A Science Professor Pens a Patriotic Song

March, 2015
I first heard the song "Call it Alba" at an African evening at my children's primary school. The choir sang it to visitors from a school in Tanzania and I wasn't the only one blinking back the tears as they belted out the chorus: "I belong to the land I live in, and the land is in the deepest part of me."

The song allowed the children to express love for their country of Scotland but in a simple style, free from the hubris these things often contain. It seemed inclusive too, offering a sense of belonging to everyone who lives here. I couldn't think of another patriotic song that would have worked in that context and which would have made me feel so proud.


 "Flower of Scotland" is fine for a sporting arena but the lyrics are very focused on Scotland's sometimes conflicted relationship with England. I for one was glad when the Scottish Parliament recently rejected a petition to make it an official anthem.  (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/wilting-blossom-flower-of-scotland-national-anthem-bid-rejected-by-msps.120916231)  

The others I could think of like Scots Wha Hae, Caledonia, or Highland Cathedral are too martial, too adult or too grandiose.

“Call It Alba” has become a favourite at several schools; it has been sung at weddings and funerals and it has escaped across the Atlantic where it has been sung in Canada and the USA. It was the centrepiece of a peace service St Mary’s Leith held to celebrate the peaceful conclusion of the referendum on Scotland’s independence last September. The children sang a song about peace and then the whole school belted out “Call It Alba”. Again, there was no other song that would have done as well that morning when some families were gutted and others pleased at the result of the vote.

I was interested in the song and decided to find out more about it: who wrote it for a start. My research lead me to a slightly surprising author; Alan Murray, who is a Professor of Neural Electronics and the head of Edinburgh University’s Institute of Bio-Engineering.

Murray came to perform his song with St Mary’s choir, and said this was the first time he had ever been asked for autographs as they clustered around with paper and pens, rather as if he were a rogue member of One Direction.

Murray does not look like an academic; with denim jacket, trimmed beard and dangling crucifix, at least in this context, he was styled very much as his alter ego of Christian folk musician.

A stalwart of Penicuik folk club he is also a member of the Episcopalian church and has written a cycle of folk songs telling the story of the New Testament. He has many other music projects on the go such as resetting Burns lyrics to other tunes. He is also setting the lyrics of JR Tolkein and Shropshire lad A.E. Housman to music. “The poetry is just so beautiful. It’s crying out to be set to music. It’s been done before of course.”

At Edinburgh University, Murray’s research is on creating smart microchips which can find their way into cancerous tumours where they send back information and eventually it is hoped, they will be able to deliver minute, targeted doses of radiation.

But, despite having a day job that involves curing cancer, Murray has obviously always hankered after following a musical career, humphing PAs into village halls, touring and playing. “I think I could have made a sustainable living,” he says, rather wistfully.

Murray bought his first guitar from the proceeds of strawberry picking when he was 15, in 1967. “I thought it would lead to sex and drugs and rock and roll.” He felt it would be of more use than science grades in getting a girlfriend: “and it worked, it got me the one I’m still with”. He met his wife Glynnis as a teenager and they are still together.

He started writing songs after the couple’s two children came along, strictly as an amateur although a few have been picked up by professionals, such as “No One Left But Me” about the decline of the fishing industry, which was sung by the McCalmans.

“Call It Alba” was written for a class at Cuiken Primary School in Penicuik where Glynnis was working as a classroom assistant. The lyrics describe the country more than brag about it. They are also deliberately inclusive. “If you have chosen to live here, then it’s your country. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a Scottish name, or a Scottish background, if you are black, white, English, Irish or whatever, it’s your country. I feel really strongly about that.

This piece also appeared o the Huffington Post UK

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