[1964:] In many Scottish writers you get the strong swing of the pendulum between the strong, deep, heavy notes of the lament [...] and something different altogether, which can be the wildest ecstasy of the dance. This always seems to me to be much more possible for a Scottish poet in music than in poetry. Well, I don't say for every poet, but when I swing to the other extreme I move into music, and because I love Scottish folk-music generally, I find that when I begin writing in a 'Crazy Jane' mood, not only the words but the tunes suggest themselves to me, and I finish up by not publishing the poem in a magazine but singing it in a folk-song club. And then people begin listening to it and they begin repeating it. For example, [this song] was beginning to get sung by people here and there almost as soon as I had written it. And only today I got an airmail letter from the States giving me the text of a version of this particular song which is quite a distance away from the way I wrote it, sung by a group in the States. (Henderson, Alias MacAlias 323)
[1965:] This short lyric relays the mood of the Scottish soldiers on quitting Sicily during the Second World War, their attitude to the island and its people. It is an impressionistic poem, a poem of mood, of hints, rather than clear-cut statement. In its language, images, general form, and, partly in its mood, it is very close to traditional folk sources. Like The Freedom Come Aa Ye it is set to one of the great pipe melodies, in this case, "Farewell To The Creeks". It is the great traditional, popular music that unfailingly brings Henderson to his highest pitch of poetry.
Here we are not limited to the statements of the poem itself. The images, singly and as a whole, are rich in implications, in different layers of meaning. Yet here is something obviously near to the folk-song source.
The first thing that strikes one is the surprising dialectical movement of mood in the lyric, the juxtaposition of the two apparantly opposite attitudes to Sicily. In the first four lines the feelings of human attachment and of repulsion, of "not being at home" are inextricably interwoven. It all cuts two ways. Is the piper bored and homesick? Or is he sad at parting? He is both. Is the sky over Messina uncanny and grey because it is an alien sky - or because it too seems to mourn the moment of parting? Both are involved. In the three "choruses" which follow the first verse the negative aspect detaches itself and becomes dominant. This is reversed in the second verse and choruses, where the mood of estrangement melts into the deep human attachment to Sicily and its people. In the final chorus the Scottish troops seem to play a last salute to the mountain island on the instrument which symbolises their own national pride - the bagpipes.
This may not be modern as far as its stated philosophical content is concerned, but it is modern in its closeness to the actual complex dialectical process of human emotion. Contrast it with the traditional songs of farewell, of leaving one's country forever, in which Scottish lyric poetry is so rich (Lochaber No More, Farewell to Fiunary etc) and its significant advance, its modernity, is obvious. Yet these were the springboards.
Thus, in the very fact that is in the tradition of songs of parting from a place of local habitation, it stirs old, native associations in Scots.
But the emotions thus stirred are brought into connection with a foreign land, with Sicily. The struggle of contradictory emotions and the final victory of fellowship and human wholeness has something important to say about the position of British soldiers, fighting in a capitalist army whose leadership and backers have mixed motives, yet at the same time fighting in a progressive cause - against the barbarism of Fascism and for the freedom of the people of Sicily. No soldier of the Nazi Army could have written this poem, no matter what his personal attitude might have been.
But this is not all. The scenery and society of Sicily are described in Scottish words - "unco", "shaw","shieling", "bothy" etc This "strange" southern land whose inhabitants are so often termed "Ities" and "wops" by the imperialist and imperialist-minded is thus "de-estranged", brought close to us. The mask of ignorance and hatred melts. The Sicilians become our intimates, our brothers and sisters. In this great war of human liberation those Scottish Soldiers who have so often "wandered far away and plundered far away" in imperialist wars of aggression appear in a new guise, win through to a new understanding, a new human relationship. A subtle and most important polemic against the "Scottish Soldier" mentality still so prevalent in Scotland.
