Every self respecting, politically progressive Scot over the age of 50 will have their favourite Hamish Henderson story I am sure. I have several. And the great joy in Timothy Neat's thoroughly compelling biography, of which this is the second volume, is that all of them are to be found inside.
'Hamish Henderson lived one of the great lives of the twentieth century Scotland, a dramatic life of epic European scale, a life of major artistic, political and spiritual achievement.' claims Neat. And indeed he did. A Scottish republican Hamish famously turned down and OBE after luring the monarch into thinking he would accept. As a Major in British Intelligence during WW2 he took the Italian surrender. Posted to North Africa he wrote the hauntingly beautiful book of poems 'Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica'. He also composed the inspiring anti-imperialist anthem 'Freedom Come All Ye'. And in 'The John Maclean March' he celebrated the life of the great Red Clydeside legend. He almost single-handedly revived the Scottish folk tradition after WW2 mixing music and literature and he discovered in Jeannie Robertson, a traveller from the North East of Scotland, a woman who was later described as 'the greatest ballad singer in the world'.
His work in the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University attracted interest from across the world and he influenced and array of artists and performers, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Billy Connolly, John McGrath and Tilda Swinton among them. He translated the works of the outstanding Italian Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci. He wrote the song 'Rivonia' for the African National Congress based on the 1962 trial of Nelson Mandela and it became an anti-apartheid anthem worldwide for 40 years. He was a prominent anti poll tax campaigner and supporter of an independent socialist Scotland. And he founded the Edinburgh People's Festival.
I attended his funeral at St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh on 15th March 2002 with 1,500 other admirers. In considering how best to remember his life and the many 'gifts' he had left working people in Scotland and worldwide I decided to arrange a one night, one off gala evening in his memory and call it a People's Festival.
It is a testament to Hamish's genius and the essence of that idea that the People's Festival has run now for 7 years. [See www.edinburghpeoplesfestival.org]. In 2008 we even inaugurated the Hamish Henderson Memorial Lecture and Timothy Neat delivered it.
Hamish once said that the Edinburgh Festival was 'Scotland's second greatest gift to the world'. He was proud that the world's largest arts festival takes place here each August and he was passionate about the arts being imbued with his 'democratic intellect'. The People's Festival has both the spirit of Hamish and Antonio Gramsci running through it. Perhaps, like I did, you want to know what Hamish considered Scotland's greatest gift to the world. The answer will surprise many, for it wasn't penicillin, or the Enlightenment, of James Watts' steam engine, or Logie Baird's television, or even Billy Connolly! It was, according to Hamish, the Battle of El Alamein! He believed the mainly Scottish Highland regiments fighting in North Africa deserved the accolade for halting the previously unstoppable advance of Field Marshall Rommel's German armies. It was for him an enormous and first real turning point of WW2. He felt the defeat of fascism in the savage Egyptian desert saved the world from disastrous and barbaric consequences. He had a habit of making you think afresh!
Timothy Neat's first volume 'The Making of the Poet' covers Hamish's life from 1919, the year of his birth, to 1952. One critic described it as being 'celebratory' of Hamish's life, as indeed it is. Volume two is no less a celebration and why not, there is plainly a great deal to enjoy. Timothy Neat, a close friend of Hamish for 40 years, has been able to show the entire man, his foibles, imperfections and a' that, but he is always able to convey the many unique and outstanding talents in the man and the power of his intellect and broad range of interests to which he applied it.
In 2006 I was invited to address a Stop the War rally in London's Hyde Park on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party. In my brief remarks I recited a couple of lines from verse two of Hamish's 'Freedom Come All Ye' to illustrate how Scottish soldiers were again being shamefully used to repress the poor Iraqis:
'Nae mair will our bonnie callants
Merch tae war when our braggarts crousely craw
Nor wee weans fae pithead and clachan
Mourn the ships sailin doun the Broomielaw
Broken families in lands we've harriet
Will curse 'Scotland the Brave' nae mair, nae mair
Black and white ane-til-ither marriet
Mak the vile barracks o their maisters bare'
This awesome piece of work indelibly marks Hamish Henderson, like Burns before him, as an immovable anti-imperialist and proud internationalist and is as timeless and powerful today - in reference to both Iraq and Afghanistan - as it was in 1960 when it was written.
Hamish Henderson was fiercely proud of his Scots heritage but he never allowed himself to be blinded by our history or the brutal class struggle contained within it. His generous nature, essential decency and common humanity ensured he could easily find a welcome for everyone.
His place as a major artistic, political and cultural figure in modern European history is not yet assured as he needs to be, and deserves to be, much better known. A poet, balladeer, folklorist, musician, songwriter, working class intellectual and political activist, Hamish was at different times a member of the Communist Party, the Fife Socialist League and the Scottish Labour Party. Many people don't know who Hamish Henderson was so this book should introduce him to new readers and help ensure he is soon given his rightful place.
'Hamish Henderson lived on of the great lives of twentieth century Scotland' says Neat and I for one don't dissent.