Hamish Imlach was a larger than life character, a singer and guitarist who pioneered the idea of the popular folk-entertainer through his talent, wit and charismatic persona and who was as generous with his encouragement to young performers as he was with the Indian food he was famous for preparing and serving at the Tonder festival in Denmark for many years.
Born to Scottish parents in Calcutta on February 10, 1940, Hamish went to school in India and Australia before his family brought him to Scotland at the age of thirteen. At Hyndland School in Glasgow he met Ray and Archie Fisher and shared their enthusiasm for jazz, especially Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, skiffle and presently Scottish traditional ballads.
He began playing guitar in his late teens, learning the finger picking style directly from an American visitor to Glasgow, Ralph Rinzler, and through listening to records by the Reverend Gary Davis, Pink Anderson and Brownie McGee. After playing at the first night of Glasgow Folk Club in 1959 with Josh MacRae and Archie Fisher, he became a regular performer at the club.
In 1961 he made his first recordings, a set of three singles of Irish rebel songs with Josh MacRae and Bobby Campbell under the name of the Emmettones for Decca Records, and soon afterwards was appearing at folk clubs all over Scotland, regaling audiences with Scottish songs, blues, irreverent parodies and scurrilous tales. He also sang at peace demos and became the resident compere-opening act at the now legendary Clive’s Incredible Folk Club on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, birthplace of the Incredible String Band.
Having recorded four tracks for a snapshot album of folk music performed during the Edinburgh Festival for a budding record business entrepreneur, Nat Joseph, Hamish signed to Joseph’s Transatlantic Records and went on to appear on over thirty albums for the label. Later, following a successful tour of Scottish theatres with The Welly Boot Show, with a cast including Billy Connolly and Aly Bain, he was delighted to take part in another show at the Edinburgh International Festival, Finn McCool, which featured music by Planxty and actors who went on to form the 7.84 theatre company.
Billy Connolly is just one of the performers whom Hamish befriended, influenced and schooled. As a young singer-guitarist John Martyn felt the benefit of Hamish’s teachings and sponsorship and Dick Gaughan, at the time busking on the streets of London, was grateful to Hamish for taking him under his wing. Hamish also formed an enduring friendship with Christy Moore, who recalled their adventures in his song Barrowland, and toured with popular singer-banjo player Iain Mackintosh.
By the late 1970s Hamish’s reputation as a superb entertainer had extended into Europe, North America, Australia and even Bermuda and after moving to Ireland for a spell in 1978, he enjoyed considerable success with Sonny’s Dream, which featured Mary Black on backing vocals and accompaniment by Donal Lunny. Around the same time Hamish, who once planned to form a group with Luke Kelly, was invited to join his band, the Dubliners.
From 1989 onwards Hamish, who popularised the song Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair, toured and recorded with Muriel Graves, who had sung on his early Transatlantic albums. Despite ill-health he continued to work until he died suddenly on New Year’s Day 1996. The man who could deliver a stirring Parcel of Rogues one minute and the next have audiences in fits of laughter had sung his last chorus of his best known parody and theme song, Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice.