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

It was April 1979. The Devolution ­referendum was underway and the first Edinburgh International Folk Festival, ­directed by John Barrow, had started. I booked into the Folk Festival conference The People’s Past. ­Henderson was the prevailing spirit, a ­notable ­contributor on ballads, and commentator on most ­aspects of the day, including an extra loo break to cope with 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 radical educator and collaborator, putting folk memory and its bearers at the forefront. The next week he gave a talk at Riddle’s Court, headquarters of the Workers Educational Association.

I cannot remember the actual subject, but there was a lot about Calvinism. Henderson expounded that, whatever the historical twists and turns, ­Calvinism was a repressive ideology in Scottish culture, ­psychology and society; but folk tradition showed that the majority of Scots had never been ­fully signed up. Meantime, Henderson became ­focused on a ­religious metaphor of “divesting – in the vestry”: we had to divest ourselves of layers of preconception and misconception before we could come to grips with Scotland and its people. There was an unexpected touch of ritual in the whole presentation.

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

Change elegy into hymn – remake it –

Don’t fail again. Like the potent

Sap in the branches, once bare, and now brimming

With routh of green leavery,

Remake it, and renew.

Under The Earth I Go, 1991

Henderson’s contribution to folklore in Scotland was part of a wider movement in which Calum ­MacLean was another key influence. Henderson’s influence was wide because he linked the sources to contemporary culture and politics; but his biggest contribution is the close relationship he formed with Scotland’s Travellers.

This theme is richly documented by Tim Neat in books and films; Henderson received as much as he gave in this mutual bonding. As an illegitimate child and orphan, he felt himself to be “outcast” from his own roots, and in the Traveller community he found a substitute family. And this at a crucial time, when after the trauma and strange fellowship of war, ­Henderson was in need of acceptance and healing. Sheila Stewart characteristically hits the nail on its head with this to Neat: “Hamish told us about the homes he was in. He had a hard life but he said it wisnae hard like the Travellers had living in tents wi every hand against them. He had the grieving for his mother but we had the Tinker’s Curse. It was ­Hamish who drew us back to the fire.”

We shall return to Henderson’s family, but these words tell us a lot about vulnerability and about some of the Henderson layers. They are also testimony to the life wisdom that many Traveller tradition bearers possess, and have generously shared with outsiders.

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

This kist o treisurs becomes richer as you move from the first Collected Poems and Songs (2000), painstakingly honed by Raymond Ross in collaboration with Henderson, to the comprehensive ­abundance of the 2019 Collected Poems edited by Corey Gibson. Go direct to these sources, and let them sing and speak, as to quote Henderson in his seventh wartime Elegy, “my words would be pointless”.

So the words that I have looked for and must go on looking for,

are worlds of whole love, which can slowly gain the power to reconcile and heal.

Elegies for the Dead in Cyreniaca

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

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

In an appendix, however, Neat also gives a sympathetic account of the ­alternative version that Henderson’s ­father was John Stewart-Murray eighth Duke of Atholl, usually known as Bardie. Now that commemoration of Henderson’s 2019 centenary 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 Perthshire Queen’s Nurse, returned from service in France, ­working in the hospital that Blair Atholl Castle had become, on the one side; and the new Duke of Atholl, recently returned from the nightmare dysentery-ridden ­hellhole of Gallipoli, that effectively ­finished his prized military career, on the other. ­Henderson was born on Armistice Day, November 11, 1919. This was truly a ­flyting of Life versus Death.

Then add to the mix local knowledge of Bardie’s affairs, and the Duchess of Atholl’s summary of her marriage as “a working partnership”. Further, as Angus Calder often remarked, how else can you explain the well-concealed financial ­support given for 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-Murrays. The ­seventh Duke (Hamish’s grandfather?) ­championed Gaelic culture and ­insisted, within months of his succession, on ­legally ­restoring the Stewart name to his ­Murray inheritance. 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 noted collectors of, respectively, Scottish folk narrative and folksong. Along the way, the Duke raised and championed the Scottish Horse, which was to play a key role in Perthshire’s ethos of military service.

But it was Bardie, on succeeding his ­father as the eighth Duke of Atholl, who was to initiate and drive the biggest ­cultural, social and religious project in post First World War Scotland – the Scottish ­National War Memorial – which came to signify and express the traumatised grief of a nation.

Whitehall had decreed and funded one national war memorial – the ­Imperial War Museum in London. Bardie ­lobbied furiously for a Scottish national war ­memorial, which was reluctantly ­conceded on condition that he could raise the money. He proceeded over a decade not only to raise the finance but to brood over every aspect of the design (at Edinburgh Castle), the contents, the artworks, and the public engagement ­including a Roll of Honour that aimed to record every man and woman belonging in some way to Scotland who had served.

In addition, the commissioned artworks embodied the men and women (Queen’s Nurses for example) and even the ­animals who had been part of the sacrificial effort. This was no common memorial, as Duncan Macmillan has ­persuasively shown, but a stunning ­tribute in stone, metal, glass, poetry and paint.

When the Scottish National War ­Memorial opened in 1927, it exceeded all expectations, becoming the inclusive ­national shrine for a people’s grief. It is hard not to draw a direct line from this endeavour to Henderson’s ­mission, in the wake of a second traumatic World War, to gather up the culture of a ­people and ­nation, in an inclusive act of ­remembrance and healing, and a pledge for change. In addition, for him, this ­followed hard, ­personal experience of military service in North Africa and Italy– like father, like son.

Consider the familiar BBC footage of Henderson leaning out of a back ­window at the School of Scottish Studies in George Square to watch, benignly yet ­distantly, the Royal Company of ­Archers’ on the Meadows. This was a world to which he might have belonged but from which he and his mother were exiled, and which he chose in the interests of his own vocation not to acknowledge. Until that is in the final years of his life.

Raymond Ross’s obituary in The ­Scotsman attracted attention because of its comment on Henderson’s sexuality, but the more newsworthy element was Henderson’s admission that his father was “a cousin to 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, reviewer, journalist) was a likely obituarist.

It is not however a straightforward statement, and has sometimes been ­discounted, because there is no ­obvious candidate for such “a cousin”. What though if Henderson’s words are ­deliberately ambivalent? At the time of speaking, Henderson’s late father had been since 1957 a cousin to the Dukes of Atholl. That is because the direct Stewart-Murray line expired when ­Bardie and his four siblings all died against the odds “without (legitimate) issue”. So in this late defining remark, Henderson ­acknowledged a heritage that meant a lot to him, while still protecting his ­anonymity, and the power of his life’s work to identify with everyman and ­everywoman.

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THERE is added poignancy if Henderson was in effect “last of the line” – an unrecognised Prince, not over the water but in his own land. This motif is central to Henderson’s unfinished epic poem, Journey To A Kingdom, which begins with an epigraph from fellow poet Paul Potts, “That guy? He’s one of the wandering kings of Scotland”.

Exile, disguise and healing also major in the epic story, An Mairaiche ­Marnealach’ which Henderson recorded from Ali Dall Stewart in Sutherland after the war, and which he always considered a cultural treasure.

Some may be uncomfortable with these cultural genetics, yet recognise that ­hidden vulnerability underlay Hamish’s uncanny gift of affecting human hearts and souls. And he knew it.

Under the earth I go

On the oak leaf I stand

I ride on a filly that never was foaled

And I carry the dead in my hand.

There’s method in my magic!

Under the Earth I Go

The heritage of Hamish Henderson is handed on without qualification to all those in love with freedom.