HAMISH Henderson (1919-2002) was a unique figure among his contemporaries. He emerged from the Second World War with a political commitment that strengthened and deepened as the second half of the 20th century wore on.

His writing is varied: he composed not only the memorable songs that entered popular consciousness without reference to their author, such as the Freedom Come All Ye and the “John MacLean March” but also the aesthetically refined, emotionally loaded Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948), probably the finest sequence of poems to emerge from the Second World War.

Also, his translation of the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci [pictured below] was pioneering work. Gramsci was a key figure in modern political thought, a Marxist intellectual incarcerated in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, writing up his ideas about the relations between politics, cultural distinction and popular culture in the modern world. In introducing Gramsci to English-language readers, especially in Scotland, Henderson was working out and strengthening the connections between the folk, oral and literary and intellectual traditions. Henderson’s collected writings, including essays and public letters, amount to a major achievement. But his significance goes further.

The National:

The Elegies are a lasting poetic testament, but what he learned from Gramsci he was to transform and apply in Scotland. This was a lifelong drive to review national potential not only in realms of high poetic distinction but also in popular culture: literally, what people do, what we make, how we act and what we choose. Henderson’s democratic conviction in education, knowledge, experience and conversation among people, the exchange of ideas and information, is at the heart of this. He was a convivial man but that was not merely personality. It was an embodiment of his vision of what people might make of their lives and what Scotland might be in the world.

His championship of the traditional singer Jeannie Robertson, his engagement with the folk tradition and then the folk music revival, arising from specific locations and recorded for the archive of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, remain signal achievements. Like Hugh MacDiarmid, he was a brave man to be as open as he was to public statement and demonstration in Scotland. His commitment to people – most marvellously to the travellers whose stories and songs he recorded in the 1950s – takes us to various parts of Scotland and removes the carapace of cliché to bring us encounters with lives of enormous diversity and quality.

His own songs have entered the popular folk repertoire almost anonymously. The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily was written during the Second World War, literally as he witnessed the soldiers leaving Sicily during the Italian campaign, but it has passed into popular memory and many, many people, soldiers and pacifists alike, have sung it without knowledge of its author. Another song, “Rivonia”, with its refrain of “Free Mandela, free Mandela, free Mandela!” is said to have been sung by fishermen working in the waters around Robben Island when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there, so that he could hear the words.

However, very little of Henderson’s achievement was taken up by mass media and given air time on radio or television in Scotland (What’s new?). In his song, “The Flyting of Life and Death”, each force makes its claim with fighting energy. The synthesis of the song, of course, is its own energy, which, whenever you hear it or read it, conveys its declaration of faith in the energy of life, victorious. Similarly, it is the triumphs of his long life that shine on. There were many.

His biography in two volumes by Timothy Neat gives the sense that Henderson was constantly engaged in changing history. The process of change is not engendered by any single person, of course, but Henderson is seen at crucial moments, acting, picking up a telephone, writing a letter, talking to someone, delivering a song, taking part in something he believed in. The lesson of his example is not heroic. It is not singularly Henderson’s achievement. It is rather that every single one of us takes part in the story, one way or another. Or, you might say, on one side or another.

A thorough, carefully nuanced and comprehensive study of his work is Corey Gibson’s The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) was the most voluminous and varied of all Scottish poets since MacDiarmid. A professor of English at Glasgow University, he drew (but not uncritically) on the American poets of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the Beats and Black Mountain poets, and on poets from the Eastern Bloc countries, translating their work, including Soviet Russia’s Mayakovsky, to balance the emergence of his own vast florilegium of voices.

Like Garioch, MacLean, Campbell Hay and Henderson, Morgan was a soldier in North Africa during the Second World War, though not a combatant.

He thought about registering as a conscientious objector (as Norman MacCaig did, on the grounds that he simply would not kill people). But Morgan decided to join the Royal Army Medical Corps, which meant he worked mainly as a secretary and as a medical orderly, assisting medical staff, doctors and officers.

Yet he saw death at first hand, and out of this early experience of war in the international arena, and the homosocial world of the soldier, Morgan returned to Scotland and a university career with a sensibility deepened and tempered.

The first product of his war years was a translation of the Old English poem, Beowulf, which was published by the University of California and became a standard teaching text, but may be read in terms of his personal history as a representation of the violence, frustrations and thwarted potential inherent to the decades of war and the idea of creativity in the grey 1950s.

But a far more colourful, effervescent, blossoming character was biding its time and growing in Morgan’s subterranean self. It broke into publication with the astonishing first volume of his own poems, The Second Life (1968), a breathtaking step into the new generation, heralding a long career.

Morgan was the only major Scottish poet of this time to be completely at home in the city. Another distinction is that he was foremost in championing MacDiarmid’s later poetry, which celebrated the variety of languages and poetries throughout the world.

Morgan’s festive poems like “Trio” (a snapshot of three people with a chihuahua and a guitar, walking at night in Glasgow “under the Christmas lights”) rubbed shoulders with lyrical, autobiographical poems like “In the snack-bar” (about the difficult human work of helping a disabled man to a public toilet) and concrete or sound poems, like The Loch Ness Monster’s Song which begins with the question “Sssnnnwhuffffll?” and ends with the monster descending back into the loch: “Gombl mbl bl – / blm plm, / blm plm, / blm plm, / blp.”

These curious, playful, seriously determined yet inherently unpredictable, often funny poems of the 1960s and 70s gave way in the 80s to a more evident commitment to the matter of Scotland.

In 1984, he published what was his own favourite of all his books, Sonnets from Scotland, a sequence giving a panoramic view as if it were an account by space – and time-travellers, of Scotland from before the beginning through real and imaginary aspects of the nation, into what the future might hold for us: nuclear destruction or liberating prosperity and independence, with a beautiful man-made canal running along the border with England.

In a late sequence of poems entitled “Demon”, Morgan describes an irrepressible character, or aspect of character, who seems to be available to disconcert and trouble any sense of fixed and settled security.

When serenity becomes complacency and threatens to turn you smug, in comes the Demon. It is almost an extended credo for the outlaw status all poetry demands.

He continued to write well into the 21st century, with explicitly autobiographical poems in A Book of Lives (2007) and public poems such as those collected in Beyond the Sun (2007), written to accompany a list of Scotland’s “favourite paintings”.

In his essays, Morgan is also a major critic of modern Scottish literature and, after MacDiarmid, modern Scotland’s foremost Man of Letters. His biography by James McGonigal, Beyond the Last Dragon (2010) and The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence (1950-2010), are essential reading.