Hamish Henderson Interview

hendersonh01pic1.jpg The enmeshed traditions of written and spoken word in Scotland fascinated Hamish Henderson, whose zeal in collecting folk song, ballad and tale helped pioneer an upsurge of interest in Scotland’s oral tradition, and bring into the public eye the wonderful oral heritage of the travelling people. Our conversation was punctuated with much hilarity, Hamish throwing back his head and barking with laughter in sheer joy at his subject. He provided me with a number of chapbooks from his large and dearly loved collection to illustrate this interview.

Even among the giants of Scottish literature it’s sometimes hard to distinguish original work from what has been drawn from common tradition.

Some of the finest works of Scottish literary culture have been a fusion and interpenetration of the written and the oral tradition. Many of our greatest art poets, Burns, Hogg, Byron and Scott among them, foraged in the communal bin, and sometimes they would howk out something that they would silently pass off as their own. It’s not only among the folk poets that you find this interchange. There’s this continual link, the serpent swallowing its tail.

James Hogg is a beautiful case in point. There are arguments to this day about the various versions of border ballads which he said he’d got from his mother and passed on to Sir Walter Scott. How much was from Margaret Laidlaw, his mother, and how much was from other informants and how much was Jimmy Hogg himself? In his Jacobite Relics are a number of songs he’d written himself and silently passed off as folk songs. ‘Donald MacGillivray’ is one of them. Some of the most famous things in Scottish literature inhabit this border zone between literature and oral traditions.

James MacPherson’s famous bogus epic, which purported to be a translation of the poems of the warrior-bard Ossian, was his own work, and a work of some genius. It had a tremendous affect upon European letters. But he tried to palm it off as a traditional epic, and, as a result, Celtic scholars have been shelling peas at it ever since. Sir Walter Scott spent most of his life hiding his very copious personal identity under a bulging fig leaf, namely ‘The Author of Waverley’. On a visit to Trinity College, Dublin he was welcomed as The Author of Waverley, to which Scott rather sniffily said ‘Who?’, although it was by them common knowledge that he had written The Waverley Novels.

The type figure in all this rather strange business is ‘MacAlias’, a name invented by Moray McLaren. In an article for the New Statesman, he pointed out how many Scottish writers have adopted pseudonyms, noms de plume or noms de guerre, to use the more appropriate style for characters like Hugh McDiarmid. Some, like James Hogg the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, are better known by the soubriquet than by their real name. I would suggest one reason for this peculiarly Scottish literary phenomenon is that so many people, even great art poets, owed so much to other people.

Could another reason be the impact on the Scottish identity of Scotland’s relationship to England?

That can be exaggerated. Scotland’s increasingly dependent state on England, and the natural ill effects of this are possibly part of the picture, but not really a very important part. I think the sooner we come to grips with our own problems right here in Scotland, the sooner both political life and, in my view, literature and culture will benefit. You’ll cease to have so many writers, and people working in the Arts generally, who are keeping a wary eye cocked at the big neighbour over the border, and as often as not kowtowing to his prejudices.

McGonagall couldn’t be accused of that!

McGonagall is much better than some people think. You can only understand McGonagall properly, as you can only understand Scott properly, if you realise that he is – among other things – part of the oral tradition. His curious, uncouth, lopsided, formless lines and quatrains are very like the Anglo Irish poems composed by Irish speaking poets as eulogies to the new jumped up Anglo Irish landlords that had come in. They used the same metres as the old Irish poems written in honour of the clan chiefs, but, written in English, it’s astonishing how McGonagallese some of them read. McGonagall’s parents were Irish. He and James Connolly were born within a cripple’s crawl of each other in Candlemaker Row and the Coogate in Auld Reekie. This was virtually an Irish ghetto, and when he was a kid he must have heard hundreds of these ‘Come-all-ye’ songs which used the same tunes and the same metric forms as the Gaelic songs from which they took their cues. I’ll give you an example, not a Catholic one but an Orange one – that’s six of one and half a dozen of the other where this particular phenomenon is concerned. ‘David Brown’s Farewell to Kilmood Lodge 541′

Farewell ye Carrickmannon boys, adieu unto Forth Hill,

No more I’ll share your social joys, when I think on you my heart does fill.

