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Hamish Henderson’s Torch of Freedom

This year marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s greatest poet, song-writer and song-collector, Robert Burns, but it also sees the 90th anniversary of the birth of one of his truest successors, Hamish Henderson. Bill Scott looks at his life and at his greatest song ‘Freedom Come All Ye’.

The Freedom Come All Ye
(Lyrics: Hamish Henderson/Tune: Bloody Fields of Flanders)

Roch the wind in the clear day dawin’
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie o’er the bay
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin’
Through the Great Glen o’ the warld the day
It’s a thocht that would gar oor rottans
A’ thae rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay
Tak’ the road tae seek ither loanin’s
Their ill ploys tae sport and play
Nae mair will oor bonnie callants
Mairch tae war when the braggarts croosely craw
Nor wee weans frae pitheid and clachan
Mourn the ships sailin’ doon the Broomielaw
Broken faim’lies in lands we’ve harried
Will curse Scotland the brave nae mair, nae mair
Black and white, ane til th’ ither married
Mak’ the vile barracks o’ their maisters bare
So, cam’ all ye at hame wi’ freedom
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom
In your hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam
Will find breid, barley bree an’ painted room
When MacLean meets wi’ his freends in Springburn
A’ the roses and geans will turn tae bloom
And a black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon
Roch the wind in the clear day dawin’
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie o’er the bay
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin’
Through the Great Glen o’ the warld the day

Hamish was born illegitimately into genteel poverty in 1919. Raised by his mother in Highland Perthshire he grew up playing with the children of local travelling folk and immersing himself with their songs and stories. After completing his schooling in England he attended Cambridge University where he obtained a degree. But his political beliefs were even more precocious than his burgeoning poetical talent. Firmly on the left he helped the Quakers carry messages and money in and out of pre-war Nazi Germany assisting a number of Jewish families to escape in the process. A supporter of the Soviet Union he at first opposed the war but once Russia was invaded his strong anti-fascist convictions came to the fore.

War Years

Like many ex-“conshies” Hamish at first enlisted in the Pioneer Corps but soon gained a commission in the Intelligence Corps. Attached to the 8th Army in North Africa he proved an effective interrogator of the captured enemy.

Hamish’s biographer Timothy Neat suggests that Hamish may have been responsible for the “Saltire in the sky” (created by searchlights and tracers) which signaled the Highland Division’s attack at El Alamein. Given that whoever thought of it seems to have possessed a deep knowledge of Scottish mythic history (a joint Pictish & Scottish force defeated an Angle army from Northumberland at the battle of Athelstaneford in East Lothian after supposedly seeing white clouds forming a cross in the blue sky above them in 832 AD - leading to the Scots adopting a white St Andrews cross on a sky blue background as their national flag) I tend to concur in concluding that Hamish was the most likely culprit.

Whilst in North Africa Hamish began work on an epic poem detailing the experiences of the ordinary soldiers. This was honed over time into his most accomplished verse - Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica - a war poem that is at once deeply humane and opposed to the waste of young men’s lives without ever being simplistically “anti-war”. Hamish did after all believe that fascism had to be fought. The poem later won Hamish a great deal of critical acclaim and the Somerset Maugham Poetry Prize.


Hamish followed the 51st Highland Division to Sicily and the campaign up through Italy. He had already begun to collect and refine the inventively bawdy songs of the ordinary Scots squaddies he served alongside in North Africa. Hamish’ experiences in Sicily & Italy have left us with two of his best and most performed songs - “The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily” and the “D-Day Dodgers”.

In Italy Hamish fought alongside the Italian partisans and actually took the surrender of Italian forces from Marshall Graziani. It was in Italy too that he first learnt of the work of the Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci. Hamish was the first translator of Gramsci’s prison works into English but in many ways he was also the first to put Gramsci’s prison writings into practice. Gramsci’s philosophy fitted very well with Hamish’s own developing views of a more humanistic socialism rooted deeply within and developing organically from Scottish/Celtic working class community & culture.

