HE was a war hero, a poet, singer, songwriter and political activist but perhaps more importantly, Hamish Henderson played a key part in awakening Scotland’s cultural consciousness.

Yet despite the many achievements of a man regarded as the father of the Scottish folk revival, there have been fears in recent years that he was becoming a cult figure known only to the older generation and younger members of the music scene.

As a result, a ground-breaking documentary which has been 14 years in the making, is set to make Henderson more widely known when it premieres at Glasgow Film Festival this week.

The film charts Henderson’s life from his childhood in an orphanage, his studies at Cambridge University, his socialism and fight against fascism to his work as a collector of Scottish and Gaelic songs and poetry which supplied the ammunition for the folk revival and helped establish the School of Scottish Studies, the vital repository of Scottish culture.

Those who know him only as the author of the anti-imperialist song Freedom Come All Ye, will be introduced to a colossus who played a huge part in helping to preserve Scotland’s cultural identity.

“It’s been a privilege to work on a film about Hamish Henderson,” said film-maker Robbie Fraser. “He’s a wee bit lost right now, faded from view. But he needs to be recemented into the Scottish imagination as a poet, a makar and an inspirer of people. I hope our film will help that to happen.”


AS well as interviews with the family and friends who knew him best, the documentary uses a lot of archive footage, some of which has never been seen.

“His voice is very present in the film even though he is no longer with us,” said Fraser. “Also working on the film with us was George Geddes, one of Scotland’s best cinematographers so the documentary is a visual treat – it’s not just talking heads.

“One of our most important interviewees is Hamish’s widow, Kätzel, and their two daughters, Janet and Tina. I believe this is the first time they have been interviewed and they give a beautiful insight.”

Others appearing include Henderson’s biographer Tim Neat, poet and writer George Gunn, Gaelic singer and founder member of theatre company 7:84, Dolina MacLennan. Composer Jim Sutherland wrote the score while novelist Kevin MacNeil was co-writer and conducted the Gaelic interviews.

“It is a very emotional film and that comes in part because the story is told only through the words of people who knew him personally over many years,” said Fraser.

Fraser was asked to work on the film by Glasgow-based producer Alasdair MacCuish who has wanted to bring the life of Henderson to the big screen for many years.

“Growing up as a traditional musician, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience first hand the legacy which Hamish left for us all,” he said. “More than a decade since his passing, and thanks to the support of MG ALBA and Creative Scotland, I’m delighted that Hamish’s incredible life can, at last, be shared with audiences at home and around the world.’’


BORN illegitimate in Blairgowrie in 1919, Henderson was taught Gaelic by his mother who also introduced him to folk songs. As a teenager he won a scholarship to the prestigious Dulwich School in London. Despite having to live in an orphanage after his mother died, Henderson secured a place at Cambridge University where he studied modern languages. Visiting Germany as a student in the prewar years he became involved in the fight against fascism, working as a courier for a Quaker group helping Jews flee the Nazis.

A pacifist by nature, he was so appalled by fascism that he served with the Intelligence Corps in Europe and North Africa, often using his command of six European languages to work as an interrogator.

“It is strange to think that he interrogated battle-hardened troops then later used his skills to record the almost lost culture of the Gaels and travelling people,” said Fraser.

At the war’s end, Henderson helped organise the surrender of the Italian army in Rome and co-ordinated the liberation of the city, putting together a pipe band from the Scottish regiments to march through the streets.

“We have footage of them and the Italian women trying to look up their kilts,” said Fraser. “In fact there is still a Hamish Henderson folk club in Rome. Pino Mereu is the founder – his father fought with Hamish as one of partisans. We brought him over from Italy and he sings the Italian partisan communist anthem which was one of Hamish’s favourites.”


HENDERSON’S experience of war resulted in his celebrated poem Elegies For The Dead in Cyrenaica for which he received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1949. He used the prize money to fund a journey to Italy where he translated the prison letters of communist and philosopher Antonio Gramsci.

On his return to Scotland, Henderson immersed himself in his native country’s culture becoming one of the founder members of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University.

His work with the travelling people of Scotland is often regarded as his greatest achievement. He lived with them for months at a time, collecting ballads, songs and stories long ignored by more snobbish collectors.

“He showed the world, particularly the academic world, that Scottish traditional culture was still vigorous and fermenting, and then he went one step further: he brought the travellers’ wealth of oral culture to the public’s attention,” said obituary writer and friend, Raymond Ross.


HENDERSON was instrumental in creating the People’s Festival Ceilidhs in Edinburgh in the early Fifties, thus providing the first public platforms for Scotland’s traditional and revivalist singers. He counted bringing singers like Jeannie Robertson and Flora MacNeil to public attention as one of his greatest achievements.

His socialist politics did not endear himself to the establishment. He was banned from state radio for 10 years but took revenge in 1983 by rejecting an OBE in protest at the nuclear policy of the Thatcher government. He was then voted Scot of the Year by listeners to BBC Radio Scotland. He was a tireless campaigner for the anti-apartheid movement as well as CND and campaigned for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, dying three years later aged 82.

Produced by Bees Nees Media, Hamish premieres in Glasgow tomorrow. It will later be screened nationwide and broadcast on the BBC in the autumn.

Screenings will be announced on www.facebook.com/HamishMovie/