reminder of the regard in which Hamish Henderson is held in the town of his birth.

With thanks to Mr Maurice Fleming for permission to reprint the biographical material he prepared for the inauguration of the bust. His leaflet is still available in Blairgowrie Library.

For more information about Hamish Henderson, see "The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish cultural politics" by Corey Gibson. Edinburgh University Press, 2015.


For many people one of the highlights of the 2014 Commonweath Games opening ceremony in Glasgow was Pumeza Matshikiza's rendering of Hamish Henderson's Freedom Come All Ye. According to Brian Wilson writing in the Scotsman: "It was made all the more poignant because the singer came frae yont Nyanga, the black township near Cape Town mentioned by Henderson as a symbol of both oppression and hope."