The Herald on Sunday
What a weird country we are: Even the national anthem divides us
Rab McNeil takes a light-hearted glance at some of the people, places and iconic cultural mainstays that have Scots asking: wha’s like us?
COME on. All together now. Oh flower of Scotland, when … Some of you are not joining in. What’s wrong with you? Oh, you’re Scottish? I see. Poor old disputatious Scotland. Even its unofficial national anthem divides the nation. You might think it’s just the usual suspects in Scotland’s unique antiScottish culture, but many are actual nationalists, even if of the trendy, Kumbaya variety.
The gripes can be divided into two: the tune and the words. In other words, everything about it. The tune is said by musical non-experts to be a “dirge”. Yet it is positively uplifting compared to many other national anthems. YouTubers from other countries rave about it and frequently say it’s the most rousing anthem in the world, or at least the world of football.
As for the words, yes, here are reasonable grounds for contention. Let’s examine them.
Oh, flower of Scotland – good so far, horticultural even/When will we see your like again – OK, bit wistful; possible hint of ingratitude at the Union dividend (slums, poverty etc)/That fought and died for – uh-oh, pugilistic; morbid even/Your wee bit hill and glen – hmm, bit shortbread/And stood against him – who?/Proud Edward’s army – oh dear, that’s Edward II of England, a nice man who had only come north to crush us/ And sent him homeward tae think again – well, it was probably time for a bit of selfreflection all round.
In Scotland, probably the most pro-English country in the world – including England – it’s this reference to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 that causes grievance. How can we love England so passionately while singing “Up yours, neighbour” here?
But lots of anthems are like that, and this is hardly the worst offender. The Marseillaise, which arguably has the best tune, became the anthem of the French Revolution, a celebration of decapitation, and the actual words are about watering the fields with the “impure blood” of invading Austrians and Prussians. Oddly enough, the Algerian national anthem sings of shedding “streams of generous blood” – French blood.
The Italian national anthem is about winning independence from Austria, whose eagle, it says, drank the blood of Poles and Cossacks as well as that of Italians. Hungary’s national anthem refers to “the spilt blood of the dead”. Turkey’s national anthem is about independence from European invaders: “tears of fiery blood shall flow out of my every wound”. Vietnam’s anthem celebrates its flag “red with the blood of victory”. Anyone still less than sanguine about Flower of Scotland?
Oddly enough, in these countries, no-one talks about the politics of grievance yadayada. Only in Scotland: the country always nippin’ its ain heid.
Bit of history (don’t wet your panties; musical not martial history): Flower of Etc was written in 1967 by Roy Williamson of the Corries folk group (latterly a duo), with the tune composed on, er, Northumbrian panpipes.
In sport, it seems first to have been taken up by rugby fans, with the nation’s bourgeoisie singing another contentious line (from the third verse; traditionally, the first and third verses are sung): “We can still rise now and be the nation again.” Oh dear. This is frightening to many Scots. Imagine us: rising. Being a proper nation. Gie’s peace.
This has been sung passionately at famous Scottish rugby victories, after which the tweedy fans leave Murrayfield and cheerfully troop into the polling booth to vote No to being a nation again. Said it before: this country is Weirdsville, man.
So, while some unionists sing the patriotic song, some nationalists deplore it. Former SNP – now Alba – leader Alex Salmond may or may not come into that category but, some years ago, he did suggest holding a competition (the “Eck’s Factor”, as it was dubbed) to find something else.
Maybe a new anthem could get over this obsession with the English. Could we not have one about the Cod War with Iceland for a change?
His own preference was for another Corries song, Scotland Will Flourish, with its lyrics including: “Forget the old battles, those days are over.” There are also references to being rid of “bigots and fools” – backbone of the land – and to ringing “our own till”. Controversial. Another line mentions our “kind hospitality”, conjuring up nowadays the cringe-making term for a vocational qualification in hotel or pub management.
As it happened, Ronnie Browne, above, the other half of the Corries duo, didn’t think the song “combative” enough for football and rugby crowds. I guess this is the crux of the matter. Can an anthem be uplifting if it is in essence a celebration of the hospitality industry? Must it be all virtue-signalling and halo-polishiing?
Sport, in case you hadn’t noticed, is about beating the other chap. Perhaps we should have Flower as our sports anthem and get something else for civic functions. Scotland the Brave and Scots Wha Hae are often suggested, which is odd as one sounds embarrassingly selfreverential and the other mentions bleeding with William Wallace against the English. Could we not have one about the Cod War with Iceland for a change? Oh cod of Scotland/When will we eat your likes again?
Whatever we choose, somebody will be greetin’ aboot it anyway. Besides, Scotland’s Flower isn’t going to wilt and go away. For all the pearl-clutching and over-wrought angst, it tends to win popularity polls for Scotland’s anthem. It’ll be belted out at Hampden forever, despite establishment discomfort.
In 2015, a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for the piece to become the official anthem was rejected because of a perceived “lack of enthusiasm” on the part of the SNP Government. Tory MSP Murdo Fraser has described it as “jingoistic”. No problem with God Save the Queen obviously, and its line about “rebellious Scots to crush”. What a nuthouse Scotland is.
Maybe we could just change the words of Flower. Here’s a Tory version for Murdo: O little Scotland/We are so wee/ And rather hopeless/At everything/So we should shut up now/And be the region again/That stooped against them/ Proud Johnson’s army/And sent him onward/To Number Ten.
Can’t see that catching on at Hampden, right enough.