Hamish used the monetary prize from his poetry award to return to Italy after the war. There he became an integral part of Italy’s cultural renaissance - influencing Italian poets, writers and film makers - before being kicked out of the country due to his left-wing views. Though Hamish was frequently, and sometimes rightfully, accused of being a “communist”, he never actually joined the Communist Party, though he frequently worked with its members. Hamish was simply too much of an internationalist and a nationalist to comfortably fit into any party of that period. Hamish is still remembered in Italy with great fondness as a military and cultural liberator. There is to this day a Hamish Henderson folk club in Rome.

Scottish Cultural Identity

During this post-war period Scotland’s cultural and national identity had been re-asserting itself - helped along by Hamish wherever possible. He was a friend and collaborator with two of the greatest poets Scotland had produced since Burns’ day - Hugh MacDiarmid & Sorley MacLean respectively representing the Lowland and Gaelic bardy traditions.

Hamish wrote the song “The Seven Men of Knoydart” in this period in support of the land occupation by ex-soldiers on a Nazi sympathiser/absentee landlord’s estate. Then he worked with teacher and songwriter Morris Blythman (better known by his pseudonym, Thurso Berwick) to organise a proper commemoration for the fighting dominie, John MacLean. To Hamish, McLean was a figure from the past who pointed the way to Scotland’s future. MacLean after all was the earliest socialist of standing to argue not only for the vague policy of ‘Home Rule’ but for Scotland’s independence as a worker’s republic. Morris described the first singing of Hamish’s new song, the “John MacLean March” as “the first swallow of the folk revival”.

Hamish began assisting the American folk collector Alan Lomax in travelling around Scotland collecting songs. Then with Ewan McColl, Norman and Janey Buchan he founded the Edinburgh People’s Festival as an accessible labour movement/working class counterpoint to the Edinburgh International Festival. It was here that people first heard Hamish’s singing “discoveries” - Jeannie Robertson, Davey Stewart, Jimmy McBeath, John Strachan, Callum Johnson and the Blairgowrie Stewarts.

School of Scottish Studies

These Travellers, Borders and Bothy Ballad singers who had preserved Scotland’s oral tradition were a revelation. Their, and Hamish’s, inspiration helped kick-start Scotland’s folk revival amongst a generation of younger singers such as Jean Redpath, Matt McGinn, Hamish Imlach and the Corries. In 1955 Hamish helped consolidate what he himself had started by co-founding Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies.

Peace Campaigns

Hamish held an ex-soldier’s aversion to the waste of human potential that war necessitates and he was particularly opposed to unnecessary conflicts. Yet Hamish also supported violent anti-imperialist struggles wherever they arose. There was never any contradiction in his mind to being both a founder member of CND and the Anti-Apartheid Society.

Hamish married Kätzel (Felizitas Schmidt) his German wife in 1959. Then it was learned that Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Polaris, was to be based in Scotland and as an added “bonus” the Americans were to be given a permanent nuclear base on the Holy Loch in return for sharing their missile technology.

Morris Blythman had gathered a group of talented young folk song writers around him - Jim McLean, Johnny Mack Smith, Josh McRae and others not to mention the very talented Morris himself. Working collectively as the Glasgow Song Guild, and known more informally later as the Eskimos (see below) this songwriting workshop gathered often at Morris’ house. They were tasked with coming up with a book of songs for the anti-Polaris campaigners to sing on their protests. They succeeded admirably. One or more members of the group would come up with the main lyric which the others then honed and added to sometimes suggesting tunes that could be used. A combination of American influences (Woody Guthrie primarily), Glaswegian humour, children’s and even sectarian street songs helped create a number of funny and bitingly satirical songs -

“Ding, Dong Dollar” summed up the sentiment expressed by Kirk Minister George MacLeod of the Iona Community at a CND rally in Glasgow. Reacting to the claim that the Yanks would bring economic prosperity with them he responded ‘You cannot spend a dollar when you are dead’ or as the song rather more colloquially re-phrased it “Ye cannae spend a dollar when ye’re deid” (to the tune of “Ye cannae shove yer Granny off the bus”).