But when I land at Quebec a glass of water I will call,

And drink to the boys that I love best, the elders in the Protestant Hall.

You can see the link between that and McGonagall.

Even the best Scottish poets run the gamut between the excellent and the very poor. MacDiarmid in this sense was very much the man ‘whaur extremes meet’. I doubt if any major poet has written on the one hand so brilliantly well, and on the other, so catastrophically badly. Burns wrote some of the most beautiful lyrics in Scots or in any language, and he was also capable of writing unmitigated hendersonh01pic2.jpg rubbish. Admittedly, the rubbish was mainly in English, but he should have known better. Scott was a special case. Much of what he wrote, especially in later life, was scrawled in double quick time in order to meet creditors.

Apparently, he wrote so fast, his writing is very hard to decipher. Edinburgh University Press is producing a new edition of Scott, which will correct the hundreds of compositors’ errors in existing editions.

A similar case is James Joyce’s Ulysses. The original edition produced in Paris by Sylvia Beach had thousands of errors, not just hundreds. Of course, Joyce was writing in a somewhat esoteric style, or rather styles. It was such an extraordinary, innovative work that a certain number of printer’s errors could be understood. The Penguin edition of 1969 corrected many of these, and introduced a new one. On the jaunt out to Glasnevin Cemetery to bury little Paddy Dignam, someone tells a story about two drunks who visited a grave in the cemetery: ‘They asked for Mulcahy from the Coombe and were told where he was buried. After traipsing about in the fog, they found the grave, sure enough. One of the drunks spelt out the name: Terence Mulcahy. The other drunk was blinking up at a statue of our Saviour the widow had got put up…And after blinking up at the sacred figure, Not a bit bloody like the man, says he. That’s not Mulcahy, says he, whoever done it.’

In the 1922 Sylvia Beach edition, published by her company Shakespeare and Son, the drunk blinks up (as here) at the ‘sacred’ figure, but in the 1969 Penguin edition, he blinks up at the ‘scaredfigure. I dropped the firm a note, drawing attention to the error, and added the plaintive comment ‘Is nothing sacred’…In the next impression they took the hint.

Moving on now to your work as a folklorist…

I was inspired greatly by the work of Gavin Greig, the North East dominie. He and the Reverend James Duncan of Lynturk made a fantastic collection of Scots ballads and folksongs. When I was quite a kid, I learned that his manuscripts were in the University Library at Aberdeen and I got in to see them. I was thrilled by the sight of this enormous collection. Greig had a powerful humane intellect. He not only knew a great deal about his songs, he published among his versions of classic ballads songs which had just been written by George Bruce Thomson: songs which have now entered oral tradition like ‘McGinty’s Meal an’ Ale’ and ‘The Wedding of McGinnis and his Cross-eyed Pet’. Greig was knowledgeable enough and thoughtful enough not to exclude them from his collection. He had a proper Gramscian idea of folk culture.

Gramsci looked at folklore from a social/historical standpoint. Is that your own approach?

Very much so. Lawrence and Wishart recently brought out a volume of the cultural writings of Gramsci. His ideas about folklore, his insights, are fascinating. From prison he sent his wife Giulia a Sardinian folk tale; he told her: This is the bare bones of it, when you tell it to the children you must put flesh on it. As a folklorist, he was looking with a keen eye at the make-up of the communities in which the stories were told. The social/historical facts of the matter. Really, the most suggestive remark of Gramsci’s about folksong – the most pregnant insight – is in his fifth prison notebook. (There were 33 altogether). This is how it goes: ‘What distinguishes folksong in the context of a nation and its culture, is neither the artistic fact nor the historic origin; it is a separate and distinct way of conceiving the world and life, as opposed to that of ‘official’ society.’ Here in Scotland, seventy years earlier, Campbell of Islay expressed the same general idea in somewhat different terms: ‘In the Highlands, as elsewhere, society is arranged in layers, like the climates of the world. The dweller on the Indian plain little dreams that there is a region of perpetual frost in the air above him; the Eskimo does not suspect the slumbering volcano under his feet; and the dwellers in the upper and lower strata of society, everywhere know as little of each others’ way of life, as the men of the plain know of the mountains in the snow.’ – That’s from Popular Tales of the West Highlands.

