ONE of the many highlights of the brilliant opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow was South African opera singer Pumeza Matshikiza’s stunning rendition of The Freedom Come All Ye, the most famous work of Hamish Henderson, the centenary of whose birth takes places tomorrow.

There is simply not enough space in this column nor indeed in this entire newspaper to describe the life, work, achievements and influence of Henderson, the father of the Scottish folk renaissance, a songwriter, intellectual, poet, translator, critic, performer, educator, political campaigner and folk hero par excellence.

It can only be hoped that tomorrow’s centenary re-awakens interest in this towering figure of 20th-century Scotland, and I am aware there are a number of events to celebrate the anniversary, while his Collected Poems have just been published by Birlinn with Dr Corey Gibson, who wrote the insightful Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics, performing the editing duties.

It is for others to comment on Henderson’s legacy and influence. Suffice to say it is seen around you in modern Scotland and its culture. I will stick to the bare facts of his life in the hope it will spark your interest to read works by him and about him.

James Hamish Scott Henderson was born on November 11, 1919, in Blairgowrie in Perthshire as the illegitimate son of Janet Henderson, a nurse who had served on the Western Front. His father may have been a Scottish military officer from an aristocratic family.

Brought up for the first five years of his life in Glenshee, his mother ensured that he was taught Gaelic. Janet Henderson sought work in Ireland and then Somerset before her untimely death when Hamish was just 13. 

By then Henderson’s precocious intelligence and gift for languages had marked him out. 

He won a scholarship to Dulwich College, London, and then won a full state-funded scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied German and French and embraced socialism as his political philosophy.
Pre-war he visited Germany – he ran messages for a Quaker group trying to rescue Jews – and from being a confirmed advocate for peace he could see war was coming. 

Having been turned down for the Cameron Highlanders because of his poor eyesight, Henderson enlisted in the Pioneer Corps where he became a sergeant. 

He applied to join the Intelligence Corps where his linguistic abilities brought him promotion and saw him take part in the interrogation of captured enemy officers. 

While serving in North Africa he began to write poetry, especially Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica, the poem that would make his name after the war when the collection of poems of that name won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1949.
Promoted to captain, Henderson fought with the partisans across Italy and in 1945 he helped in the drafting of the Italian surrender document by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani – he kept the original all his life, and also conceived a deep love of Italy and its people, becoming one of the leading experts on the work of socialist philosopher Antonio Gramsci.     

Henderson had written a series of ballads which were controversial as they satirised the war, the most famous being the D-Day Dodgers about the experiences of soldiers in Italy in 1944. 

The BBC duly banned him from involvement with radio and in a way that helped kick-start Henderson’s career. He devoted himself to collecting songs and tunes from the Scottish folk scene as well as promoting work by the likes of Jeannie Robertson and Flora McNeil who became major figures in the Scottish folk revival which had Henderson at its fore.

He was the key figure behind the 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh which is seen as the inspirational moment in the revival of 
folk music for the whole UK, not just Scotland.

In the 1950s he helped to found the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh university and his work in collecting songs and stories was put on a formal footing. He would stay with the school for over three decades and the University retains his vast collection of letters and other memorabilia.
In 1959 he married his German wife Katzel Schmidt and they had two daughters, Janet and Christine Henderson.  

In the 1960s, Henderson came to the fore in numerous political causes, starting with the crusade against apartheid in 1960 when he wrote The Freedom Come All Ye which then became the anthem of the anti-nuclear movement in Scotland. He also wrote Rivonia, a song about freeing Nelson Mandela, years before it was a popular cause.  

Henderson was bisexual and worked for the repeal of the criminal laws against homosexuality, while he was an ardent campaigner for Home Rule and lived long enough to see the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999 – he was delighted that his friend, the folk singer Sheena Wellington, was chosen to sing Robert Burns’ A Man’s a Man for a’ That at the opening ceremony.

Always a man of socialist principles and internationalist outlook, Henderson was revered by many Scots, never more so than when he was offered an OBE by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1983 and rejected it – he was voted BBC Radio Scotland’s man of the year for doing so. 

He did accept several other awards such as honorary doctorates.      

Hamish Henderson died in Edinburgh on March 9, 2002. Three weeks later the Scottish Parliament honoured him with a debate on his life and works – the first person to be given this accolade.

Let’s leave the last word to Henderson himself, this brief excerpt taken from his own self-composed elegy.

Change elegy into hymn, remake it –
Don’t fail again. Like the potent
Sap in these branches, once bare, and now brimming
With routh of green leavery,
Remake it, and renew.
Maker, ye maun sing them …
Tomorrow, songs
Will flow free again, and new voices
Be borne on the carrying stream