Born in Perthshire, Scotland, to a single mother, from a young age Henderson was exposed to both music and the Gaelic language, as his mother would sing in Gaelic, Scots and French. Of his childhood, he once said that when he was seven he ‘asked her about a song she was singing. We had a book of songs in the house. I asked her where that song was in the book. She said ‘some of the songs we sing are not in books.’ That started me off as a folklorist and collector.’ As a child he moved from the small cottage he spent his early years in to the southwest of England so his mother could find work during the Great Depression. Moving away from Scotland to the urban deprivation of the Depression made Henderson keenly aware of his Scottish and Highland heritage.
He studied German and French at Cambridge, and spent his summers travelling around Scotland and Europe. In 1939, Henderson was hired by Quakers to help bring Jewish refugees out of Germany and into safety and later, despite his pacifism, he enlisted and worked as an intelligence officer in Sicily and Italy. His book about his experiences in the war, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica was published in 1948 and won the Somerset Maugham Award.
Henderson has discussed how his time in the army showed him that male friendship – that could develop into romantic love – was one of the greatest gifts of life. He stated that his experiences during the war could also testify that ‘bisexuality is much more common than some gay activists and a great deal of ‘straight’ society seem to think.’ It is clear that his time on the battlefield there shaped his view of both male friendship and romantic love.
Following the end of the Second World War, Henderson worked in the Scottish folk revival, promoting the works of Scottish Gaelic folk singers like Flora MacNeil and Calum Johnson. In 1951 he, along with Gaelic scholar Calum Maclean, established the school of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, which now contains a sound archive of some 33’000 recordings. This collection is extremely valuable, and is still being used today.
Henderson worked as both a folklore collector and as a folk revivalist. Where a folk collector works in academic spaces, collecting, analyzing and categorizing songs and tales; a revivalist works to reintegrate these songs and tales back into popular culture Although Henderson did both, his primary aim was to give the folklore ‘back [to] the Scottish people’ who had collectively ‘made it’ He valued the artist quality and cultural importance of what he collected, but constantly had to justify his work to those who saw little value in what he was doing.
As a communist and radical, Henderson was very political and this influenced his work in the folk revival. He sought to preserve and celebrate the culture of the masses, which was often neglected by the mainstream and seen as trivial or unimportant. In 1951 he created the first Edinburgh People’s festival as a response to the Edinburgh International Festival, which had been organized by the government. It proved to be very controversial due to both its left-leaning politics, and Henderson’s performance of a song that glorified the Scottish communist hero John Maclean. It was also the first time Scottish traditional folk were performed on a public stage, with performances from many folklore singers like Flora MacNeil and Calum Johnson.
The impact of Henderson’s folklore collecting and reviving is not limited to the songs and tales themselves, but also the Gaelic language itself. From the 18th Century right up to the beginning of the 20th Century in Scotland, Gaelic was institutionally subjugated, and children who spoke it in schools were often beaten in an attempt to force them to speak the ‘proper’ language of English. In 1881 the total percentage of Gaelic speakers in Scotland was 6.1%, and by 1951 this had dropped to 1.9%. While this number is still falling, following the Scottish revival that percentage had jumped from 1.5% in 1961 to 1.7% in 1971. Similarly, Scottish Gaelic was officially recognized as a language by the Scottish parliament in 2005, with efforts made to promote and encourage the learning of the language. Despite this, the promotion of Gaelic is still a controversial topic in Scotland, with many believing it to be a dead language and should be forgotten. The promotion of Gaelic through its culture by Hamish Henderson and the folklore revival contributed greatly to the recognition of the language in wider Scottish culture, and its fight for legitimacy is still being fought today.
Not only was Henderson involved in cultural politics; he devoted much of his life to the causes of social justice, and was especially vocal about the cause of gay rights in Scotland. This would sometimes be in opposition to the other Scottish writers in his literary circles, for example, Hugh MacDiarmid, another force behind the Scottish renaissance, once told Henderson that ‘homosexuality has never been a Scottish thing!. Unafraid to challenge his peers, Henderson’s reply was that ‘homosexuality was a natural human thing, and that there was probably neither more nor less of it in Scotland than anywhere else.’
Henderson was openly out and vocal of gay rights in a time that it was still dangerous to do so in Scotland– while England and Wales decriminalized homosexual acts in 1967, it wasn’t until 1980 that homosexual activities were legalized in Scotland. By speaking up for gay rights during this period he drew the attention of the British intelligence, regardless of whether he took part in “homosexual activities”.
Scotland lagged behind the England and Wales for many decades due to the nation’s conservatism and religiousness. There was a fear that decriminalizing homosexuality would lead to a morally bankrupt nation. James Adir, the Scottish representative responsible for extending the criminalization of homosexuality in Scotland, feared that ‘This upstanding, moral, conservative, religious society would descend into decay and would be destroyed.’ Henderson railed against this point of view and in a letter to the Scotsman newspaper in 1972, stated that ‘People who talk about ‘bastions of morality’ all too often turn out themselves to be merely bastions of prejudice and outmoded myth and tabu [sic]’
Well known as bisexual, he spoke at the International Gay rights congress meeting in Edinburgh, 1974. He stated that ‘Homosexuality being one way of expressing human love – and of giving pleasure – should be regarded as a boon and a blessing, something of great value – and that’s the reason why the traditional and legal attitudes to homosexuality are not only stupid and criminal but positively obscene,’
Henderson also fought for the rights of those across seas as well, notably campaigning in the Anti-Apartheid movement. His most famous song, ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ makes explicit mentions to the cause, with the line ‘Black and white, ane til ither mairriet’ (‘Black and White, one and other married’) celebrating a post-racial world. Similarly, following the arrest of Nelson Mandela, he composed the song ‘Rivonia’, which repeats the lines ‘ Free Mandela, Free Mandela.’ Henderson used his words and poetry to promote causes he believed in, and to send a message of anti-imperialism, tolerance, and freedom.
Henderson supported many causes in and beyond Scotland, and was adamant about empowering the Scottish people and celebrating their culture. He fought against and challenged the establishment narrative of marginalized people, and saw the value in supporting people from all walks in life. In the late 80s, he was offered an OBE from the Thatcher government, which he wholeheartedly rejected. Because of this, he was voted Scot of the Year by Radio Scotland listeners.
His work in folklore revival helped change the cultural landscape of Scotland, and his poetry and songs are well known. It would be easy to dismiss his social activism and fight for gay rights in Scotland and focus on his writings, but that would do him a great disservice. His politics were intrinsically tied to his identity as a queer Scottish man from an impoverished Gaelic background and he drew from his experiences to raise the voices of those who were often silenced and devalued.
Neat, Timothy. Hamish Henderson: A Biography, Volume Two: Poetry Becomes People (2009: Edinburgh) 243.
Gibson, Corey. The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics (Edinburgh: 2015), 161.
Neat. Hamish Henderson: A Biography, 241.
Neat. Hamish Henderson: A Biography, 337.
Neat. Hamish Henderson: A Biography, 240.