Hamish Henderson was Scotland's leading folklorist, as well as a major poet, soldier, socialist, songwriter, CND peace campaigner and anti-apartheid activist. He was born in Blairgowrie on 11 November 1919. His mother was Janet Jobson Henderson (d. 1933), a cook and housekeeper who had served as a nurse on the western front, and his father was James Scott (1874–1934), an army officer. He was raised by his Gaelic-speaking mother and his Episcopalian, Jacobite maternal grandmother, spending his early childhood in Blairgowrie and Glenshee. He also spent time in Dundee, Somerset, and Devon. Orphaned at the age of thirteen, Henderson obtained scholarships first to Dulwich College and then to Downing College, Cambridge, where he read modern languages.
In the world of the 1930s, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism, and Scottish nationalism at home, would each shape Henderson's worldview and political outlook. When war broke out in September 1939, Henderson attempted to enlist in the Cameron Highlanders but he was rejected because of weak eyesight. He was called up the following year, joining the pioneer corps. However, with a gift for languages, he was commissioned at the rank of second lieutenant as an intelligence officer in January 1942, and served in north Africa with the Eighth Army. His service in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy provided him with the opportunity to note and to remember moments that would later become poems and series of poems, such as Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, and the song The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily.
During 1947 and 1948 he took various teaching engagements, including one at a German high school teachers' summer school in Bad Godesberg, and another working with German prisoners of war in Comrie, Perthshire. Between 1948 and 1949 he was also a district secretary for the Workers' Educational Association. At the same time he was producing a great deal of literary and political criticism, poetry, and songs. In his work, Henderson swung between English and Scots, like Burns before him, writing only rarely in Gaelic.
In 1951 Henderson was appointed a lecturer and research fellow at Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies. His work there as a folk-song collector formed the foundation of the Scottish folk revival. And, over and over again, Henderson's writings displayed a keen and deep appreciation of internationalism, foreign literature, and people's culture. Throughout his life too, he corresponded privately connecting with many of the finest minds of the day, and also wrote through the columns of national newspapers. Towards the end of the 1950s, on 15 May 1959, Henderson married Renate Felicitas (Kätzel) Schmidt (b. 1937) in Coburg, Germany
Henderson's influence travelled far wider than Scotland. He fed songs, disquisition, and polemic into the international folk scene too. He took up political argument through his poems and songs, on issues to do with land ownership and access, anti-Polaris missile, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the anti-apartheid struggle.
Among Henderson's other work are: Ballads of World War II (1947), The Ballad of the Men of Knoydart, Freedom Come-All-Ye (1960), and Prison Letters of Antonio Gramsci (1974, 1988, 1996).
Hamish Henderson died in Edinburgh in a nursing home, after a stroke, on 8 March 2002.