Beyond this - through Scottish terms and the natural description - Sicily becomes Scotland, becomes the "great glen of the world". The soldiers' attitude to Sicily is the complex contradictory attitude of humanity to the alienated world of capitalism. It is a grey, eerie, inimical, unhuman place reminiscent of the "cold hillside" in Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Mercie, a place where the human feels a stranger, an alien, yet at the same time (and this is the important and finally triumphant aspect) behind the mask it is the world, the place where alone humanity's destiny is forged, where love and laughter and kinship do and will triumph over alienation. It is a song of belief in the infinite resilience of humanity, in the validity of the world, a song of acceptance of life. (Jack Mitchell, Professor of English Literature at Humboldt University, East Berlin, extract from an article about the work of Hamish Henderson)
[1973:] Folklorist and poet Hamish Henderson served with the Eighth Army 'Desert Rats' during World War II - he was intelligence officer with the 1st S.A.Infantry Division at the battle of El Alamein and then served with the 51st Highland Division in Lybia, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy. When Field Marshal Graziani formally surrendered after being captured by Italian partisans, it was Captain Henderson who accepted his surrender. He wrote this wry farewell to the charms and charmers of Sicily to the tune of Farewell to the creeks, a pipe march composed by an old friend, Pipe Major James Robertson of Banff. It has since passed into the army's oral tradition. (Dallas, Wars 108)
[1977:] It is set to Farewell to the Creeks, a tune composed by Pipe Major James Robertson about his uncle's farm near the Creeks of Portknockie on the Banffshire coast [...]. The tune itself was written during World War I, and the song became popular among the men of the Gordons and other Highland Regiments before the end of World War II. It is still sung in the North East and other parts of Scotland by many who have never seen the words in print. The song synthesises a real Scotland and a real Sicily just as the Elegies unite a metaphysical Scotland with a metaphysical desert. The traditional rhymes of eerie, dearie and cheerie, with their accumulated associations from Burns and his predecessors, are counterpointed with the mysterious and exotic - 'a' the bricht chaumers are eerie'. The Sicilian landscape is made familiar to us by words like 'valleys', 'shaw' and `kyle'; the slightly idealised 'shieling and ha'' are set over and against the more low-life 'shebeens and bothies'; common terms of military equipment and Forces slang are completely Scottified. [...]
Jack Mitchell of the Humboldt University of East Berlin spoke of "the surprising dialectical movement of mood in the lyric, the juxtaposition of two apparently opposite attitudes to Sicily. [...] Is the piper bored and homesick? Or is he sad at parting? He is both. Is the sky over Messina uncanny and grey because it is an alien sky - or because it too seems to mourn the movement of parting? Both are involved." The fusion of Sicily and Scotland at every level makes us see the Sicilians as brothers, and their womenfolk are just like our own sweethearts at home, so that the whole song is "a subtle and most important polemic against the Scottish soldier mentality still so prevalent in Scotland." (Chapbook III, 4, pp. 16-17). (Thomas Crawford, notes 'Freedom come all ye - Songs and poems of Hamish Henderson')
[1981:] This is the song of former enemies still in the time of war, being able to come together - it is also about the sadness and the loneliness of the 'Tommy'. (Notes Alex Campbell, 'Live In Belgium')
[1990:] [Inspired] by the playing of a pipe band in Linguaglossa, a village on the slopes of Mount Etna, and the sight of exhausted soldiers relaxing. [Henderson] drew on the verbal idiom of the bothy songs of north-east Scotland. Some of the words used to have these meanings in standard English. (Palmer, Lovely War 175)
[1996:] This song has obsessed me for many years and I constantly discover new depths within it. An astonishing piece of poetry. (Notes Dick Gaughan, 'Sail On')
[2002:] Henderson [...] published Ballads of World War II, a bawdy and vituperative collection of soldiers' songs, which included some of his own very fine war-time compositions, most notably Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers and Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily. In order to evade the censor, it was published "privately" under the auspices of the fictitious "Lili Marlene Club (Glasgow)", but the book earned him the self-righteous wrath of [Director-General] Lord Reith and associates at the BBC, and he was prevented from making a series of programmes on ballad-making. In fact, he was kept off state radio for ten years because of this publication and because (as an ex-intelligence officer) he had been "ranting red revolution", as he once put it. (Raymond Ross, Obituary Hamish Henderson, The Scotsman, 11 Mar)
pls translate: An' a' the bricht chaulmers