If you want to find the touchstone of the truth of these remarks of Gramsci’s and Campbell’s, you’ll invariably find it in the field if sex – which is naturally one of the most hoodoo-ridden zones of society. If you want to locate the most fundamental characteristic attitudes of any social group, that’s where to look for them. Authentic folksong- the folksong of the people from whom Herd, Burns and Peter Buchan collected – was never afraid of the ‘Merry Muses’ – or ‘the secret songs of silence’, which was Peter Buchan’s collection. It never had any use for the conventional hypocrisies and taboos of respectable bourgeois society. It handled (and handles) the joys, miseries and above all the comedy of sex with medieval directness. Needless to say, this has never endeared it to the Holy Willies (and the groaning Jonahs) of Scottish life.

The comic folktales – the so-called Schwanke – are the same, whether they come from Buchan or Byelo-Russia. They always call a spade a spade!

What do you think of Jung’s ideas to account for the correspondence of content of folktales from every part of the world?

I’m afraid these ideas have engendered a good deal of escapy other-wordly nonsense, particularly in Germany and the German-speaking countries. It’s very attractive and seductive to wreath and swathe yourself around with all sorts of mystical ideas. Yet I would hesitate to denounce them totally. I’ve just been reading that fantastic book by Bruce Chatwin ‘The Song Lines’ about the Australian aborigines and their attitude to their sacred lands and the way that they sung their whole continent into being. They have sung Australia into being. What a wonderful concept. Now there you are dealing with Aboriginal feelings and ideas and compulsions which may possibly underlie much of the prehistoric background of folk tales.

1890 saw an upsurge of interest in folklore – David Nutt, Joseph Jacobs, etc.

…and of course, Andrew Lang. That was a time more of editing than collecting, although Lang did collect some stories. But basically these collections he made were from other sources. It was a great period of consolidation. Many of these very fine folklorists of that time tended to be pessimistic about the survival of the folk tale, especially in England. Probably a lot more of the tales lingered on than we know. English folklorists didn’t do the work among the folk story tellers that people like Cecil Sharp did among the singers.

How do you feel about Anglicised versions of Scottish folk tales?

If you Anglicise Scottish tales the sun goes out of them. Take the collection of North East tales made by Peter Buchan in the early nineteenth century. They are identifiable as genuine folktales, but with an eye to what would be commercial he translated them into such stilted English he crucified them. He called them ‘Tales as Told by the Ancient Sybils of the North Countrie’. Old Mrs McPhee or old Mrs Mutch had to be turned into ‘ancient sybils’ in order to go down with the Waverley Novel reading clientele.

On the other hand, John Francis Campbell of Islay, regarded throughout Europe as the most important nineteenth century Scottish folklorist, gave most of the stories both in English and vivid, idiomatic Gaelic. He was a great Highland laird. A good Gaelic scholar. His mother was English but his parents made sure he learned Gaelic. He eventually learned a number of languages and so had a comparative basis from which to look at folklore. He collected often through other people, schoolmasters, and so on, especially in Argyll. The first volume of his Popular Tales of the West Highlands was published in 1860.

Very vigorous language is used in A Thorn in the King’s Foot, stories of the Scottish travelling people by Duncan and Linda Williamson.

