Alan Taylor 21st November 2009
Reading the second and final volume of Timothy Neat’s biography Hamish Henderson (Polygon, £25), the too-tall poet, balladeer and folklorist who died at the age of 82 in 2002. Slowly but surely an era in Scottish letters is being given its proper due. Maggie Fergusson’s life of George Mackay Brown got the ball rolling and Neat’s account of Henderson’s life is in some respects complementary to that work, Henderson and Mackay Brown being known to one another if hardly bosom buddies.
Neat’s second volume covers the last half century of Henderson’s life when, creatively, he appears to have gone into hibernation. Academically and politically, however, he remained conspicuously active, a somewhat shambolic figure often to be seen wending his way along Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge, where the School of Scottish Studies was based, to Sandy Bell’s pub in Forrest Road. It was what Norman MacCaig might have called “a short walk with a long duration.”
Many things intrigue about Neat’s biography, one being the suggestion that Wilfred Taylor, who wrote a long-running and influential column in the Scotsman, was “a British Intelligence agent with special responsibility for recruiting graduates from Edinburgh University” to MI5 and MI6.
One would like to know more about Taylor’s role as Edinburgh’s Smiley. Like Henderson he was a familiar figure in postwar Edinburgh, a prolific if somewhat pedantic commentator on the affairs of the day. There is no suggestion that he attempted to recruit Henderson but Neat asserts that it was unlikely that Henderson – a lovably, thistly character who was never happier than when making a nuisance of himself to the Establishment – would have been appointed to the School of Scottish Studies without having been given the okay by the spooks. Indeed, Neat suggests that by encouraging Henderson’s “field folk collecting” MI5 may have been attempting to divert and control his revolutionary instincts.
Interestingly, the last mention of Taylor in Neat’s biography is in connection with John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil. In the Scotsman, Taylor attacked the play’s subject matter – the ongoing subjugation of Highlanders – and dramatic style and its critical portrayal of Patrick Sellar, an instrumental figure in the notorious Highland Clearances. Presented with such a red rag Henderson could not resist a riposte. “It would be quite possible,” he wrote, “I suppose, to write a play in which Burke and Hare were portrayed as intrepid pioneers in the field of medical research…”