I wasn’t active on Twitter at the time, but I must admit that during the course of watching the opening ceremony for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games I became converted to the whole notion of commenting in public. Now I’ve got this blog and its related account, HaiversBlog.
What moved me so was the performance of Hamish Henderson’s “The Freedom Come All Ye”. It’s a song I’ve loved for well over thirty years. It wasn’t the quality of the rendition on the night (by Pumeza Matshikiza of South Africa), but the simple fact of its inclusion in this event. Subversive to the max.
If I had been able to tweet at the time, what I might have said would have been something along the lines of: “Wow! To have lived this long. Singing the ultimate in anti-imperialist songs in front of the Queen Empress and getting away with a mention of John MacLean to boot. Ya beauty.”.
Moreover, the inclusion of TFCAY was the perfect reposte to those who tried to make something of GSTQ being sung at Celtic Park: there was no sell-out after all.
Shortly afterwards, the Sunday Mail ran a piece on possible choices for a national anthem for Scotland: the usual suspects, i.e. “Scotland The Brave”, “Scots Wa’ Hae”, “Flower Of Scotland”, “Highland Cathedral” etc.
None of these can touch TFCAY. It says all that needs to be said about the part we played in the imperial adventure and about the country we should aspire to be. Dick Gaughan has a very good exposition of the song’s meaning, to be found at this link (see the second and third sections of the page).
Dick gives his own, idiosyncratic transcription of the lyrics. As much as anything, that’s a comment on the impact of not having a standardised version of the Scots language . . . but that’s another topic altogether. He is nonetheless the best singer of this song ever. (Mind you, as far as I’m concerned, in his prime he could have sung the phonebook and I’d have been deliriously happy.)
You can find a definitive rendering of the lyrics of the song at this link.
Following the Commonwealth Games performance, Jimmy Kerr was moved to post about the song at Bella Caledonia, covering among other aspects its suitability or otherwise as a candidate for being Scotland’s national anthem.
That struck another chord with me. I remember when “Flower Of Scotland” first started to take off as a de facto anthem, the trailblazing being made by the crowd at Murrayfield in the late 1970s. (The Hampden faithful didn’t adopt it till many years later.) I remember also joining the multitude of voices disparaging FOS because of its dirge of a tune and its suspect lyrics. My suggested alternative was TFCAY.
Some years later – the mid-1980s – I was in the Babbity Bowster bar in Glasgow’s Merchant City following some event or other. Hamish Henderson was there as well, getting himself contentedly pissed. The Babbity’s clientele treated him to rousing renditions of his hits, ending with this, the greatest of all. His minders were trying desperately to drag him off in time to make a train back to Edinburgh, but Hamish wasn’t for leaving; he was having too good a time.
The irony is that Henderson himself wasn’t keen on the idea of his song being used as an anthem. As the Education Scotland page linked to above suggests, he felt it would undermine its power if that happened.
Then there’s a hard truth to be faced: the language is simply too unfamiliar to most in modern Scotland. I’ve known the lyrics myself for some decades now, but I admit that to begin with I had to be told what parts of the song meant because there were words and expressions I hadn’t come across beforehand. Look at the videos on YouTube of recent performances associated with the Yes campaign: many of those taking part had to make use of a lyric sheet.
Like it or loathe it, “Flower Of Scotland” is easy to pick up: the tune is simple and the words are not difficult. That’s the reason it has caught on. You might fairly credibly make a similar case for “Scots Wha Hae”, but who needs it when FOS does the job satisfactorily? “Scotland The Brave” might have fitted the bill a few generations ago, but now it seems hopelessly outdated and twee.
On the other hand, there really is nothing as dreary as GSTQ. If you are one of the few who will claim to know the words to this, it may surprise you to learn that there is no officially definitive version of the lyrics. (Pub quiz question: how many verses are there?) It’s not even the official anthem, because in typically British fashion there isn’t one.
The verses with references to crushing rebellious Scots and saving from priests and popery were only ever short-lived additions, but they do linger on in the folk memory. The Privy Council approved a version in 1919 that toned down the militarism, but it didn’t catch on.
Back to the Commonwealth Games. I was impressed with the gusto with which the Ozzies at the track and field at Hampden belted out “Advance Australia Fair”. The problem is that the lyrics aren’t that great from a modern perspective, which isn’t surprising given their late 19th Century origin.