In A Thorn in the King’s Foot, Duncan’s wife Linda has made the most meticulously accurate transcriptions of the language in which Duncan tells his stories. These stories of the Scottish travelling people or ‘tinkler gypsies’ have been passed on through countless generations of story tellers and contain the most ancient aboriginal motifs. Yet even though there are supernatural events in them, they do correspond to the thoughts and feelings of modern Scots – possibly the majority. Why shouldn’t they, when they have been borne forward on the lips of tradition-bearers like Duncan?

hendersonh01pic3.jpg Some of the basic folk tales of the human race have probably not only like Ariel circumnavigated the world once, but several times, gaining new impetus from different versions that have been sparked off at different times. There are countless interweavings of these connections. It’s true of stories among the settled people. How much more true of the tales of the travellers! One of the real achievements of the School of Scottish Studies has been opening up the lore of the travelling people which had been almost totally neglected by previous folklorists. Back in the fifties, I first became aware of this untapped wealth of stories through Jeannie Robertson in Aberdeen, a miraculous singer with a wonderful store of classic ballads and folk song of every description. When I first joined the School of Scottish Studies, the idea that storytellers and singers from traditional backgrounds deserved a place in the ‘art hierarchy’ was nonsense to some people.

Changed days.

It’s a dialectical process. Or you might just say, one good think leads to another. I’ve put my shoulder to the wheel and naturally it gives a lot of pleasure to see it moving. I love storytelling and singing sessions, not geared to any fixed function or entertainment. That’s the cream of human life. Especially if you’ve got a living, bounding oral tradition, as we still have in Scotland.

Copyright Jennie Renton 1987.


One Comment on "Hamish Henderson Interview"

  1. Katarzyna on Mon, 16th Jul 2012 6:57 am 

    The redevelopment of the National Museum of Scotland has been quite a big deal. With an imvnsteent just shy of a350 million, the site in the heart of Edinburgh has been transformed and upon its re-launch, I couldn’t wait to take a visit to see what was on offer. The last time I was in the Museum of Scotland, I was knee high to a grasshopper and remember finding it a vast and intimidating place, but packed full to the brim with new discoveries to be made. Imagine my delight to find that feeling was still the same nearly 20 years on. Walking into the main hall was like stepping back in time but having the memory coloured in with brighter and more vivid colouring pens. The impressiveness of the hall was not lost on our two children either, who both exclaimed an audible ‘Wow’ almost simultaneously as they took in the quite spectacular space. I was struck by the amazing smell of an old museum, which took me by surprise as the new modern glass facade on the outside tricked me into thinking I was entering some sleek minamilist boutique hotel. I actually wondered whether it was being piped through the building like they do with fresh bread in a supermarket. Then of course we discovered the amazing collections within. Exhibits dating back 130 million years just make the mind boggle and the 12 metre long T-Rex skeleton is simply staggering. Armed with our map we attempted a planful approach to seeing each exhibit that we really wanted to see, but the sheer excitement and hunger to soak it all up found us wandering around mouths wide open and pointing here, there and eveywhere at something else that had caught our eye. The levels are carefully planned and well segregated, from Natural World displays, World Cultures, Art and Design, Science and Technology and of course, Scotland, there was no way we were going to cover all ground in an afternoon. The interactive exhibits geared specifically towards families were fantastic and introduced learning concepts in a fun way (how does the wind blow and how do we lift things being just two that caught our attention for some time.) The Imagine gallery was a bit hit with our under fives, giving them opportunity to dress up in outfits from different cultures, make a Chinese dragon dance, play the bongo drums and an assortment of other musical instruments and create their own stories with imaginatively designed word jigsaw puzzles. Access and facilities for families was great, with toilets and baby changing on every level, glass lifts for easy buggy transits to the next level of exploration. Eating and drinking options cover everything from grabbing a quick coffee between discoveries to languishing over a leisurely lunch in the impressive and much coveted Tower Restaurant. A truly fantastic place to take a day out and create new memories from some very old things! Yes, National Musuem of Scotland, I like what you’ve done with the place.

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