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How war and family shaped the poetry of Hamish Henderson

IN 1979 I had two memorable encounters with Hamish Henderson. I can see now that his influence was growing then, but at first I had no idea who he was or what he represented.

It was April 1979. The referendum on devolution was underway and the first Edinburgh International Folk Festival, led by John Barrow, had started. I booked for the Folk Festival The People’s Past conference. Henderson was the dominant mind, a notable contributor to ballads, and a commentator on most aspects of the day, including an extra bathroom break to deal with the liquid lunch.

But the overall impact was a systematic challenge to accepted conventions of history writing, at a time when Scotland’s past was being re-examined. This was Henderson as a radical educator and collaborator, bringing popular memory and its bearers to the fore. The following week he gave a talk at Riddle’s Court, home of the Workers Educational Association.

I don’t remember the actual topic, but there was a lot about Calvinism. Henderson explained that regardless of historical twists and turns, Calvinism was a repressive ideology in Scottish culture, psychology, and society; but popular tradition showed that the majority of Scots had never been fully enrolled. Meanwhile, Henderson focused on a religious metaphor of ‘divestment – in the sacristy’: we had to get rid of the layers of preconceptions and misconceptions before we could tackle Scotland and to its inhabitants. There was an unexpected touch of ritual throughout the presentation.

READ MORE: A brief story of Hamish Henderson, whose life needs a library to tell

On this occasion, I felt levels of complexity in Henderson. How many layers were still unceded?

Turn the elegy into a hymn – do it again –

Don’t fail anymore. Like the mighty

Sap in the branches, once bare, and now overflowing

With the road of green leaves,

Redo and renew.

Under the ground I go, 1991

Henderson’s contribution to folklore in Scotland was part of a larger movement in which Calum MacLean was another key influence. Henderson’s influence was broad because he linked sources to contemporary culture and politics; but his greatest contribution is the close relationship he has formed with Scottish travelers.

This theme is richly documented by Tim Neat in books and films; Henderson received as much as he gave in this mutual bond. As an illegitimate child and orphan, he felt “excluded” from his own roots, and in the Traveler community he found a surrogate family. And this at a crucial time, when after the trauma and the strange fellowship of war, Henderson needed to be accepted and healed. Sheila Stewart typically hits the nail on the head with this in Neat: “Hamish told us about the houses he was in. He had a hard life, but said it was hard as the Travelers lived in tents with all hands against them. He was in mourning for his mother but we had the curse of the handyman. It was Hamish who brought us back to the fire.

We’ll come back to Henderson’s family, but these words tell us a lot about the vulnerability and certain layers of Henderson. They also bear witness to the wisdom of life that many bearers of the tradition of the traveler possess and which they have generously shared with strangers.

Henderson’s performance art draws on centuries of Scottish and European tradition – Celtic design, medieval makars, oral craftsmanship, musical memory – as well as individual talent. Along with a few landmark essays and letters, Henderson’s songs and poems are his most vital legacy and the easiest way to access that legacy, as he himself hoped.

This kist o treisurs is enriched as you go from the first Collected Poems and Songs (2000), painstakingly refined by Raymond Ross in collaboration with Henderson, to the complete abundance of Collected Poems 2019 edited by Corey Gibson. Go straight to those sources, and let them sing and speak, as to quote Henderson in his seventh wartime elegy, “my words would be useless.”

So the words that I have been looking for and that I must keep on looking,

are worlds of total love, which can slowly acquire the power to be reconciled and to heal.

Elegies for the dead in Cyrenia

In Henderson’s hands, art is transformed into life and love, which in turn are transfigured into art. There is a hint of Patrick Geddes (another Perthshire descendant) to all of this – life is the green leaf and art is the flower. But does that remove all Henderson layers? In reality, they have become deeper and more intertwined.

IN his monumental biography, Neat gives two accounts of Henderson’s parentage and family in Perthshire. In the main text he gives what one might call the preferred “official account” or in some respects that Henderson’s father was a little-known former soldier named Scott, who assumed some responsibility for the illegitimate son. by Janet Henderson.

In an appendix, however, Neat also gives a sympathetic account of the alternate version that Henderson’s father was John Stewart-Murray eighth Duke of Atholl, commonly known as Bardie. Now that the 2019 Henderson centennial commemoration is over, I would like to choose more clearly between these two versions.

There is a strong circumstantial context for a love affair between Janet Henderson, the attractive Nurse of the Queen of Perthshire, returned from service in France, working in the hospital which had become Blair Atholl Castle, on the one hand; and the new Duke of Atholl, recently returned from Gallipoli’s nightmarish hell and dysentery, who effectively ended his precious military career, on the other. Henderson was born on Armistice Day, November 11, 1919. It was truly a life-versus-death glimpse.

