Hamish Henderson ~ Poet and Songwriter

In November 1948 a 25th anniversary commemoration for John Maclean was held in Glasgow, One of the organisers of this event, James Scott (Hamish) Henderson had written a song especially for the proceedings – ‘The John Maclean March’. The song was sang that night by a William Noble and one of the speakers on the platform was Helen Crawfurd (1).

Hamish Henderson would go on to write other songs one of which, written for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, ‘The Freedom Come All Ye’ (set to the pipe tune of ‘Bloody Fields of Flanders’) has been championed by many as a new national anthem for Scotland. Henderson a lifelong internationalist did not totally agree with this, seeing his song as belonging to the people of all countries. And many varied nationalities have agreed with him on this point. The song has found itself sung in France, China and in Italy

“Roch the wind in the clear days’ dawin’, Blaws the cloods heelster gowdie ow’r the bay. But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin’ Through the grest glen o’ the warld the day. It’s a thocht that will gar oor rottans. A’ they rogues that gang gallus fresh and gay. Tak’ the road an’seek ither loanins For their ill ploys tae sport an’ play. Nae mair will the bonnie callants Mairch tae war, when oor braggarts crousely craw Nor wee weans frae pit-heid an’ clachan Mourn the ships sailin’ doon the Broomielaw. Broken families in lands we’ve herriet Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair; Black an’ white, ane til ither mairriet Mak’ the vile barracks o’ their maisters bare.

So come 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’s freens in Springburn A’ the roses an’ geans will turn tae bloom. And a black boy frae yont Nyanga Dings the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon.”

His other songs set to pipe tunes include ‘Ye Banks of Sicily’, ‘Free Mandela’ and ‘Men of Knoydart’, the latter of which is concerned with land rights. Henderson was also an accomplished performer becoming well known within the folk music world.

Hamish Henderson was born on Armistice Day November 11 1919 at Ramleh, Perth Road, Blairgowrie. The war had ended only a year earlier and both his parents had seen service on the Western Front. His mother Janet Jobson Henderson as a nurse and his father as an officer (2). For part of his childhood Hamish lived with his grandmother in a cottage at the Spittal of Glenshee. As a youngster he attended Blairgowrie High School. Henderson’s later political work would be informed firstly by the experience of being cleared from his home in Blairgowrie and his mother’s subsequent years of domestic service in England.

After winning scholarships to Dulwich College in London, Hamish undertook study in German and French with a state scholarship at Downing College, Cambridge University, When in 1937 at only 17 years of age he took part in an exchange programme, Hamish found himself witnessing the early brutality of Nazi Germany and at one point during a trip to the Tiergarten he came face to face with Adolf Hitler. This time would go on to influence his political commitment as an ardent anti-fascist.

The Society of Friends (Quakers) employed him prior to the declaration of war in 1939 as a courier helping to smuggle out Jewish people and political dissidents. When this role was terminated in 1940 he joined the Pioneer Corps (an attempt at enlisting in the Cameron Highlanders was thwarted by bad eyesight) and later became an officer (1941) and interrogator with military intelligence. He served successfully with the 51st Highland Division and other Scottish regiments in the North Africa campaigns. He was only twenty two years of age when involved in the battle of El Alamein. There is a commemorative statue to the 51st Highland Division in the North Inch by the banks of the Tay in Perth.

It was whilst in Africa with Scottish troops that he began to formulate his progressive nationalism, a belief in a Scottish Parliament and a faith in the past and future of the Scottish nation.

“I am definitely proud of being Scots – and incoming people with similar ideas are quite entitled to express it as well.”

From Africa, Hamish Henderson who was now a Captain (1943) was sent to Sicily and Italy to work with the Partisans. It was he that translated and accepted the surrender of Italy from Marshal Graziani (3). Hamish, stuck the actual surrender document in his pocket and retained it throughout his lifetime – he was never asked for it.

Hamish Henderson had folk music in his soul. Whilst a child he would listen to his grand-mother sing Gaelic songs and to passing story-tellers, dancers and travelling people perform their traditional acts. It was these tales, songs and performances that he would later go onto to record and study. More importantly, it was the revival of the folk tradition that would add to the growth of Scottish nationalism. Even whilst studying at Cambridge he began to collect folk songs and folklore.

