A song from the heart

Scotland is a lyrical nation, a land of song and music; and it is a broad spectrum at that: from the traditional melancholic wailing of the Gaelic Islanders to the innovative rock scene of the modern age. More often than not there is a story behind each song, which draws deep from our national psyche, our experiences and our conceit of ourselves. It can be raw at times, heart wrenching; yet, uplifting and more often than not half-comical. The Scots are a rare breed – introspective, but defiant, proud and yet able to laugh at our shortcomings. All this and more has contributed to a wealth of music the envy of the world – even foot-tapping Ireland can’t compete with what the Scots have to offer. So, we plunge head-first into a few of the stories behind our most famous and poignant of songs.


After the ubiquitous ‘Happy Birthday’, the great New Year anthem Auld Lang Syne is the next most sung song on earth; bellowed out from graduations in Thailand to weddings across the globe. The funny thing is that many of the jovial partakers have no idea about the lyrics themselves.


Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and Auld Lang Syne.


So, what on earth is an ‘auld lang syne’ anyway? Well, in the old Scots vernacular it simply means ‘long since hence’; and in the spirit of the song, essentially the days of long ago. This pithy three word phrase encapsulates beautifully the sense of remembering the great days of the past, and allows us a chance to wistfully reminisce with rose-tinted spectacles the fun days of our youth. It is about friendship, old friendships that as the years pass drift, perhaps even sour; but now in the twilight we can look back and never forget those long summer days long ago. This is what Burns was driving at, and we as we shed the old year for the new should think on this and remember the good stuff and the importance of love and friendship.


Auld Lang Syne



The song was first published by Burns in 1788, and became hugely popular in Scotland. As Scots emigrated around the world they took it with them to create a global phenomenon. However, Burns was not the first to use the phrase ‘auld lang syne’ in a song, both Ayton and Ramsay had earlier, and the bard himself admitted that he had simply ‘re-written’ an old folk song. The tune wasn’t his either, nor the one he planned to use, but was added later. Whatever the origins, I’m sure that master playboy Burns would appreciate the gusto with which his lyrics are still appreciated by millions across the world.


Not all of Scotland’s songs are quite so cheery; over half of the ones I can think of tend to be about battles and cruel fate, usually at the hands of the English. Perhaps it is because Scotland was dealt the wildest of cards, and mixed with our natural Celtic melancholy we have so many lilting laments and heartfelt songs. Top of that list, must surely be the ‘Flowers of the Forest’.


I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking

Lassies a-lilting before the dawn of day

But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning

“the flowers of the forest are all wede away”


Written by Jean Elliot and again based on an earlier folk song, this mournful, yet intoxicating ballad expresses the anguish and sheer loss felt by those left at home when men go to war and don’t come back. It was written in the aftermath of Scotland’s darkest day on the bloody Field of Flodden: a scene of utter carnage and the loss of a national soul still yet to be recovered fully.


In early 1513 King Henry VIII of England invaded France as part of the Catholic League, and using Calais as his base he won a string of spectacular victories. As part of a more protracted conflict the Pope had become concerned at the growing power of Louis XII of France, and constructed an alliance including England to combat this threat. Scotland was allied to the French and the king, James VI, was the embodiment of the Renaissance and chivalrous to his core. He decided the only honourable course was to aid his ally and invade England in order to distract Henry and buy a little breathing space for Louis. He assembled an army of over 30,000 – the largest ever commanded by a Scottish king, and crossed the border at the end of August 1513.


King James IV

King James IV


Henry had left the defence of England in the hands of his wife, Catherine of Aragon and the Earl of Norfolk. They dispatched a much smaller army north to meet the Scottish invasion. After a short stand-off the two armies clashed on the 9th of September at Flodden, and while the Scots held the advantage the geography conspired against them and they were annihilated. The king was killed and hacked to pieces, and along with him Scotland would lose, 12 Earls, 13 Barons, the Archbishop of St Andrews and nearly 10,000 men. It was said not one noble family was spared, and every village in Scotland mourned a loss. The youth of the nation was torn apart, its nobility wrecked: these were the flowers of the forest, and now they were all wede (gone) away, leaving behind only empty fields, moaning and pain.


Today, the lament is usually heard played as a pipe tune at funerals or memorial services; sung only at the most heartfelt of times: but, played globally. It has an incredible weightiness about it; one that draws you back to that time and every war since, and the senseless misery of it all.


But, for every Flodden there is a Bannockburn – where the gods of fortune smile down on Scotland for once and deliver victory; oh, and how we celebrate. The Scots are a funny people, a concoction of doom and gloom and a rich, vibrant joie de vivre, and our music mirrors this. Flodden was a hammer blow to the Scottish psyche, and from then on we’ve had this inferiority complex, a chip on our shoulder often aimed south of the border. It’s hard to shake, but as a people our contribution to the world has been immense, and the Scots have much to crow about. Perhaps we are at last climbing out of the pit of self-indulgent grief. We do live in a Scotland transformed in the last 50 years, and although it looks back 700 years to Bruce and Wallace the song most played as a ‘National Anthem’ for Scotland reflects the re-birth in our own national identity.


Oh, flower of Scotland,

when will we see your likes again?

That fought and died for

Your wee bit hill and glen.


Drawing from the emotions of the lost flowers, Roy Williamson’s song, written in 1965, plays upon the fall then rise of a country. It implores us to look back to our ancestors and feel their sense of national pride and deliver forth a new vibrant and healthy Scotland. Flower of Scotland is a simple tune, with an even simpler message – rise up and be a nation again, the perfect ingredient for a national anthem: one that lauds the country, asks more from her people and can be sung by 60,000 on the slopes of Hampden Park. I don’t think you need to be a Scottish Nationalist or a believer in independence to feel national empowerment with this song.


Scottish Pride at Hampden Park

Scottish Pride at Hampden Park



Each of these songs has it’s time and place; each reflects part of the emotional journey it means to be Scottish. Robert Louis Stevenson once said that the Scots carry the past around with them in a way that few others could understand; and perhaps, like the Welsh and the Irish, with our Celtic fire burning brightly that emotion is best expressed in song and music.

This article was written by David McNicoll, who runs Vacation Scotland – a travel company specialising in tours and vacation packages to Scotland. For more info – www.vacationscotland.biz


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