Singing the changes for who we are

Instead of getting Fran Healy of Travis to write a new anthem for Scotland, why not just stick with Why Does It Always Rain On Me? I kind of like the idea of the Tartan Army singing that before our ritual humiliation at football matches.

''Everybody's saying everything's all right, Still I can't close my eyes I'm seeing a tunnel at the end of the lights,'' might just about fit the bill, given our recent performances in the international arena. A majority of MSPs polled apparently want to commission a completely new anthem for Scotland - presumably from a Catalonian songwriter which will take five years to write and come in with 10 times the number of verses we expected.

The issue is to go to a vote in Holyrood next year and if the house votes for an all-new anthem, a cross-party group will have to select a composer. Names in the frame range from Elton John (no, not really) to James MacMillan, the modern classical composer. But what if we commission something and then no-one likes it? We are going to hear it a lot and we have to sing it.

It is quite a challenge to choose an anthem for a 21st-century country. Most anthems are militaristic but they have been around for so long everyone has forgiven them. Look at the Marseillaise. The French, if asked to choose an anthem now, would hardly get away with a chorus that goes: ”To arms, citizens, let impure blood water our furrows.”

Our current dirge, God Save the Queen, became the unofficial anthem of the English when the orchestra struck up with it in one of the only theatres still open in London’s Drury Lane as the Jacobite army headed southwards in 1745.

That was why it contained the verse which has now been dropped. God grant that Marshall
Wade, May by thy mighty aid, victory bring, May he sedition hush, and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush.

It has been around so long that it has become like auditory wallpaper. One hardly notices it. But the chances are that it will not garner many votes in the Scottish Parliament and will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

There are several rivals among existing songs. Flower of Scotland is the favourite because everyone knows it; it is the unofficial anthem already and it is easy to sing.

On the downside, it is backward-looking, focused on an ancient dispute with our southern neighbours and a lot of people hate it because it is schmaltzy and musically uninteresting. Still, it is probably the least embarrassing of the songs on the sheet.

Take for instance Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye. It is, in many ways, a great song but hearing a singer rendering it at the Mela festival of Indian culture last year, I nervously awaited the last line, hoping that it might have been changed. It hadn’t and I did cringe to hear: ”And the black boy in yon Nyanga tolls the fell bearer of the burgher’s doom.” Can we seriously expect our parliamentarians to sing that at official ceremonies? There is a similar problem with Scots Wha Hae (wi Wallace bled). Even if we wanted every ceremonial opening to be attended with the words ”Welcome tae yer gory bed/or tae victory” there is the reference to slavery. ”Who sae base tae be a slave?” That occurs also in A Man’s a Man, the top choice of MSPs after Flower of Scotland.

It contains the line: ”The coward slave we pass him by.” That would have to be changed. All those African-Americans with dubiously Scottish names which they acquired from Scots involved in the slave trade would be affronted otherwise.

It would be a sign that Scotland has not recognised or come to terms with that part of this country’s history. There is always Scotland the Brave. Unfortunately, like many people, the
only words I know to that are: ”Land of the kilt and sporran, underneath there’s nothing worun/Oh when the cold wind blows in Scotland the brave.”

If it is chosen, Scots will simply have to learn the real words (there is a nice line about the kiss of sweet Scottish rain). Scotland the Brave is, along with Flower of Scotland, already downloadable from the internet as a mobile ringtone on a national anthem site.

But instead, perhaps Scots schoolchildren should learn the words to the European anthem, from Schiller’s poem Ode To Joy. Although in German, they are easy to sing;
Freude, schoener Goetterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische dein Heiligtum. Deine Zauber binden wieder, Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brueder, Wo dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.

And it is a great tune, Beethoven’s choral symphony. Singing that would make the point that we are a forward-looking European nation, not interested in harking back to our rivalries with England always. But, at the same time, it would really freak them out.

Note: as a letter writer pointed out, the last line of the Freedom Come
All Ye is incorrect.

The Scottish Herald
November 24th 2004