As a both a songwriter and a poet (writing in English, Gaelic, German and Lowland Scots) Hamish Henderson produced work of internationally acclaimed standard. His 1948 ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenica’ reflected on his time and the morality of that, which occurred during the war in North Africa, gave him literary recognition with the award of a Somerset Maughan Scholarship. This epic poem had been started in the desert and completed during trips to South Uist and Kintyre between 1946 and 1947. Henderson says in his recollections that £10 of the prize money was placed on an outsider at the Grand National which won and doubled his money. With his winnings and the travel stipend from this award Henderson travelled to Italy where he translated the prison letters of the Italian radical and cultural thinker Antonio Gramsci into English. Gramsci’s ideas about political development, hegemony and culture would serve as a major influence in western intellectual and political life. Henderson was an anti-fascist, an internationalist and a socialist. This combination brought him into conflict with the Italian government of the time so that whilst still working on the translation he was expelled from Italy.

Hamish Henderson published a number of books that include ‘Ballads of World War 2’ (1947), ‘Translation of the Prison letters of Antonio Gramsci’ (1974), ‘Alias MacAlias: Writings on Song, Folk and Literature’ (1992), ‘The Obscure Voice’ (1994), ‘The Armstrong Nose: Selected Letters’ (by Alec Finlay, 1996) and ‘Collected Poems and Songs’ (2000). He also collaborated on a number of films, ‘The Tree of Liberty: The Songs of Robert Burns’, and John Berger’s ‘Play me Something’ in which he starred with Tilda Swinton. ‘The Armstrong Letters’ chronicle the enormous correspondence that Henderson had with a myriad of folk from the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, the historian E.P. Thompson through to The Scotsman newspaper.

“You more than any other poet I know, are an instrument through which thousands of others can become articulate…”

E.P. Thompson

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival owes Henderson a vote of thanks for it was he alongside Norman Buchan and others that helped to set up the first People’s Ceilidhs (1951-56) that would evolve into the Fringe as it is today.

He was a permanent staff member of the University of Edinburgh between 1955 and 1987 and alongside Calum MacLean, the Gaelic scholar, helped found the School of Scottish Studies. With an American folklorist Alan Lomax[6], Henderson travelled around Scotland recording and transcribing songs and singers for the School. Many of those who made these early recordings would later obtain success during the period of the revival of folk music. One of the people was Jeannie Robertson. In the summer of 1955 he returned to the berry fields of his native Blairgowrie to record the songs of the “tinkler-gypsies”, whom he very much admired for their great oral tradition.

Margaret Thatcher offered Hamish Henderson an OBE as part of the 1984 New Year’s Honours List, which he promptly refused. Probably linked to this refusal, Radio 4 listeners voted him Man of the Year. He was married to Felicity and together they had two daughters Tina and Janet. Hamish Henderson died in Edinburgh on 8 March 2002. The library in Blairgowrie houses a bust of Hamish Henderson.

“Hamish Henderson whose funeral takes place today in Edinburgh, was one of the major figures in Scotland’s social, political and cultural life in the second half of the turbulent 20th century.”

Ken Ferguson – newspaper report

1 Helen Crawfurd (1877-1954) was a major political figure within the Red Clydeside period of political activity. She had been a militant suffragette and was one of the group of women imprisoned in Perth Gaol.

2 There is no entry for the father on the birth certificate.

3 One time administrator of Italian territory in Africa. After the fall of Mussolini head of the remaining fascist forces.

4 Before setting off to Italy he first travelled to Dublin to have something of a wild weekend with the author Brendan Behan and his brother Dominic.

5 Norman Buchan was Labour MP for West Renfrewshire. He served 26 years in Parliament and was Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture in 1974. Along with his wife Janey (a MEP) he worked tirelessly for Scottish folk music. In 1950s he founded the Glasgow Folk Club and sponsored the School of Scottish Studies. Roy Jenkins described him as the “the best Minister for the Arts that Britain never had.”

