When the ‘parcel of rogues’ in the Scottish parliament of 1707 voted to end their country’s existence as a sovereign state, the Chancellor of Scotland, the Earl of Seafield, infamously commented, ‘There’s ane end of ane auld sang’.
No doubt he then hurried home to count the ‘siller’ the English had given him for his trouble.
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A few months later, on the 1st of May, 1707, the Union came into effect and the bells of St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh rang out to the tune ‘Why am I so sad on this my wedding day?’ Given that probably over 95% of the Scottish people opposed the Union, this was an appropriate piece of music to mark the end of that old ‘sang’ called Scotland.
Three hundred years on and there’s a new music in the air. The details of the independence referendum process are being put in place and the SNP, at least, are setting out what would happen in the case of a ‘Yes’ vote.
One thing’s missing though. An official national anthem. Even now it’s a gap for a country which has its own parliament, not to mention its own distinctive education system, law and history.
Ten years ago, the Scottish parliament established the specs for Scotland’s national flag, right down to the exact shade of blue.
A year later, lawyers for the devolved government advised that it was within the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament to choose a national anthem for Scotland. However, despite some huffing and puffing, nothing ever came of this.
In 2006, the Scottish National Orchestra’s organized an on-line poll on what Scotland's national anthem should be. Between them, “Flower of Scotland” and “Scotland The Brave” took 70% of the 10,000 votes cast, miles ahead of the other contenders.
Each has done a stint as Scotland’s unofficial anthem but, to my mind, neither is adequate.
The former is a great folk song, with the advantage of being written by someone who favoured an independent Scotland. But that’s what it is – a folk song. Anyway, when a crowd sings it, one half is on a different line from the other.
The latter is a famous pipe tune with too many words added and presented in a shortbread tin.
Other possibles scored poorly: “Highland Cathedral” 16%, “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” 7% and “Scots Wha Hae” 6%. Familiarity though counts for much. I suspect only a minority of Scots could hum the opening bars of all three tunes.
Hamish Henderson’s “Freedom Come Ye All” didn’t register. Personally, I’d be happy to support any anthem that manages to include a mention of both John MacLean and Springburn. It’s also the most humble and inclusive of any contender. However, its uncompromising Scots language, wonderful though the words are, won’t make it a popular choice.
“Highland Cathedral’ was written a by a couple of Germans as an academic exercise ‘in the Scottish style’ – not a great start for a contender for Scotland’s national anthem. In addition, it has no words – though that might be an advantage. A job for the Scots Makar perhaps?
We wouldn’t go wrong with the internationalist “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” but, although I‘m sure Burns’ sentiments were universal, his lyrics awkwardly omit half of humanity.
For what it’s worth, my own choice would be “Scots Wha Hae”. The words are written by our national bard and not all that difficult to learn. Well, it didn’t take my primary school teacher, Mr Sinclair, very long to get all 48 of us in his class reciting it by heart.
Some will say that the words are too specific to an historical event. As if La Marseillaisehas nothing to do with a certain 18th century revolution. The American anthem stems from a British attack on one of their forts in 1812. The Polish anthem calls on an obscure general of the 1790s to march from Italy to liberate the country.
“Scots Wha Hae” is redolent of Bannockburn and the Declaration of Arbroath, defining events in shaping Scotland and worth remembering. The words too are not anti-English, as sometimes claimed, but a celebration of liberty and national independence.
Besides, Burns put the words to a tune, “Hey Tutti Tatti”, which was played by Bruce’s army before Bannockburn and by the Scots in Joan of Arc’s army.
Ancient, patriotic music and stirring lyrics composed by our national bard: “Scots Wha Hae” has it all.
Whatever the outcome, the anthem should be chosen by the people, not a committee of the great and good. But we need to give everyone a chance to become fully familiar with all the main contenders. Maybe a televised competition with phone-in votes? That might take a bit of time but if we get a move on, we can have it signed and sealed by the Commonwealth Games.
And, if it’s a Yes vote in the referendum, then we’ll have ready ane national sang for the start of ane spleet-new Scottish sang.