The Gillie Mor Festival

10 Mar 2011 in Highland, Music, Showcase, Writing

THE GILLIE MOR FESTIVAL, a celebration of Hamish Henderson and the Folk Tradition in Caithness and Sutherland, 24th – 26th March, 2011

Hamish Henderson (1919 – 2002) was one of Scotland’s foremost twentieth century poets as well as being a ground breaking folk song collector and co-founder of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, writes GEORGE GUNN.

Although born in Glenshee he claimed that his people came from Caithness and were of the Clan Gunn. Certainly his father Alexander, writing in 1903 in the Dundee Advertiser believed so:

“My family originates from Caithness. ‘Gunn’ is the name for Henderson. We are descended from the third son of the Princess of Norway, daughter of the King of Norway…”

Hamish Henderson, all his long, eventful and creative life kept that claim active. When I met him in Edinburgh in 1979 I was immediately addressed as “kin”. From that day on until the day he died we were always close, and from Hamish I learned a lot about my own people, their culture and my country.

End paper of Tim Neat's biography of Hamish Henderson

End paper of Tim Neat's biography of Hamish Henderson

It is that sense of enjoyment and fun, of discovery, of delight in music and song, of reclamation, of cultural worth, which I hope The Gillie Mor Festival will inspire. Hamish was a big man, which is what “Gillie Mor” means in Gaelic, he was over six foot, but it also means “great man” and in cultural terms Hamish Henderson was exactly that.

When his book of poems, “Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica”, appeared in 1948 it was chronicle of the North African conflict of World War Two and gave eloquent voice to the ordinary Highland squaddie in the 51st Highland Division of Montgomery’s Eighth Army. The “Elegies” were cherished by many of those veterans because of the humanity it expressed for the casualties on both sides. Both Caithness and Sutherland produced a disproportionate amount of personnel for that struggle and that one book alone would be enough to cement Hamish Henderson’s claim to a special relationship with the Far North.

Hamish Henderson (© Birlinn)

Hamish Henderson (© Birlinn)

It was in 1955 and 1957 when Hamish made direct connection, at first by accident, with the Stewart’s of Remarstaig, the last of the Sutherland travelling people – The “Summer Walkers” of Timothy Neat’s celebrated film. It was from Ailidh Dahl , blind Alec Stewart, that Hamish recorded “Am Bron Binn” (The Sweet Sorrow”), which turned out to be one of the oldest in Europe. As he told me many years later, “Seoras (he rarely called me George) I knew it was old but I didn’t expect it to come from the beginning of time!” As he told Timothy Neat, “To start at the beginning is always good! But to get started in 500AD was the stuff of dreams…” Ailidh Dall’s granddaughter, the story teller Essie Stewart, will also be appearing at The Gillie Mor Festival to provide evidence that this dynamic cultural thread has not come to an end.

Timothy Neat is the author of highly acclaimed two volume biography of Hamish Henderson and he will be showing his film of Hamish’s 1957 Summer of folklore collecting with the Stewarts of Remarstaig, “The Summer Walkers”. Timothy will also be talking to the pupils of Wick High School about Hamish Henderson, the poet. This educational aspect of The Gillie Mor Festival is a very important aspect of the event because if the children cannot enter into the “carrying stream”, as Hamish called culture and folk lore, then our heritage has no future. With Timothy I climbed Ben Gulabin in Glenshee in 2002 and scattered Hamish’s ashes on its summit.

Also appearing at The Gillie Mor Festival will be Dr Margaret Bennett, a colleague of Hamish Henderson at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh and an eminent folklorist and historian in her own right as well as being one of Scotland’s finest traditional Gaelic singers. Dr Bennett will be delivering a talk on “The Highland Exodus” which will have its theme the emigration of people from the North of Scotland to America and Canada in the 19th century. Margaret is the mother of Martyn Bennett, one of Scotland’s foremost young composers and musicians and so recently and tragically lost to us from cancer. Hamish Henderson used to daundle Martyn on his knee and much of Martyn Bennett’s innovatory style was inspired by Hamish’s influence for, as the singer Alison McMorland has said, “Hamish Henderson changed Scotland forever!”

To complete the individual line up will be the renowned Caithness singer Nancy Nicolson whose association with Hamish Henderson and his work goes back a long time. Nancy is a former teacher and she took Hamish’s concept of the “carrying stream” of cultural expression into the schools with her and also in her work as Educational Officer for Celtic Connections in Glasgow. I have known and worked with Nancy for many years and her presence at The Gillie Mor Festival is an important contribution of authentic Caithness artistry.

George Gunn

George Gunn

Completing the line up for the ceilidh in the Saturday night are three of Scotland’s top contemporary traditional musicians – Gordon Gunn, Charlie McKerron and Brian MacAlpine who usually combine as Session A9 but for The Gillie Mor Festival have branched out as a trio. Gordon Gunn is a native of Wick and is well known as having one of the most distinctive fiddle styles in Scotland. One of the aims of this festival, which I hope will be an annual event, is to bring Caithness artists back in contact with their local audience.

The fact that many in the Far North have not heard of Hamish Henderson or are aware of his work or his connection to Caithness and Sutherland is one of the reasons we have decided to mount The Gillie Mor Festival. Hamish Henderson, as a poet, a folklorist and collector, a translator and as a cultural and political agitator, is a national figure. As time goes on he will emerge, I am certain, as a world figure so it is appropriate that we in Caithness celebrate him as one of our own. Hamish Henderson, as he never tired of telling me, certainly thought of himself as such. I urge all of you to support The Gillie Mor Festival because, like Hamish’s lifework, it is your own.

More more information on the festival contact Christine Russell on  01847 896508

© George Gunn, 2011