Another, “The Glesca Eskimos”, recycled not one but two street songs. The tune was borrowed from the Brigton Billy Boys (“Hello, Hello, We are the Billy Boys”) or should one really say reclaimed as it was originally the tune of an anti-slavery song (“Marching Through Georgia”). Morris Blythman had ‘form’ in using Orange songs for other purposes. He’d previously written the “Scottish Breakaway” to the tune of “The Sash” - (“We’ll mak oor land republican, Wi a Scottish breakaway”). The song’s lyrics also owed the American base commander a favour. He made the mistake of dismissing some CND activists who used kayaks to harass the atomic subs as a “bunch of eskimos”, little realising that this was a line from the children’s street song “My Maw’s a millionaire”. In no time the CNDers were chanting “Hello, Hello, we are the Eskimos”.

These and other songs performed by the Song Guild feature in a Smithsonian Folkways Album - “Ding Dong Dollar: Anti-Polaris and Scottish Republican Songs” produced at the time the campaign was still ongoing by a visiting Pete Seeger. I believe it’s the only place that you can hear the original songs as sung by their creators. It also vividly sums up the politics of both the song writers and the young folk then involved in the anti-Polaris movement - left nationalist.

Freedom Come All Ye

But for all the sterling work that Morris and the Song Guild had done they felt that a “big” song was still needed, something a wee bit more serious in keeping with the Scottish ballad tradition. They turned to Hamish a frequent visitor to the Blythmans’ home and an ex-officio Eskimo. He responded by writing the song for which he is remembered above all others - the “Freedom Come All Ye”.

Yet though many know and love the song they do so responding to a meaning within it that they struggle to understand. That’s because is written in Lallans (Lowland Scots). Hamish was greatly influenced by his friend MacDiarmid and this song, unlike his previous songs, is written in the literary Lallans of MacDiarmid, a language part invented to convey feeling rather than being true to Scots as it is spoken.

It is nevertheless an incredibly evocative song conjuring images and ideas that linger on long after its closing verse. It is ironic that the over-arching theme of a “roch” (rough) wind blowing away the remains of imperialism is based on a Tory Prime Minister’s (Harold MacMillan) summation of what was then happening in Africa (“There is a wind of change blowing through Africa”).

I have yet to hear the song sung without being transported in time and place to some Scots bay of memory, or, more probably, dreams watching the sun rise as clouds are driven away by a strong wind from the sea. It is a beautiful and primal image on which to open.

But this wind is not restricted to Scotland, it is blowing through the Great Glen of the World - the Rift Valley of Africa, the birthplace of human-kind. It’s not a meteorological wind but a metaphysical one full of thoughts and ideas. Ideas that will upset and anger our “rattans” (a wonderful invented word combining rats and rotten, their habits and morals being very aptly encapsulated) - those scoundrels who currently run our society. Well good riddance to bad rubbish says Hamish, let them bugger off and seek other “loanings” (lodgings) having too long profited from the rest of us.

No more will our “bonnie callants” (gallants, young men) go to war just because our “braggarts” (politicians) “coursely craw” (coarsely crow).
Nor will “wee weans” (children) from “pitheid”, (mining villages) nor “clachan” (farming settlement) have any reason to mourn the ships sailing down the Broomielaw (Britain’s battleships were built primarily on the Clyde). The children crying over the leaving and likely loss of their fathers in Britain’s innumerable imperialist wars.

Families in lands we’ve “herriet” (harried) will no longer curse the sound of the pipe tune “Scotland the Brave” - presaging as it did the arrival of Scottish troops come to do their masters bidding, to violently repress liberation struggles. Hamish then captures an echo of the then vibrant American Civil Rights Movement - when black and white inter-marry, the hate of racism stirred up by the bosses will no longer be able to act as a recruiting sergeant. Hamish was rejecting the whole idea of the Scots’ “Martial spirit”, the militarism that still sees Scotland producing far more than its fair share of recruits for the British army.


