The Gillie Mor: a Celebration of Hamish Henderson

9 Mar 2011 in Highland, Music, Writing

Caithness Horizons centre at Thurso will host a  celebration of the late Scottish poet and folk singer Hamish Henderson from 24-26 March 2011.
‘The Gillie Mor’ [‘The Big Lad’] was a by-name for one of Scotland’s most influential cultural thinkers and artists. Caithness Horizons in Thurso has created a three-day March festival of talks, books, film, story-telling, folklore, music and poetry to put the spotlight on the life and work of Hamish Henderson. A cultural icon in his own lifetime, Hamish Henderson was consumed by a love of and a respect for the folk traditions of Scotland, and made it his mission to make sure they wouldn’t disappear. ‘The Gillie Mor’ features well-known artists like Margaret Bennett and George Gunn, who knew and worked with Hamish Henderson, and they will introduce a younger generation to a man who, it has been said, ‘Changed Scotland Forever’.

Hamish Scott Henderson spent WW2 as an intelligence officer with the legendary 51st Highland Division, experience which shaped his future. His service in North Africa inspired Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, a volume of poems that remain some of the best-regarded war poetry ever published. As well as poetry, he wrote songs. His broad education and wide reading in several European languages meant that he was the right man in the right place at the right time to translate and broadcast the political writings of many who determined that war must never happen again, including the work of Italian , Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was an Italian writer, linguist and philosopher. A founding member of the Communist Party of Italy, Gramsci was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime, and died physically broken by the experience. Hamish Henderson met many communist partisans after the liberation of Italy, and was inspired by Gramsci’s analysis of culture and political leadership. After the war Hamish adopted in deadly seriousness a commitment to placing value on ‘populist’ culture, that is, the culture of the people.

Hamish Henderson’s distinction lay in understanding that Scottish populist culture was far from parochial or marginal, and in his ability to connect it to international populist culture, going back to ancient Celtic times. This insight resulted in the creation of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, where Hamish worked until he retired, by which time he had ensured the protection and archiving of the living folk culture of Scotland. More importantly, perhaps, Hamish – by force of personality as well as intellectual application – wedged open a space for the spirit as well as the letter of Folk Tradition to be passed on for future generations to enjoy.

Key to the legacy of the Gillie Mor was his work recording and broadcasting the traditions of ‘The Summer Walkers’, the Travelling people who took to the roads of the North Highlands with horse and cart in the spring and summer, living under the stars in canvas and hazel bough tents. Timothy Neat, one of those appearing at Caithness Horizons for the festival, wrote a two volume biography of Hamish Henderson, as well making a film based on Hamish’s research with the travellers, called the ‘The Summer Walkers’. Timothy will be introducing both books and film during the festival, describing in lively terms his close personal friendship with Hamish, as well as their shared projects as professionals and arts.

One of the subjects of ‘The Summer Walkers’ is storyteller Essie Stewart, who will be appearing during the festival on Saturday 26th March as well as delivering schools workshops at Wick High School with Timothy Neat, George Gunn and Nancy Nicolson. Essie belongs to the Stewart family of Remarstaig, which was crucial to the recordings of stories and song made by Hamish as he followed them on their summer walks across Sutherland and into Caithness right up until the late 1950’s. Along with singers Jeannie Robertson and Sheila Stewart whose songs Hamish recorded, Essie Stewart was given confidence by Hamish Henderson to pass on her stories, and it is work she takes very seriously.

Another who will appear at the festival is Margaret Bennett who worked alongside and then took forward the work of Hamish Henderson at the School of Scottish Studies. In books such as Scottish Customs – From the Cradle to the Grave, Dr Bennett has applied her knowledge and professionalism to documenting the traditional life of Scotland, and popularising it. As a well-known singer herself, she continues to embody what Henderson called the ‘carrying stream’, the grass-roots expression of ordinary people through story and – in Margaret’s case, Gaelic –song. Margaret will join Timothy Neat in a talk at Horizons on Thursday 24th March, after an earlier session that afternoon entitled ‘Highland Exodus’, when she will show photographs and film as well as recordings by descendants of Highlanders and their families who were forced to migrate to places like Quebec in the 1800’s.