Much the same can be said for “O Canada”, which has the added disadvantage that there are two versions of the lyrics which don’t seem to bear much relationship to each other. The original French one is even less palatable than the “translation” into English.
Then there’s “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It’s long been recognised that this is a difficult tune to carry given the range required to do it justice and no ordinary person knows the complicated words off pat. Performers at sporting events often take the precaution of lip-synching to a pre-recording of their vocal. The tune is rousing, though, especially for the noble refrain of “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”.
Of course, the best tune of all is the “Marseillaise”. It’s difficult to beat that one. The issue is that the lyrics are so full of bloodthirsty imagery that it is difficult to justify retaining the song as an anthem in the modern world. The French compromise is nowadays to sing only the first verse and ignore the other six (as well as the additional eight that were omitted at the time of its adoption as the official anthem).
The Irish have “Amhrán na bhFiann”, aka “A Soldier’s Song” (in which guise it’s no stranger to Celtic Park, of course). It’s yet another one that few know all the words to (particularly at CP, I have to say). Just as well that it’s only the chorus that is used as the anthem of the Republic. Even that should be consigned to history, where it firmly belongs.
What the Irish do have, however, is “Ireland’s Call”. This ditty was commissioned for the specific purpose of serving as an anthem for the rugby team, which represents the whole of the island of Ireland, north as well as south. It was composed by Phil Coulter, a Northern Irishman. In terms of the song as originally written, only the first verse is sung at matches, followed by the chorus and then the chorus again in a slightly higher key.
And it is indeed sung, in glorious unison by the crowd. There’s no need to have to pretend that you know the words, because they are very easy to remember as they are beautifully simple and straightforward. The chorus runs as follows:
Together standing tall
Shoulder to shoulder
We’ll answer Ireland’s call.
Oh, it’s simple alright, but it’s also very powerful. It doesn’t need to be more wordy than it is, because it already manages to say it all. There’s no militaristic imagery, no reference to doing down enemies and nothing else remotely jingoistic. What it does consist of is a plea for unity in common cause. I’m in awe of it.
What is it that you should be looking for in a national anthem? Certainly not the prolixity of the 19th Century efforts mentioned above, not to mention the triumphalist attitudes and imperial pretensions common to many of them. Instead, you don’t need the thing to say much at all. Its sole purpose is as a distinguishing badge, giving us something distinctive to sing along to. It needs to have a tune that everyone can carry and words that are easy to remember, but that’s all that’s required of it.
(I’m tempted to propose that the Tartan Army’s former use of “Doe A Deer” did the trick nicely, but I can’t keep my tongue in my cheek quite long enough to get away with that.)
A decent melody would be good, though. So, let’s return to “The Freedom Come All Ye”, because I don’t really want to give up on it. If we are to follow what seems to have become the standard approach to such things, let’s look for a suitable extract from the full song. My suggestion is this one:
So come all ye at hame wi Freedom,
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom
In your hoose a’ the bairns o Adam
Can find breid, barley-bree and painted room.
It’s a simple, yet powerful sentiment. The reference to the bairns concerned being those of “Adam” rather than exclusively of “Scotia” is exactly the right inclusive tone we want to set. The room will be painted, but free of bedroom tax.
The downside I can see is that, taken out of its context within the song as a whole, what’s shown above as the second line does jar a bit and overall it’s perhaps a touch couthy for our purpose here. So, let’s spice it up a wee bit, reinforcing the inclusive message we want to send out, both to others and – just as important – to ourselves.
Here’s my attempt at doing that:
Oh, come all ye at hame wi freedom,
From city, burgh, ben, loch and sea
In our Scotland the bairns o Adam
Stand united, live in hope and will be free.
I’m sure that someone out there can do much better. (Dick?) Feel free to send in your own suggestion or any other comment you might have. We will of course need a version in Gàidhlig as well.
The way things are going, it’s looking as if there may be a need to pick a definitive anthem for Scotland sooner rather than later. Let the fun begin.
2. You can see & hear Dick performing the song in 1989 at this YouTube Link.
There’s a later version from the mid-1990s to be found on the Songs For Scotland album available as a download from Bella Caledonia (BC Shop).
Dick’s earlier recordings of the song were with Five Hand Reel in the 1970s and also a solo version that appeared on the compilation LP “A Feast Of Scottish Folk”, released in the mid-1980s. That solo one is the best of the three, IMO, but it’s long been unavailable, just to scunner us of course.