(The following was written for the Herald newspaper following Hamish's death under the title "A Personal Appreciation")
A personal appreciation of the life of Hamish Henderson? No problem there, then; after all, I've known him for the best part of 36 years, debated with him, argued with him, got drunk with him, read everything of his that was ever published and I've probably sung every song he ever wrote and recorded many of them. I should simply be able to point to the achievements, to the body of work, and add a couple of short personal reminiscences to give it context.
So why is it so damned difficult to pin it all down?
Hamish's life and legacy are a mass of contradictions. He was our most important collector of folksongs yet the bulk of his work was for a University department and so lies in an archive, unseen and unheard by most of the public. He was a poet of international stature yet his work was seldom published. He was the writer of some of our greatest modern Scots songs yet when it was decided to record a collection of those songs, there were not enough to fill an entire album and some of his poetry had to be included.
He was a communist who left the party over Hungary in '56. He was offered an OBE and turned it down. He was a Republican who fought regularly and passionately with me over my view of Charles Edward Stewart being as much use to Scotland as a dose of cholera. He was the anti-Nazi who spoke fluent German, loved German culture and raised eyebrows when his "Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica" talked of German soldiers with compassion and almost affection.
He was a gregarious loner. A great communicator, teacher and a brilliant opponent in a flyting, he could also be a lousy conversationalist. What others hammer out in the course of an argument, Hamish hammered out in his head and he could be obsessive. He'd walk into the pub and, with little or no greeting or preamble, launch into whatever had been occupying his attention. "My God", he'd say (his favourite expletive) "I've just been reading ..." and off he'd go. However, his soliloquies were never less than highly entertaining and usually brilliantly informative.
He was a Gaelic speaker who loved, spoke and wrote fluently in Lowland Scots. He encouraged and inspired a generation to rediscover our native traditions and to experiment with them to give them relevance in the modern Scotland yet, while he applauded and seemed to enjoy our work, he never really understood us or our experiments within those traditions. And I suppose we never really understood him. Perhaps, as is the way with grandparents, he better understood and related to the generation which came after us.
Seumas Mor is dead. In the way of the Scots, his poetry might now actually be read. As has been observed before, we love our dead poets; or perhaps we simply love our poets dead. But now is not the time for going into all that. Now is the time, I suppose, for raising a dram and for everybody and their grannie to bring out their favourite reminiscences of Big Hamish, for remembering and praising the warrior, linguist, poet, scholar, folksong collector, polemicist, communist, nationalist, writer and songsmith. So here are a couple of mine.
November 1965, in the tiny back room of the White Horse Bar in Edinburgh's Canongate, just below the Netherbow. The singer of the evening was George Fleming and he gave the floor to this impossibly long and gangly character who began to sing "The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily" in a voice which was cracked and thin, quite unmusical and distinctly military in presentation. To me, at all of 17 years old, he looked ancient and, as he flapped his arms, punctuating his delivery by waving his pint dangerously over my head, he looked like a puppet with a crazed drunk working the strings. Like most things to do with Hamish, it was slightly surreal; the text of the song and the performance of the person singing it were completely contradictory. Yet I have spent the years since obsessed by that song.
The kitchen of his house by the Meadows, his infant daughter slung across his shoulder like a set of pipes while he marched up and down singing to her alternately in Scots, Gaelic and German.
The STUC's Day for Scotland at Stirling when I'd been asked to accompany Hamish singing the Freedom Come Aa Ye and I knew it was the wrong thing to do. So I simply introduced Hamish and walked off, leaving him in the centre of the enormous outdoor stage to sing it unaccompanied, aging and showing the first signs of frailty, looking out at a sea of Saltires held high by thousands of young Scots, most of whom hadn't the faintest idea who he was, singing his great anthem of Scotland's right to a place within the community of nations:
"Whan MacLean meets wi's friens in Springburn"
Aa thae roses an geeans'll turn tae blume
An a black laud frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o the burghers doun!"
Perhaps the only real way to remember and understand Hamish is to embrace the apparent contradictions - poet and polemicist, Internationalist and Nationalist, warrior and pacifist, realist and romantic, traditionalist and modernist, brashness masking shyness, intellectual confidence hiding personal insecurities.
I knew Hamish the legend and I knew Hamish the human being. And, for all the times we drank, fought, argued, debated, sang and laughed together, I think I probably knew the former better.
Contributions and copyright
©Dick Gaughan February 2001. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, material or electronic, without the written permission of the author.
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