It’s time we honoured Hamish Henderson, truly great Scot and a father of our nation
Had Hamish Henderson been English and studied a culture in Borneo, say, he’d be famous and have a gallery in the British Museum. But he was Scottish and studied Scotland, and that doesn’t count in the Anglo world. The 100th anniversary of his birth falls next Monday, and the nation should pause to honour the finest version of a Scot – a clever man dedicated to the people.
But enough of him, here’s a different voice. “There is a tradition of popular song in Scotland to which England offers no counterpart whatever, and a large part of the Scottish songs, alike in Scots and Gaelic, have always recognised economics and politics to be the substance of poetry – and who but prettifying cissies disagree?”
That’s the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, in his sleeve blurb for a record by Nigel Denver called Scottish Nationalist Songs, from 1966.
He goes on: “‘War, wine and women,’ wrote a critic long ago, ‘were said to be the subject of song, and England has not a dozen good songs on any of them.’”
MacDiarmid’s rant concludes by saying the republican and socialist ideas in many of the songs went to show that the politics of “the great proletarian leader John Maclean” were the “way to go” for Scotland.
This is the voice of mid-20th Century politics, whether Scottish or anywhere else. Revolutionary, radical and macho – “cissies”! And it may explain why Scottish culture is still seen as a half-formed thing by some.
The sense that it is political, drunken, masculine and aggressive. And that it is inexorably associated with anti-Englishness. Not a culture, but a grubby protest and therefore not as interesting as exotic tribes in Borneo or elsewhere.
Which is no justice to Henderson.
A night in Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh with him in your ear would have been astonishing, like sharing a whisky with Jackson Pollock in Lower Manhattan, or lucking out with a gimlet in Graham Greene’s company.
Overshadowed in the public eye by MacDiarmid’s strident poetry, Henderson has still to be accorded his due.
He did more for Scotland than MacDiarmid ever did, and can be said to have shaped modern concepts of our culture. He founded the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, collected countless recordings of song and poetry across the land and, in being such a respected academic globally, asserted the internationalism of the democratic intellect.
We have heroes foisted on us, and are slow to recognise the true greats.
Nineteenth-Century romanticism gave us the Wallace Monument in Stirling, and oldfashioned elitism gave us the grand column to
Dundas in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square. In contrast, we didn’t get round to a statue for one of the world’s greatest physicists, James Clerk Maxwell, until a few years ago.
A bust of Henderson can be found in the newly built business district of South Gyle in Edinburgh. It’s hard to imagine a more inappropriate spot.
The case needs to be made that Henderson is a truly great Scot, a father of the nation more important than any politician of the past 50 years. Unlike MacDiarmid, he didn’t use his poetry or learning as bludgeon, but held to the ideas of international socialism sincerely and with humility.
What’s more, he spoke for the working man and woman everywhere, not just the Scot Nat.
He documented a culture that, while steeped in politics, was not a political invention, but as sincere and real a thing as any to be found across the world. What’s more he was a cissie – to use MacDiarmid’s bullying term – and advocated a tolerance and acceptance that we now find utterly normal, but was shockingly offensive to many in his lifetime.
He is best known for his song on international socialism, Freedom Come All Ye.
Who knows all the words? I’d guess as many as can sing Scots Wha Hae properly, which is to say, not many. In both instances, that is a regret. Scots Wha Hae is Burns’ celebration of Thomas Muir, the socialist martyr, dressed up as an address by Robert the Bruce.
Freedom Come All Ye needs no disguise.
It is plainly a song for the people, an encouragement to come together regardless of race, class or religion. For him, the socialism of John Maclean is not a weapon against the English, but a beacon to humanity.
When Maclean meets wi’s freens in Springburn,
A’ the roses and geans will turn tae bloom, And a black boy frae yont Nyanga, Dings the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon. In the week we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are surely humming to Henderson’s tune.
That “burgher” Dundas, toady to the establishment and preserver of the slave trade, should be knocked from his column, and the prime spot in the nation’s capital be given to Henderson.
He lived his life as the best kind of Scot, and led a life that did much to save a native culture as worthy as any other. He did so with grace. That is a figure worth looking up to, worth remembering this anniversary, and every day thereafter.
He didn’t use his poetry or learning as a bludgeon, but held to ideas of international socialism sincerely
Blairgowrie-born poet Hamish Henderson would have been 100 years old next week. He spoke up for working men and women everywhere, and documented our true culture, speaking up for a tolerance and acceptance that was shocking at the time