Another singer and storyteller joining the celebration is native Caithnessian, Nancy Nicolson. Creator of several comic songs which have entered the folk canon, Nancy also wrote lyrical and moving songs for the 1990’s Grey Coast Theatre production, ‘Flags’, which was set and produced at Castlehill, one of the main flagstone industry sites of 19th-century Caithness. Many will know a Nancy Nicolson song with a more contemporary Caithness industrial setting. ‘I’m the Man That Muffed It’ takes a wry look at the dangers latent in manning a nuclear power plant – like Dounreay perhaps? The song is surely one that Hamish Henderson would have approved as stemming from the people for the people.

‘The Gillie Mor’ became Henderson’s nickname after his own song of the same title, which he wrote at the height of the Cold War as a message of friendship and solidarity from the Blacksmith’s Trade Union in Leith in Scotland to the Blacksmith’s Trade Union in Kiev in the Ukraine. Like his most famous song, ‘The Freedom Come All Ye’, which many consider Scotland’s unofficial anthem, ‘The Gillie Mor’ is a plea for humanitarianism that echoes Robert Burns, and – like Burns – places all men [and women] squarely as equals:

‘…You an me, the man, the brither – me an you, the Gillie Mor’.

Acting as MC for the duration of the festival is poet and playwright George Gunn, who cut his teeth as a writer while living in Edinburgh where he developed a close friendship with Hamish Henderson. He has written several poems for Henderson, and it was George Gunn who proposed this festival as a tribute to a man he credits with helping forge his own cultural and artistic identity, and with impressing on him the necessity never to stray far from the audience you wish to write for:

‘Nothing surprised me about Hamish Henderson. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he walked into the Royal Hotel on the 26th of March and wanted a shot at the ceilidh!’

The fundamental importance of creative education was one thing George Gunn learned from Henderson, and three sessions have been organized where pupils from Thurso and Wick High Schools will work with artists appearing during the festival to create songs and writing of their own, as well as preparing for their Higher History exam by learning from Margaret Bennett about emigration from the Highlands.

The festival culminates in a ceilidh at the Royal Hotel, Thurso on the Saturday 26th March. Gordon Gunn, Charlie Mckerron and Brain Macalpine of Session A9 are three musicians at the top of their talent. A formidable caller of dances, Brian will be hoping to get folk up on their feet dancing, but Essie Stewart, Nancy Nicolson and George Gunn will also be on hand with stories, poetry and songs, to make the evening a ceilidh in the old style – Audience participation will be encouraged.

Skerray artist Gavin Lockhart will be filming all events to compile a DVD record of the festival.

We’re proud to present this festival at Caithness Horizons, and wish to thank Highland Council’s Highland ARts Programme [Prògram Ealain na Gàidhealtachd] for supporting it, and demonstrating a confidence that folk culture is as important as what many perceive as ‘high culture’ – not that Hamish Henderson would have observed a distinction. We sincerely hope that the people of Caithness and Sutherland and beyond will support these events, and be proud to discover more about this part of their shared heritage. Through ‘The Gillie Mor’ festival we pay tribute to an amazing man, but we also honour his life’s work by keeping alive its subject: the folk tradition of Scotland.

Gillie Mor – Festival programme

Thursday 24th March

Caithness Horizons Gallery
‘Highland Exodus: From Crofters, Fishermen & Peat-cutters to Homesteaders, Fox-men & Lumber-jacks’
Margaret Bennett
Admission £4/£3

Caithness Horizons Gallery
‘Hamish Henderson: a Man of our Time’
Timothy Neat & Margaret Bennett
Admission £4/£3

Friday 25th March

Caithness Horizons Gallery
‘The Summer Walkers’
Timothy Neat introduces his film about the Travellers whose songs and stories were recorded by Hamish Henderson
Admission £4/£3

Saturday 26th March

Caithness Horizons Gallery
‘Freedom Come All Ye’
George Gunn, Nancy Nicolson & Essie Stewart in session- an afternoon of Stories, Songs & Poetry
Admission £4/£3

Royal Hotel, Thurso
‘Gillie Mor Ceilidh’
From Session A9 – Gordon Gunn, Charlie Mckerron & Brain Macalpine
Admission £8/£6

Source: Caithness Horizons