Professor Ged Martin (b 1945), historian, nominated
Sir John A Macdonald (1815-91)
Hamish Henderson (1919-2002)
I nominated Sir John A Macdonald as the greatest Scot of all time because he built a country. Glasgow-born of Highland parents, he grew up in Ontario and in 1867 designed the constitution that tied scattered colonies together into the nucleus of the Dominion of Canada. He was the country's first Prime Minister, and by the time he died in office in 1891, Canada stretched to the Pacific and was linked from end to end by railway. Not a bad record, especially as Macdonald was a damaged personality. For decades he drank heavily, often losing all control in the face of crisis. Canadians cope with this by creating two Macdonalds, one a stained-glass nation-builder, the other a bibulous joke figure. It is time to integrate the two. Greatness is about overcoming flaws, not impersonating Superman.
When Macdonald died, a broken-hearted colleague said that anyone writing the history of Canada for the previous 50 years would have to write the dead premier's biography. In a way, that was Macdonald's failure as well as his success, for no nation can be a one-man band.
In democratic Scotland, greatness has to involve being somehow typical, but typical-plus. Hamish Henderson was born in 1919. It would be easy to put together an unctuous tribute to 'Hamish' (although that's what everybody calls him) – 'once a gadfly but now a grand old man' – easy and off-beam. Henderson both embodies and enhances what Scotland is all about. It did not start that way. He went to Cambridge and travelled in Germany, both unusual in a young Scot in the thirties. But not for Henderson the Blair-Lamont route of dumping inconvenient North British origins. In 1937 he saw decent Germans swooning over Hitler, and learnt that fascism had to be fought, on the battlefields of Egypt and Italy, and in the hearts and minds of people. His Cyrenaica elegies were the intentional Henderson, in the tradition of Holderlin and Owen and Yeats. By translating Gramsci from Italian, he raised Marxist studies in English above yah-boo turgidity.
Joining Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies in 1952, he made the study of folklore in this country intellectually rigorous while ensuring that it stayed close to its humane roots. He was vigorous in denouncing those who dismissed the folk tradition as a kailyard of sentimentality. Only once was he ever wrong-footed, when one of his informants sang into his tape-recorder an upgraded version of his own song against apartheid. He even became an unlikely film star.
While defending the integrity of popular culture, Henderson was always ready to denounce those who used race or religion or sexual orientation to divide people. He had seen the real Hitler and would not tolerate pint-sized imitations. Sometimes, he got it wrong: CND was not the answer to the Bomb, and he should have spotted the 'No Entry' sign on the cul-de-sac of the Jim Sillars' breakaway SLP. More often he kept the flag of decency flying, as in his denunciation of the South African government as 'a prize assortment of malignant racialist crackpots' throughout the eternal decades of minority rule. This was no identikit, flavour-of-the-month agitator. He blamed Catholics as well as Protestants for creating evil stereotypes in Ulster, and claimed that folklorists were more useful than politicians in understanding the province and its problems. Memorably, he dismissed Private Eye as a 'pestilence-breeding organ' – or it would have been memorable if those champions of the shocking had possessed the guts to print his letter.
But a mere list does not testify to greatness. Hamish Henderson is the greatest Scot of the 20th century because his identification with the country is instinctive and magnificent, passionate and open. Edinburgh University failed to honour him as he deserved. He refused the OBE (Keeper of the Realm would have been more appropriate) because it came from the hands of Thatcher.
Perhaps being both typically and uniquely Scottish at one and the same time is an obstacle to the recognition of greatness. Sir John A Macdonald enlarged the physical boundaries of his adopted country. Hamish Henderson has infused the land of his birth with the mighty spirit of his own Scottishness.