He has been referred to as the most important Scots poet since Robert Burns and was a catalyst for the folk revival in Scotland. He was also an accomplished folk song collector and discovered such notable performers as Jeannie Robertson, Flora MacNeil, and Calum Johnston.
Born illegitimately in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Henderson eventually moved to England with his mother. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Dulwich School in London; however, his mother died shortly before he was due to take up his place and he was forced to live in an orphanage while studying there.
He studied at the University of Cambridge in the years leading up to World War II and spent spare time running messages for the German Resitance. He also worked to smuggle Jews out of Nazi Germany right up until the outbreak of war.
World War II
Although he argued strongly for peace, even well into the early years of the war, he became convinced that a satisfactory peace could not be reached and so he threw himself into the war effort. Joining as an enlisted soldier in the Pioneer Corps, he later applied for and received a commission in the Intelligence Corps. He was quite effective as an interrogator due to his command of six European languages and deep understanding of German culture.
He took part in the Desert War in Africa, during which he wrote his poem Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica, encompassing every aspect of a soldier's experience of the sands of North Africa. On 19 April, 1945, Henderson personally accepted the surrender of Italy from Marshal Graziani.
In response to Lady Astor's disparaging comments about the "D-Day Dodgers" in Italy and the high amount of Scots, Welsh, and Irish serving in the 8th Army, he wrote satirical lyrics to the tune of Lili Marlene called, "We Are the D-Day Dodgers."
Folk song collector
Henderson threw himself into the work of the folk revival after the war, discovering and bringing to public attention Jeannie Robertson and others such as Flora MacNeil (see Flora MacNeil, Gaelic singer), and Calum Johnston (see Annie and Calum Johnston of Barra). In the 1950s, he acted as a guide to the American folklorist, Alan Lomax, who collected many field recordings in Scotland. (See Alan Lomax, Collector of Songs).
People's Festival Ceilidhs
Henderson was instrumental in bringing about the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh, which placed Scottish folk music on the public stage for the first time. At the time, however, the Ceilidh was planned as a left-wing competitor to the Edinburgh Festivals and was deeply controversial. At the event, Henderson even performed a song, to the tune of Scotland the Brave, which glorified John Maclean, one of the founders of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
However, the event marked the first time that Scotland's traditional folk music was performed on a public stage. The performers included Flora MacNeil, Calum Johnston, John Burgess (bagpiper), Jessie Murray, John Strachan, and Jimmy MacBeath. The event was extremely popular and was regarded as the beginning of the second British folk revival.
Henderson continued to host the events every year until 1954, when the Communist ties of several organizers of the Ceilidhs led to their losing the financial support of the city's labor unions. As a result, the event was permanently cancelled.
Dividing his time between Europe and Scotland, he eventually settled in Edinburgh in 1959 with his German wife, Kätzel (Felizitas Schmidt).
Henderson collected widely in the Borders and the north-east of Scotland, creating links between the travellers, the bothy singers of Aberdeenshire, the Border shepherds, and the young men and women who frequented the folk clubs in Edinburgh.
From 1955 to 1987 he was on the staff of the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies which he co-founded with Calum Maclean: there he contributed to the sound archives that are now available on-line. Henderson held several honorary degrees and after his retirement became an honorary fellow of the School of Scottish Studies.
He died in Edinburgh on 8 March 2002 aged eighty-two, survived by his wife Kätzel and their daughters, Janet and Christine.
Henderson's complexities make his work hard to study: for example, Dick Gaughan's commentary on the song-poem The 51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily, while insightful, does not take into account the traditional divide between pipers and drummers in the Scots regiments, the essential key to one reading of the text.
In 2005, Rounder Records released a recording of the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh as part of, "The Alan Lomax Collection." Henderson had collaborated heavily with the preparations for the release.
- BBC - Writing Scotland - Hamish Henderson 2004 James (Hamish) Scott Henderson was born on 11 November 1919 in Blairgowrie to a single mother who introduced him to folksong and brought him up to speak Gaelic.
- BBC - Writing Scotland - Hamish Henderson 2004 He was educated at Blairgowrie High School and Dulwich College, London, and studied modern languages at Cambridge.
- BBC - Writing Scotland - Hamish Henderson 2004 As a visiting student in Germany he acted as a courier for a Quaker network which helped refugees to escape the Nazi regime.
- "BBC - Writing Scotland - Hamish Henderson". bbc.co.uk. BBC. September 2004. Retrieved 13 August 2010.
- Timothy Neat (11 March 2002). "Hamish Henderson - Poet, translator, Highland folklorist, campaigner for Scottish parliament and guiding light behind the Edinburgh fringe festival". guardian.co.uk. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 13 August 2010.
- Pete Heywood (1999). "Hamish Henderson". The Living Tradition (The Living Tradition Ltd) (32).