24 May 2016
The poet and music archivist Hamish Henderson was well known in Edinburgh bars and academic circles, but a documentary sheds new light on the unusually rich life of a talented, very fondly remembered polymath.
Glasgow-based film maker Robbie Fraser was hired by producer Alasdair MacCuish, and together they assembled friends, family and colleagues of Henderson to share memories of the man who created a folk revival in Scotland. Their documentary Hamish premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival in February, and will be screened across Scotland from 3rd June.
“When pitching a film, you have to boil it down into one logline,” says Fraser. “It was a real challenge for Hamish because his life had so many strands, and he meant so many things to so many people. We settled on seven incarnations of Hamish Henderson in the end – the orphan, soldier, politician, poet, drinker, lover and ‘remembrancer’.”
Born an illegitimate child in Blairgowrie, Perthshire in 1919, Henderson’s mother died when he was young. As a scholarship pupil at at the prestigious Dulwich College in London, he quickly learned how to make himself belong in many different situations, a skill that served him equally well interrogating POWs as Captain of the Intelligence Corps during World War II, as gathering folk song recordings from shepherds, “tinkers” and musicians around Scotland.
Henderson died in 2002, aged 82. “I’m one of the few people in Scotland it seems who never met him,” jokes Fraser. “And I really wish I had.”
“Making the film, I was careful only to speak with people who knew him personally. What comes across again and again was this tremendously open-hearted, magnetic man. He liked recognising talent in people, enabling them, giving a voice to the voiceless. Hamish believed in love as this primal force in the universe. That doesn’t mean he was weak or hippy dippy though; whatever he did, he went at it with vigour, with everything he had.”
As a pacifist witnessing the rise of fascism in Germany during the 30s, Henderson decided to become a fighter, and used the six European languages he spoke to gain information as a military interrogator.
“He was fluent in German and would figure out which part of Germany or Austria the prisoners were from, then often sing to them in German to get them onside,’ explains Fraser.
“He treated them very well, and found music very disarming. There are so many echoes with what he did during the War and the techniques he used later on, to gain people’s trust when collecting ballads from travellers.”
Poet Alec Finlay, who describes Henderson as his mentor, is one of several talking heads in the documentary. Finlay was Henderson’s neighbour when he lived near the Meadows in Edinburgh, and began doing odd jobs for him. Their friendship, in the last decade of Henderson’s life, led to Finlay editing and publishing Henderson’s essays and letters which at the time were, “a bunch of photocopies piled in the corner of his kitchen.”
“I was in awe of him, and felt privileged to see that quiet side of Hamish. Lots of people knew ‘Sandy Bells Hamish’; his whisky drinking, ceilidh loving, Rabelaisian side,” says Finlay, namechecking the Edinburgh pub that became a favourite of Henderson and colleagues from the nearby School of Scottish Studies.
“Most people would come to his house with a bottle, but we never drank together, I went round to listen and learn. He was giving me an education, I was helping shape his life into retrospective order.”
Finlay remembers one occasion when he helped Henderson and his “gammy hips” into the bath, then listened as he recited one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies in perfect German.
Although famously passionate about Scottish traditional and working class culture, and an outspoken advocate for Scottish home rule, Henderson was a fervent internationalist, who befriended Communist Italian partisans during the War and adapted folk songs in solidarity for South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He was also an early campaigner for gay rights, CND and the opening of a Scottish parliament.
“Hamish would have loved 2014,” says Finlay. “He always saw Scotland as a rich, diverse country that mixes art, music, intelligence and debate – he was a foundational figure in that respect. He recognised that confidence and change in Scotland is primarily led by culture, and was a key figure in that. He loved young people, celebratory people, people with energy, and watching Scotland reach a higher level of conversation and intelligence, that’s something he’d have really enjoyed.”
Although Henderson’s life was up made of several very diverse phases, Finlay believes he made something exciting happen in all of them.
“This amazing thread ran through his life; war poet, heroic leader, folk revivalist, mentor – he somehow fulfilled an incredible potential in each of those eras. What he’s left behind now is ‘the Hamish effect’. You meet hundreds of people who were changed by him.”
Read the article online at The Times here (subscription needed.)