Book Review: Anent Hamish Henderson

Anent Hamish Henderson: essays, poems, interviews, Eberhart Bort (ed.), Grace-note Publications, 97819083739916, £15

As I remember him from the 1960s, Hamish Henderson (1919-2002) was an international scholar of French, German and Italian literature, a prize-winning poet, a go-to archive of Scots songs and, not least, a tall but shambling figure around the howfs, ceilidhs and watering holes of central Edinburgh. He was widely regarded as a guid man – in the dictionary sense that he was ‘distinguished in social standing … worthy, respectable’. Yet, I also found Hamish a modest, private and hesitant man. At the time, many of us puzzled over his biography and his implied legendary status; yet the best we could do was to exchange scattered fragments of gossip. There was no great work to be consulted, examined and reported. The oral tradition ruled in the collective memory.

All this began to change after Hamish’s formal retirement from the School of Scottish Studies in 1987. He allowed samples of his work to be anthologised and published in a ‘long-awaited’ volume, with Hamish borrowing from James Joyce for the self-denying title Alias McAlias (1992). A steady stream of reminiscences has followed, often written by those indebted to the influence he exerted on their lives. The essays, poems and interviews here augment this flow of information, extending a growing body of critical writing about Hamish, his life and influence. Through these reminiscences, obituaries and commentaries, however, the oral tradition has become a text. It is represented not only in Timothy Neat’s two-volume biography (2009), but also in three previous volumes also prepared and edited by Eberhart Bort. In turn, this stream of critical writing has begun to feed on itself, with later contributors rejecting the mythologies embodied in earlier narratives. Indeed, the critical literature has begun to echo the flyting or wrangling over poetry and folk music that engaged Hamish Henderson and Hugh McDiarmid in the 1950s and 1960s – and discussed in this volume by Raymond Ross .

But what about prospective readers who never knew Hamish or, indeed, have no personal knowledge of those who wrote the essays, composed the poems or compiled the interviews? There is also great value in reading Anent Hamish Henderson as not so much about the man as about his times. It can be read as an alternative or, if you prefer, a subaltern or Gramscian account of Scottish life and culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. It serves as a chronicle of a Scottish vernacular renaissance which extends from Hamish’s contribution to the Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidhs (1951-1953) to beyond the cultural animation that suffused the 2014 referendum campaign.
But the most significant change in Scottish Cultural Studies between the 1950s and the present day is that the oral and literate traditions have come together as a multi-media tradition, a ‘carrying stream’ of sources in the form of visual and audio derivatives (e.g. documentaries), Celtic connections (e.g. the cross-fertilisation of international sack-pipers) and, not least, the Kist o’ Riches, a website containing over 34,000 oral recordings made in Scotland and further afield, from the 1930s onwards . In short, Anent Hamish Henderson is an equally worthy and respectable contribution to this tradition.

David Hamilton was President of Edinburgh University Folk Song Society in 1963-1964.