6 Alan Lomax along with his father John had been responsible for the creation of the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk song. He had a commission with Colombia Records to record folk and primitive music from around the world. Scotland was to be volume VI.

Hamish Henderson – Ballads of World War 2.

These ballads were written by Hamish Henderson during the Second World War and because of that, reflect that time. Some of the language taken out of this context seems racist and derogatory and so the ballads must be read within the historical framework in which they were written.

The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers

(A rumour started in Italy that Lady Astor had referred to the boys of the C.M.F. as D-Day dodgers).

We’re the D-day Dodgers, out in Italy –

Always on the vino, always on the spree.

8th Army scroungers and their tanks

We live in Rome – among the Yanks.

We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.

We landed at Salerno, a holiday with pay;

The Jerries brought the bands out to greet us on the way …

Showed us the sights and gave us tea.

We all sang songs – the beer was free,

To welcome D-Day dodgers to sunny Italy.

Naples and Cassino were taken in our stride,

We didn’t go to fight there – we went there for the ride.

Anzio and Sangro were just names, We only went to look for dames –

The artful D-Day dodgers, way out in Italy.

On the way to Florence we had a lovely time.

We ran a bus to Rimini right through the Gothic Line.

Soon to Bologna we will go

And after that we’ll cross the Po.

We’ll still be D-Day dodging, way out in Italy.

Once we heard a rumour that we were going home,

Back to dear Old Blighty – never more to roam.

Then someone said: “In France you’ll fight!”

We said: “No fear – we’ll just sit tight!”

(The windy D-Day dodgers, way out in Italy).

We hope the Second Army will soon get home on leave;

After six month’s service it’s’ time for their reprieve.

But we can carry on out here

Another two or three more years –

Contented D-Day Dodgers to stay in Utaly.

Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot,

Standing on a platform and talking tommy-rot.

You, England’s sweetheart and its pride,

We think your mouth’s too bloody wide

That’s from your D-day Dodgers – in far off Italy.

Look around the mountains in the mud and rain –

You’ll find the scattered crosses – (there’s some which have no name).

Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,

The boys beneath them slumber on.

Those are the D-Day Dodgers who’ll stay in Italy.

(Tune:Lili Marleen ).

The Ballad of Wadi Maktilla

(Describing a somewhat abortive raid by the 2nd Camerons on an Italian outpost about 12 miles East of Sidi Barrani – 1940)

Now here is my story, it happened one night,

How the Seventy-Ninth they went into a fight.

They were carried in lorries over bump, rock and cranny –

Many arses felt sore on that road to Barrani!


What the hell ‘S all the fuss?

O wouldn’t you, wouldn’t you like to be us?

Then we hoofed it along, lads to Musso’s armed villa

– A stronghold it was, and named Wadi Maktilla.

We tip-toed along, as we came near our mark –

Not a sound could be heard, all was silent and dark.

Then suddenly the It is let go all they had;

It’s a bloody good job that their aiming was bad.

We got down on the ground and we lay as if dead,

While the shells and the whizzbangs flew over our head.

Many lads prayed to heaven, which before they’d forsaken,

And they thought that they’d eaten their last of tinned bacon.

But the It is felt worse as they lay in their sangars,

And their guns roared in fear, for it wasn’t in anger.

There were Libyans against us, both filthy and black

But we yelled Cabar Feidh! as we pressed the attack.

Then the Wops shouted “Bruno” on whom they are nuts,

But they got for their pains cold steel in their guts.

Now most of the Camerons, there isn’t a doubt,

Got corns on their knees from this crawling about.

But the blokes that lay flat brought us many a grin,

For most of their bellies were all hackit-skin.

When at last we emerged from that unhealthy zone,

We got on the trucks and we headed for home.

You can say what you like, you have plenty of scope,

Do you think we enjoyed it? My Christ! What a hope!

(Tune: Villikens and His Dinah, alias The Ould Orange Flute).

Ballad of the Big Nobs

There’s Wavell, there’s Wavell
And he contemplates his navel
But he was some fuckin’ use
To the Eighth Ar-mee.

