Hamish Henderson was born to a single mother in Perthshire, the family eventually moving south to England. He won a scholarship to Dulwich College but his mother died shortly before he took up his place, forcing him to live in an orphanage while studying. He studied Modern Languages at Downing College, Cambridge, in the years leading up to World War II, and spent spare time running messages for the German resistance. He also worked to smuggle Jews out of Nazi Germany right up until the outbreak of war.
Although he argued strongly for peace at the outbreak of the war he eventually realised that a satisfactory peace could not be reached and threw himself into the war effort. He joined the Pioneer Corps as an enlisted soldier but later applied for and obtained a commission in the Intelligence Corps. His command of six European languages together with his deep understanding of German culture made him an effective interrogator. He took part in the Desert War in Africa, where he wrote the poem Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, which encompasses every aspect of a soldier’s experience of North Africa. On 2 May 1945 he oversaw the drafting of the surrender order of Italy. He collected the lyrics for the satirical song ‘D-Day Dodgers’ and also wrote the lyrics to ‘The 51st (Highland) Division’s Farewell to Sicily’.
After the war he concentrated on folk revival, settling in Edinburgh in 1959 with his German wife Kätzel. In 1955 he co-founded the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies where he remained in post until 1987.
Hamish Henderson’s Poems
Banks of Sicily (The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily) on You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuR6uObK4is
Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (Edinburgh University Press) http://bit.ly/herndersoncyrenaica