Hamish Henderson, Mona Stewart and the ‘alternative national anthem’ of Scotland

Mona Stewart
Mona Stewart

The famous Scottish intellectual poet and songwriter Hamish Henderson spent many years travelling around Scotland collecting folk songs, leading him, 53 years ago, to the foothills of Cairnsmore and the door of Newton Stewart singer Mona Stewart.

Henderson, who died in 2002, has been referred to as the “most important Scots poet since Robert Burns” and he was a catalyst for the folk revival in Scotland.

He and Mona stuck up a great friendship after he met her in 1962 and asked her to sing some songs for him as he was compiling a history of Scottish folk songs.

Mona remembers: “It was some visiting Glasgow University students who were visiting who first sang the song to me.”

Henderson recorded his conversations with Mona and also recorded her singing some old Scots songs that her father had taught her as a child. During one of the interviews, he had asked her if she had come across any new Scottish folk songs and she said that she had heard one, only recently, which she had loved the minute she heard it and had scribbled down the lyrics as sung by a young folk musician visiting from Glasgow. She then sang the song for Hamish, and when she was finished he asked her if she knew who had written it, and when she said that no, she didn’t, he told with her with a big smile that he had written it some years before and how delighted he was to know that his songs were being passed down orally, in the tradition of the old songs.

That song was the now well-known and much loved “The Freedom Come A’ Ye”. Hamish was so impressed with Mona’s rendition that he asked her to perform it at the Scottish Folk Festival in the Kelvin Hall some time later, on 5 September 1965, which she did, unaccompanied, before an audience of hundreds, to great applause. Mona still has the letter Hamish sent to her inviting her to sing at the Folk Festival, where he had carefully written out the words for her, so that she had the correct version.

Mona remembers: “It was some Glasgow University students who were visiting who first sang the song to me. When I sang it for Hamish and he asked: “Do you know who wrote it?”. I replied that I didn’t and he exclaimed: “I did!”.

“After I sang at the Kelvin Hall, the Mona Stewart Band were also invited to perform at the Blairgowrie Music Festival. There has been talk about “The Freedom Come A’ Ye” becoming the national anthem of Scotland. I don’t know about that but it’s a beautiful song to sing.”

Sadly there are no recordings of her performance at the Kelvin Hall. However, a couple of months ago, a request came from the School of Scottish Studies, who had the original recordings made by Hamish all those years ago, both at Mona’s home and at the Blairgowrie Folk Festival, which Mona and her band, the Mona Stewart Dance Band, took part in during the summer of 1967. They asked for Mona’s permission for them to be made available on the internet and for any future broadcasts. She gave permission and they kindly sent the recordings to her on two CDs.

Mona’s crystal clear voice is heard singing in 1962, 1965 and 1967, when she was in her prime. The songs include Jock O’ Hazledean, Dark Lochnagar, The Gaigrie Wedding and of course, The Freedom Come A’ Ye. However, the real bonus for Mona was that there were also recordings of the band, and her husband Bobby’s distinctive drumming was clearly heard - this was a bitter sweet pleasure as Bobby passed away over a year ago. Ivor Brown was on accordion and John Mason, of later Scottish Fiddle Orchestra fame, was on fiddle.

The School of Scottish Studies say that all the recordings will be available on-line hopefully before the end of this year, but in the meantime we have two clips from the Blairgowrie Folk Festival which people can listen to by clicking on the following links.

The first is Mona singing The Freeedom Come A’ Ye, and the second is The Mona Stewart Dance Band playing a Strip the Willow Medley and features Mona on piano, John Mason on fiddle, Ivor Brown on accordion and Mona’s beloved husband Bobby Stewart on drums.

https://soundcloud.com/brockhammusic/the-freedom-come-a-ye

https://soundcloud.com/brockhammusic/strip-the-willow-medley

Needless to say Mona’s family is absolutely delighted that these recordings have come to light, and hope that the Galloway Gazette readers enjoy listening to these two clips as a taster of what the School of Scottish Studies will be releasing later in the year.

Hamish Henderson studied modern languages at Cambridge University and worked in the Intelligence Corps in World War Two where his command of six languages and knowledge of German culture made him an effective interrogator. He took part in the Desert War in Africa, and personally oversaw the drafting of the surrender order of Italy.

A book on his life contains a reference to his meeting with Mona Stewart over 50 years ago.