Hamish Henderson (1919-2002)

Scottish poet and songwriter Hamish Henderson was born on 11 November 1919 in Blairgowrie, Perthshire. He was educated at Blairgowrie High School and Emmanuel School, Wandsworth, before moving to Devon and continuing his studies at Lendwich Preparatory School in Teignmouth from 1930. In 1934 he started at Dulwich College, applying in 1937 for a place at Cambridge the following year to study languages. By that time, he was an orphan, reliant on scholarships and other financial support to continue his studies. He matriculated at Downing College in 1938 – as Hamish Jobson Scott Henderson - as an Exhibitioner and State Scholar, studying French and German.

(He is pictured above – far right, 2nd row from the front - in the 1938 matriculation photograph, courtesy of Lafayette Photography Ltd).

While at Downing, Hamish was actively involved in College life, rowing at 5 in the 4th Boat in his first term and rising to 3 in the 3rd Boat in the Lent Bumps, although he only appears to have rowed in his first year. This photograph, originally from the family collection, shows Henderson, seated far left, with other members of his crew.

He quickly became a prominent and vocal figure in the College’s Debating Society (rising to President shortly before he left) and being given a prestigious paper speech at the Cambridge Union at the end of his first year, despite being a freshman. (He was later offered – and accepted – lifetime membership of the Cambridge Union in recognition of his contribution). At the Union, Hamish spoke out with ferocity against Chamberlain’s appeasement policies and against fascism and in support of Scottish republicanism, the Spanish Republic and peace. His arguments caught the attention of Quakers in Cambridge who were recruiting peace activists to act as messengers in Germany. Henderson’s beliefs and language skills made him an attractive potential recruit and, in July 1939, he attended a briefing in London with the renowned art historian Dr Niklaus Pevsner. Shortly afterwards he was sent to Germany on a mission to help young Jews escape, as relations between the British and German governments deteriorated, leaving Germany just before Hitler invaded Poland.

Following the outbreak of war, Hamish tried to enroll with the Cameron Highlanders on 4 September 1939, but poor eyesight meant his call-up was delayed. Returning to Cambridge, he continued to use debates at the Union and various political meetings to speak up against Chamberlain and in favour of socialism. In late 1939, he was involved in setting up the Cambridge Students’ People’s Convention, ‘to steer government policy towards a Socialist future’.

After completing just over two years in College, he was called up for the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps in October 1940, before transferring to the Intelligence Corps in 1941. He was allowed his final three terms for national service and was awarded his BA in August 1941 (MA, 1945). Hamish served as an intelligence officer in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Italy, where he was mentioned in despatches and was promoted to Captain. While in Italy, he wrote the first of his great songs, ‘The Highland Division’s Farewell to Italy’ and composed the pipe-march which was played at the Anzio beach-head.

Following the end of the war, he was released and returned to Downing for six months in January 1946, sitting his oral examination in Italian in April and passing the Certificate of competent knowledge in Italian in June 1946. During this time he also founded the University’s Italian Society and also took part in an Italian language broadcast to Italy by the BBC. Hamish had maintained regular contact with the College throughout and immediately after the war and, from 1947 to 1949, he worked for the Workers’ Educational Association, recommended for the post by his Tutor at Downing, William Cuttle, who described him as ‘well-poised, very friendly, and full of life. His ideas are independent and original, but with a strong streak of traditionalism. He is in some ways old beyond his years, but in others he will probably always be refreshingly young’.

After the war, Henderson drew on his own wartime experiences, writing ‘Ballads of World War II’ and ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica’, which won him the Somerset Award in 1949. He used the award to travel to Italy and translate the works of the Marxist Antonio Gramsci, whose works he had been introduced to by partisans in Italy during the war. After returning to Scotland be became assistant to the American folk song collector Alan Lomax, and spent a year travelling the North East for traditional songs, occasionally being offered his own compositions.

In 1951, Henderson was instrumental in creating the first Edinburgh People’s Festival, a left-wing competitor to the Edinburgh Festival and the forerunner to the current Edinburgh Fringe. He helped to found the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, bringing recognition to talented traditional singers such as Jeannie Robertson and ensuring the survival of the Scots ballad tradition. In recognition of his significant contribution to the University, where he worked from 1955 to 1987, he was made an Honorary Fellow on his retirement.

In 1983, in protest against Trident, Henderson turned down his OBE and, as a result, was voted “Scot of the Year” by listeners of Radio Scotland. He died in March 2002. In 2012, his literary archive and some family papers and photographs were acquired by the University of Edinburgh.


1939 Boat Club photograph, family collection and now in the Hamish Henderson archive, University of Edinburgh (credit: Lafayette Photography Ltd)

1938 matriculation photograph (Downing College Archive, DCPH/2/1/7; credit: Lafayette Photography Ltd)


Obituary in Downing College Alumni Association Newsletter, 2002

Neat, T, ‘Hamish Henderson - A Biography, Volume 1’, (Polygon, 2007)