There’s the Auk, there’s the Auk
And although some bastards talk
Och, he didn’t do so bad
For the Eighth Ar-mee.

There’s Ritchie, there’s Ritchie
And his arse is feeling itchie
For he wasn’t much fucking use
To the Eighth Ar-mee.

There’s Stalin, there’s Stalin
That the worker’s got a pal in,
And he is some fuckin’ use
To the Eighth Ar-mee.

There’s Winston, there’s Winston
And he ought to be in Princetown
But he is some fuckin’ use
To the Eighth Ar-mee.

O we had two Hielan ladies –
Now we’ve got two Irish paddies.
Let’s hope there some fuckin’ use
To the Eighth Ar-mee.

(Sung September 1942)

The Roads to Rome

The Caesars were a randy crew –
Ye ken the story o’m.
They tauld this tale tae Goy and Jew
That a’ roads lead tae Rome.

But for a’ the haverin o’ the runts,
An’ the bletherin blarney o’m
Ye heard ae sang frae a’ oor fronts
There’s nae road leads tae Rome.

– But noo ye’ll hear the pipers play
Afore St. Peter’s Dome
And Scotland tells the world today
That oor road led to Rome.

Ballad of the Taxi Driver’s Cap

(To a refrain by M. J. Craig)

O Hitler’s a non-smoker
And Churchill smokes cigars
And they’re both as keen as mustard
On imperialistic wars.
But your uncle Joe’s a worker
And a very decent chap
Because he smokes a pipe and wears a taxi-driver’s cap.

When Rommel got to Alamein
And shook the British line
The whole of Cairo beat it to
The land of Palestine.
But Moscow’s never raised a yell
And never had a flap
Because Joe smokes a pipe and wears
A taxi-driver’s cap.

That Hitler’s armies can’t be beat
Is just a lot of cock,
For Marshall Timoshenko’s boys
Are passing through von Bock.

The Fuhrer makes the bloomers
And his Marshals take the rap;
Meanwhile Joe smokes a pipe and wears
A taxi-driver’s cap.

The Fascist drive on Stalingrad
Is going mighty slow.
They’ve got a room in Number Nine
Of Slobberskaya Row.
When Fascist armies start to run
Old Gobbels fills the gap.
Meanwhile Joe smokes a pipe and wears
A taxi-driver’s cap.

At home those beggars publicise
The deeds of “our Ally”
Whose dearest wish was once to biff
The bolshie’s in the eye.
Your uncle Joe is wise to this;
He isn’t such a sap
Although he smokes a pipe and wears
A taxi-driver’s cap.

The Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily

The pipie is dozie, the pipe is fey,
He ulnae come roon for his vino the day.
The sky ower Messina is antrin an’ grey
And a’ bricht chaulmers are eerie.

Then fare weel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw.
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir biddy bastards are weary.

Then doon the stair and line the waterside
Wait your turn, the ferry’s awa.
Then doon the stair and line the waterside
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie.

The drummie is polish, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his webbin ava.
He’s beezed himself up for a photo an’ a’
Tae leave wi his Lola, his dearie.

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
(Fare ye weel ye shieling an’ ha’)
And fare weel ye bryes and bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie.

And fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
(Fare ye weel ye shieling an’ ha’)
We’ll a’ mind sheens and bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi’ his dearie.

Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum –
(Leave your kit this side o’ the wa’)
Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum –
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie.

Song of the Tunisian Gaullistes

Rommel de la Mer Rouge
Va atteindre les bords.
Que personne ne bouge –
Voila L’Afrika Korps!


Sur la terre ronde
Qu’il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon,
Sur la terre ronde
Qu’il fait bon courir!

Du haut des Pyramides
Les siecles en emoi
Attendant les bolides
En palpitant defray.

Des souvenirs du Caire
Nous archenterons aux Souks.
Helas, la guerre-exlair
Les ramene a Tobrouk.

Toujours avec vaillance
L’armee de Musssolini
Poursuivant son avance
Revient a Tripoli.