Then add to the mix the local knowledge of Bardie’s affairs and the Duchess of Atholl’s summary of her marriage as a “working partnership”. Moreover, as Angus Calder has often pointed out, how else can we explain the well-concealed financial support given to Henderson’s education in England, before and after his mother’s untimely death?

But there is another less noticed context: the cultural passions of the Atholl Stewart-Murray. The Seventh Duke (Hamish’s grandfather?) Defended Gaelic culture and insisted, a few months after his succession, on legally restoring Stewart’s name to his Murray heritage. He then devoted much of his life to documenting this Scottish heritage. The Duke’s two daughters, Evelyn and Dorothea, inherited his passion. They became renowned collectors, respectively, of Scottish folk tales and songs. Along the way, the Duke bred and defended the Scottish Horse, which was to play a key role in Perthshire’s philosophy of military service.

But it was Bardie, succeeding her father as the eighth Duke of Atholl, who would initiate and lead Scotland’s largest post-WWI cultural, social and religious project – the Scottish National War Memorial. – which came to signify and express the traumatized grief of a nation.

Whitehall had decreed and funded a national war memorial – the Imperial War Museum in London. Bardie lobbied fiercely for a Scottish National War Memorial, which was reluctantly conceded on the condition that he could raise the money. He proceeded for a decade not only to raise funds, but also to mull over all aspects of the design (at Edinburgh Castle), content, artwork and public engagement, including a painting by ‘honor that aimed to record every man and woman belonging in any way to Scotland who had served.

In addition, the works of art commissioned embodied the men and women (the queen’s nurses, for example) and even the animals who had participated in the sacrificial effort. It was not a common memorial, as Duncan Macmillan convincingly demonstrated, but a stunning tribute in stone, metal, glass, poetry and painting.

When the Scottish National War Memorial opened in 1927, it exceeded all expectations, becoming the Inclusive National Shrine to the Grief of a People. It is difficult not to draw a direct link between this effort and Henderson’s mission, following a traumatic World War II, to bring together the culture of a people and a nation, in an inclusive act of remembrance and healing, and a pledge for change. Moreover, for him, it followed a harsh personal experience of military service in North Africa and Italy – like father, like son.

Consider the familiar BBC footage of Henderson leaning out a back window at the School of Scottish Studies in George Square to gaze benevolently but distantly at the Royal Company of Archers over the meadows. It was a world to which he could have belonged but from which he and his mother were exiled, and which he chose in the interests of his own vocation not to recognize. Until it was in the last years of his life.

Raymond Ross’s obituary in The Scotsman attracted attention because of his commentary on Henderson’s sexuality, but the most relevant element was Henderson’s admission that his father was “a cousin of the Dukes of Atholl ”. This statement was made to Ross, and noted, at a time when they were working together on the collected poems and songs; Henderson was well aware that Ross (editor, critic, journalist) was probably an obituary.

This is not a simple statement, however, and has sometimes been dismissed, as there is no obvious candidate for such a “cousin”. What if Henderson’s words were deliberately ambivalent? At the time of speaking, Henderson’s late father had been a cousin of the Dukes of Atholl since 1957. That’s because the Stewart-Murray hotline expired when Bardie and her four siblings all died through thick and thin “with no (legitimate) problem”. So, in this final pivotal remark, Henderson recognized a legacy that meant a great deal to him, while protecting his anonymity and the power of his life’s work to identify with every man and woman.

READ MORE: Life and impact of Scottish poet Hamish Henderson explored in new ‘critical’ book

It is even more poignant if Henderson was in fact the “last of the line” – an unrecognized prince, not above water but in his own country. This motif is at the heart of Henderson’s unfinished epic poem, Journey To A Kingdom, which begins with an epigraph by the poet Paul Potts, “That guy? He is one of the wandering kings of Scotland ”.

Exile, disguise and healing are also central to the epic story, An Mairaiche Marnalach ‘which Henderson recorded from Ali Dall Stewart in Sutherland after the war, and which he has always regarded as a cultural treasure. .

Some may be uncomfortable with this cultural genetics, while acknowledging that the hidden vulnerability underlies Hamish’s odd gift of affecting human hearts and souls. And he knew it.

Under the earth I go

On the oak leaf I stand

I ride a filly that has never been calved

And I carry the dead in my hand.

There is method in my magic!

Under the earth I go

Hamish Henderson’s legacy is passed on unreservedly to all freedom lovers.


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