Grant Buttars: Poet’s collection is insight

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Hamish Henderson was a major figure in 20th century Scottish cultural life.

Described in an obituary as “Poet, translator, Highland folklorist, campaigner for Scottish parliament and guiding light behind the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’, he was this and more.

Born in Blairgowrie in 1919, he won a scholarship to Dulwich College and from there went on to Cambridge. World War 2 saw him in active service and a number of his best known pieces date from or were influenced by this period, such as D-Day Dodgers and Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica.

Following the war, Henderson was a leading figure of the Folk Song Revival of the 1950s-60s. The collection is strong in representing this, not just letters from Scots working in the field or interested in the subject, but also from other countries. There are long series of letters from many folklorists, and from Scottish traditional singers and practitioners.

He was often at the hub of lengthy written conversations and his knowledge of tradition and interest in its comparative dimension gave him contact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds as well as creative spirits in many media. He was also responsible for bringing attention to rich veins of tradition amongst Scotland’s agricultural workers and travelling people.

Letters also relate to many causes and interests espoused by Henderson and the correspondents are extremely diverse. For example, from Gordon Brown (5 letters, plus 2 round-robins, 3 letters being from his time as Edinburgh University Rector) and Tom Driberg (3 letters, 1948 and 1953). There are more than 40 letters and cards from Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison and 17 from the poet Charles Causley.

Henderson was an internationalist, always seeking to see Scotland in a wider context. Working with the Society of Friends he helped refugees fleeing from 1930s Germany, and his wartime experiences as an intelligence officer – at one point living with the Italian partisans, leading up to close involvement with the Italian surrender – make his wartime diaries hugely significant. The song he composed at the time of the South African Rivonia trial in 1963-64 following the arrest of the ANC leaders became a 20th century classic. His rousing Freedom Come All Ye, while written in Scots and full of Scottish themes and imagery, is international in outlook.

The interconnecting and intersecting elements of Henderson’s life show close engagement with many major events of the 20th century and his papers are a very rich research resource across many subject areas.

In relation to the University of Edinburgh itself, Henderson is synonymous with the establishment of the School of Scottish Studies (where he was employed as a lecturer/research fellow from 1952-88). It is in this field that the Henderson papers exhibit the strongest resonances with our existing collection strengths, such as the archive of the pioneering 19th century West Highland folklorist, Alexander Carmichael, which has attracted major funding over the last eight years. There is also the archive of Marjory Kennedy Fraser, 1857-1930, Scottish folklorist and musician.

Alongside what we have in special collections, our colleagues in Scottish studies have Henderson’s original field recordings.

We are more than delighted to have Hamish Henderson’s papers as an addition to our collections and thank all those involved in their acquisition.

• Grant Buttars is deputy university archivist at Edinburgh University.