It’s time we hon­oured Hamish Hen­der­son, truly great Scot and a fa­ther of our na­tion

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - AGENDA - Alex Bell

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

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