A “Come All Ye” is a song which urges people to gather around and listen. So Hamish then rallies all those at home with the idea of freedom or liberty. He urges us to pay no attention to the “hoodies (hooded crows) who croak for doom”. These “hoodies” are both priests & ministers - always ready to damn us sinners into hell and a deadening, repressive influence on Scottish culture - and also those doomsayers that claim that nothing can be done to change the way things have always been. Hamish then provides an almost, or even intentionally, religious image - a paradisical Scotland where all the bairns of Adam, all humankind, will find Scottish hospitality – “breid” (food), “barley bree” (drink) and “painted room” (a welcome). This is the special room done up for a guest or as Christ is supposed to have said, “I will prepare a room for thee in my kingdom”.

When will this earthly paradise come into being? - “When MacLean meets wi’ his freens in Springburn, A’ they roses and gaens will turn tae bloom” - when the spirit of John MacLean, his socialist and republican ideals are resuscitated and adopted by ourselves (‘his freens’) they will take root and blossom.

‘And a black boy frae yon Nyanga dings the fellow gallows o the burghers doon’. The final blow to the rotten system of imperialism will not be dealt by Scots however. No, it is an act of self-liberation. The people of Africa will throw off the yoke that chained them bringing a halt to the executions that maintained imperialism. To cap his lyrical work Hamish set the song to a haunting yet stirring First World War Pipe Tune, “The Bloody Fields O’ Flanders”.

Strangely having produced several songs of genuine quality and at least one masterpiece over a period of less than two decades Hamish then produced only one more song of quality in the remaining 40 years of his life after this masterwork (that song was “Rivonia – Free Mandela”, based on a Republican Spanish Civil War song. It called for the Apartheid regime to free Mandela in 1964. Is it any wonder that in 1993 when Nelson Mandela arrived in Scotland to receive the freedom of the city in Glasgow, the first person that he sought out was Hamish?) Instead Hamish continued his efforts to preserve our rich folk heritage; to nurture the talents and idealism of Scotland’s youth; to coax the Scottish folk revival into full flame and to continually cajole and provoke the Scottish left into adopting a more internationalist, humanistic and republican approach.


I do not think anyone on the left can listen to the Freedom Come All Ye without being inspired by it. It is far more than an anti-nuclear or anti-colonialist protest song it is an internationalist anthem fit to stand alongside “A Man’s A Man”. It almost certainly also helped inspire the writing of Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” (the Freedom Come All Ye precedes it by two years).

Its vision of a Scotland which is a friend to those struggling for freedom, rather than a barracks of their oppressors, is as powerful today as it was when it was written.


What of Hamish’s lasting political influence? Would we have a Scottish Parliament today without his efforts to revive Scottish folk culture? Well Angus Calder considered that and concluded, “… that without the regeneration of national consciousness marked by the folksong revival, the relaunch of the SNP as a serious political force in the 1960s would not have happened, and neither would Labour’s lagging re-conversion to home rule”.

But Henderson’s optimistic vision of the future is still to be realised. Scottish recruits still make up nearly one third of Britain’s frontline troops in Afghanistan. Weapons of mass destruction are still here (and not in Iraq). So when will this Scotland of our dreams come into being? Only when Henderson and MacLean’s vision of an independent, socialist Scotland comes into full bloom.

(I have only managed to cover a tiny fraction of Hamish’s amazing life and achievements to find out more read Timothy Neat’s comprehensive and enthralling biography – “Vol 1: The Making of the Poet” to be followed this autumn by “Volume 2: The Making of the People”. There are many great recordings of the “Freedom Come All Ye” but my personal favourites are by Dick Gaughan from his album “Sail On” and Luke Kelly’s version on the STUC’s Centenary Album: “If it wisnae for the union”. Both vividly capture the song’s heart-stirring beauty).