OBITUARY: Hamish Imlach

It was somehow appropriate that Hamish Imlach, the gargantuan Scottish folk singer, should have died quietly in the early hours of Hogmanay morning, for his huge appetite for life found its annual high-point at New Year, whether he was at home in the Glasgow suburb of Motherwell or out on the road in Germany or Denmark, the contractual bottle of whisky on the table before him.

But his 20-stone girth and Rabelaisian sense of humour belied the seriousness of his art, which found its earliest expression in the Holy Loch anti- nuclear protests of the early 1960s, when with Josh Macrae, Jackie O'Connor, Nigel Denver and Morris Blythman (better known under his nom de plume of Thurso Berwick) he created a body of song that is still to be heard on demonstrations, 30 years after.

He was also one of the first to bring to public notice the political songs of Hamish Henderson, the Scots poet whose "Freedom Come-all-ye" has become virtually a second national anthem for Scotland (the other being, of course, the Corries' "Flower of Scotland").

It was this political commitment, no doubt, which led to his being proscribed by the Freedom Association, with the result that he found himself barred from many of the engagements where his hail-fellow-well-met manner might have suited corporate audiences out for a good time.

He was also mentor for many who were to come after, notably Billy Connolly, who borrowed his way with a good story, and John Martyn, who learnt the first rudiments of his now prodigious guitar technique at Imlach's ample knee. He was also invited at one time to join the Dubliners, and was a close friend of Christy Moore, doyen of Ireland's contemporary traditionalists.

Born in Calcutta, in 1940, of Scots parents, he came back to Glasgow with them as a young boy and went to the same school as Ray and Archie Fisher, who introduced him to the joys of folk music. His enormous appetite for music and the good things of life made him a leading member of that select band who could combine entertainment with the sort of profound seriousness which makes a good Shakespearian Falstaff. Even when parodying an American Christmas carol, as in his "Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice", something of the original still shone through, though the belly laughs were more obvious on the surface.

It was never to be expected that such a character could have a long life, and indeed just 20 years ago it was declared that he was medically dead, all body functions having totally failed. He gagged that he made more money from the subsequent benefit concerts than he ever took on his own account. This sold him somewhat short, however, for he was one of the few folk singers who could guarantee to fill a cinema or concert hall in any part of the British Isles, though, like many of his peers, he found more demand for his services on the Continent in recent years.

Very much a live performer, he nevertheless appeared on more than three dozen albums, including compilations, and well over a dozen under his own name. He also produced eight in Germany, and was recently featured on a video of his live act.

Despite having suffered from bronchial and asthmatic problems for years, he continued working in the pre-Christmas period, relying on cold cures and painkillers to conquer the influenza symptoms that should have had him resting in bed. He dozed off about 45 minutes into New Year's morning, and never woke up. It was how he would have chosen to go: "When I die I want everything to be knackered," he joked in his 1992 autobiography: Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice - Reminiscences of a Fat Folk Singer.

Karl Dallas

Hamish Imlach, folk singer: born Calcutta 10 February 1940; married (four children); died Motherwell 1 January 1996.

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