Hamish Imlach | A song, a glass and a laugh

Ewan McVicar
The Guardian
Hamish Imlach
A song, a glass and a laugh
Friend and mentor... Hamish Imlach led the way for Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot and above all Billy Connolly

HAMISH IMLACH, who has died aged 55, was a movable feast. Wherever he was became quickly the center of a party, marked by uproarious laughter, the consumption of copious draughts of any available beverage, and the cooking and demolition of exotic foods.

Of Scottish parentage, he was born in India and lived in Australia before coming to Scotland at 13. On the flight stopover in Raffles Hotel, Singapore, he had become thirsty, so consumed 11 bottles of the strongest beer then known to science, under the impression that he was drinking shandy. It made him feel sleepy, but gave him a taste for a brew.

In Glasgow, Hamish attended school with Archie and Ray Fisher, and became part of the 1960s revolution in traditional music called the Folk Revival - as exciting and subversive in its day as punk was later. The Fishers became major interpreters of traditional Scottish song. While Hamish had a fine way with an old Scots ballad, a sea shanty or a love song, his eclectic tastes led him to become Scotland's first blues guitar stylist, teaching and influencing John Martyn, Bert Jansch and the members of The Incredible String Band.

Political commitment made Hamish one of the key singers for Holy Loch anti-Polaris demonstrators and for many good causes thereafter. His biting recordings of Scottish and Irish political songs helped put him on the right-wing political blacklist or the Economic League.

But he will be best remembered for his comic style. For hilarious songs of over-indulgence in alcohol, tobacco, sex and other bodily functions he employed a voice quality like piano wire scrubbed with Grade A sandpaper, although for other song genres his voice and guitar would sound sweet, sad and quite haunting.

Hamish pioneered the genre of folk comedian, throwing anecdotes and cracks into the middle of songs, and linking them into stream-of-consciousness narratives. Much of his material was autobiographical, and many of his base lines were lifted and used by other performers. One was "I think I have an allergic reaction to leather. I find that every time I wake in the morning with my shoes on I have a headache."

He paved the way for Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot and above all Billy Connolly, whom Hamish took under his performing wing. Many established singers shy away from exciting younger talent as a threat, but Hamish saw it as a way of improving the quality of the evening's gig and therefore creating more pleasure for all.

He became the biggest star of the Revival in Scotland, able to reach beyond the folk song community and fill cinemas and dancehalls. He appeared on more than 30 albums on the Transatlantic label alone. A developing singing career in England and Ireland led to enduring friendships with Christy Moore and the Dubliners. At one point he was invited to become a Dubliner.

Hamish was an outsize personality with gargantuan appetites

As the British folk scene dwindled Hamish began to work more in Denmark and Germany. He was a fixture at the Tender Folk Festival in Denmark for many years, where as well as performing and compering he would cook curries for 300 folkies.

Germany became his main performance base, and in recent years he recorded and released some eight albums there, two of them joint productions with his occasional touring partner, the respected Glasgow singer Ian Mackintosh. Hamish's best known song became the most requested number on British Army of the Rhine Radio. It is an epic tale of a post palais de dance kneetrembler in the Gorbals dark, which results in pregnancy tonics for the girl while the boy enlists.

The song, Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice, also provided the title for Hamish's autobiography, published in 1992 and subtitled Reminiscences Of A Fat Folk Singer. He had threatened for many years to write it, but there was always a tale to tell, a recipe to try or a friend to chat to first.

Finally I sat him down with a tape recorder, let the stories flow, then transcribed them minus my frequent cackles of laughter. When I told him that under the law of libel he and not the publisher paid out, he removed half the names from the manuscript, though he swore all was true.

Weighing in at over 20 stone, of solid goodwill to all, Hamish was an outsize personality with gargantuan appetites who was mightily loved by most who met him, although some couldn't quite believe he was real. While friends and medical advisers despaired of his shape and lifestyle, he was tolerant of our concern but always unashamed. He knew he would never make old bones and lived for the day, the day that he enlivened with wit and good living.

Ewan McVicar

Hamish Imlach, folk singer and comic, born February 10, 1940; died January 1, 1996

This obituary was published in The Guardian of Thursday 4 January 1996.