La magnifique armee
Du General LECLERC
Pousse a marches forcees
Au travers du desert.

Pour des positions pretes
De tout l’eternite
Bondissant de Maret
L’Axe s’est elance.

Et va, que je te pousse,
Glorieuse Armee de l’Axe!
Rommel plein d’allegresse
Sur le Po s’installera.

Rommel laisse la troupe
Des braves macaronis.
Ce sera pour la soupe
De l’armee Montgomery.

Ces messieurs ont le trac
Et fuient sans resistance.
L’allie pour Jeanne d’Arc
Pass’ra la Porte de France.

(Tune: Aupres de ma Blonde)

The Ballad of King Faruk and Queen Farida

The lyrics of this song, a function of their time, need to be read against the historical context and within a debate. This cannot be achieved on a static webpage so have been removed. Scholars, writers and researchers can still access the lyrics from the original book housed in several libraries.

Tune: Salam el Malik (Egyptian National Anthem)

Chiefly the authentic version as sung (1942) in the First South African Division, Seventh Armoured Division, Ninth Australian Division, Second New Zealand Division and Fifty First Highland Division.

The Blubbing Buchmanite

When Moscow sends the call at night
“Workers of the world unite!”
The lads begin to wonder when
The human race will act like men.

And Tam (from Greenock) tells us why
The bosses send us out to die.
He says: “We Scots have gone to seed –
A revolution’s what we need!”

But Micah Grant (from Shotts) starts in
To tell us how to deal with Sin –
He calls on us to turn again,
And then resumes his old refrain:

“A revolution in the mind
Will be more couthie, will be more kind.
A revolution in the brain
Will not annoy the Boss again.”

“At times” he says “the workers feel
They’ve had a pretty rotten deal;
But if they search their inmost hearts
They’ll find that’s due to Satan’s arts.

“I see what few have understood –
God tries the worker for his good;
Each lustful keek at Katie Brown
Will dock his wages half a crown!”

“So don’t provoke the Mighty God
Too sore, or you will feel the rod.
The Lord destroys that fool who fights
For earthly things like workers’ rights.”

“A revolution in the mind
Will be more couthie, will be more kind.
A revolution in the brain
Will not annoy the boss again.”

But Tam gets back his breath and cries:
You creeping Jesus, damn your eyes!
It’s canting cunts like you who sap
The worker’s spirit. Shut your trap!

“A revolution in the soul
Will leave the bosses’ profits whole
A revolution in the heart
Won’t help the workers’ cause a fart.”

“We cannot have too blinking few
God-awful bums the like of you!
If just once more you try to wreck
The workers’ fight, I’ll wring your neck.”

Ballad of the Banffies

You can talk about your Moray loons,
Sae handsome and sae braw;
The Royal Scottish Fusiliers,
A scruffy lot and a’
The Cameronians frae the South,
They sure are mighty fine,
But in the Battle of Anzio
‘Twas the Banffies held the line.

The crofters’ sons o’ Banffshire,
The cooper frae the glen,
The weaver frae Strathisla,
Aye, and shepherd frae the ben;
The fisher lads alang the coast,
They a’ made up their min’
Tae fecht an’ save their country
In Nineteen Thirty Nine.

Von Arnim knew that he was beat
When he capitulated.
The mistake he made was the Banffies
Whome he underestimated.
They chased them frae the Atlas hills
And they threw them in the sea;
Then across tae Pantellaria,
Some nair territory to free.

Then Alex said: “Our troops maun land
A few miles Sooth o’Rome;
The Banffies are my strongest point,
They sure can send it home.”
They landed up at Anzio
In January Forty Four
And havena captured Rome yet
But are knockin’ at the door.

Ye can talk aboot your Scots Guards
Sae handsome and sae strong,
But unlike oor wee Banffies
They canna haud on for long.
In years to come, when Italy
Is free, an’ the Balkans too
Your bairns will read in history
How the banffies pulled us through.


Where’er ye be, by land or sea
Or hirplin’ in the road
If ye can meet a Banff, ye’ll find
He sure can bum his load.

(Tune: The Gallant Forty Twa)