Saturday, February 28, 2015

Scotland has no national anthem

Although Scotland lacks a national anthem, it's not because there's nothing suitable. Instead, the problem is the plethora of choices.

Scotland's anthem is not God Save the Queen

You'll be forgiven for thinking that of course Scotland has a national anthem. It's part of the United Kingdom, so surely the anthem is God Save the Queen. And for Scots who participate in events like the Olympics, as members of the United Kingdom they do indeed use God Save the Queen as an anthem.

But Scotland is a nation within the United Kingdom, as are England and Wales (the question of whether Northern Ireland is a nation, region, province, or something else, is best left for a debate another time). For most events, sporting and otherwise, Scotland presents itself as a nation with an identity distinct from the U.K. They wave the Saltire flag, paint themselves blue, dress in tartans, and sing national songs.

Note the plural. Not just one song. Many songs.

Scottish saltire flag
Scotland's flag, commonly called the Saltire, and sometimes known as St. Andrew's cross.
But they still have the Queen, of course. And it was a Scottish king, James VI (often called James I for English/British history), who became the first ruler of all of Scotland, England, and Wales. So it's not as if the Scots avoid God Save the Queen out of spite for their monarch. Rather, one problem lies in a verse of God Save the Queen, which has an anti-Scottish mien:
                         Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
                         May by thy mighty aid,
                         Victory bring.
                         May he sedition hush,
                         and like a torrent rush,
                         Rebellious Scots to crush,
                         God save The King.
This verse, supposedly coined either during or in the aftermath of the Jacobite revolution of 1744-1745, may be apocryphal. It has never been part of the anthem in wide-spread use. Nonetheless, the Scots hold up the verse as distasteful.

The bigger problem for God Save the Queen as an anthem for Scotland is that damnable England, the auld enemy, already uses the song as its anthem. Ain't no way, no how, the Scots will use the same national anthem as England.

Scotland's government refuses to decide a national anthem

Last week, the Scottish government yet again ruled out recognizing a national anthem.

The Scottish parliament, newly formed in 1999 after devolution from the U.K., first considered and rejected choosing a national anthem in 2004, after its lawyers determined it was an issue for the Scottish government and not for the U.K. parliament. The issue came up again in 2006 and was tabled without debate.

Recently, a public petition was sent to the Scottish Parliamentary Petitions Committee seeking the use of a particular song, Flower of Scotland, as Scotland's national anthem. The committee asked the Scottish Football Association for its input on the matter. The association polled its members. More than 12,600 members responded, with only about 40% supporting Flower of Scotland, the rest supporting other tunes. However, on social media, more than 35,000 fans responded within 48 hours, and roughly 65% supported Flower of Scotland.

All told, Flower of Scotland received a narrow majority of support, but the polling was hardly scientific. Why only football supporters? Is the group of overwhelmingly adult men a good proxy for the electorate? How about rugby supporters? Or curling? Or, just for the heck of it, non-sports fans? In any case, previous polls on a broader cross-section of the populace have shown Flower of Scotland enjoys only plurality support, around 40%.

The government seized on the underwhelming support in the football supporters poll. According to a government spokeswoman: “A national anthem is an important part of a nation’s culture and heritage. Any choice should have wide public support. It is clear that different songs or anthems are enthusiastically adopted at different sporting occasions, but that is not the same as a country or a nation determining to have a single designated song or anthem to the exclusion of all others. The government currently has no plans to designate a national anthem and any such move would require wider political support.” Thus, for the third time in just over a decade, Scotland's parliament has declined to decide the matter.

In other words, on this issue the Scottish government will be leading from behind. Until the public as a whole coalesces around one song as its choice, the government will make no move.

National anthem options

What song, then, does Scotland use when it's anthem time?

          Flower of Scotland

If there's a leading contender for Scotland's national anthem, this tune is it. For the most part, at major sporting events — whether football, rugby, or the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow Flower of Scotland gets the nod.

Interestingly, the song is fairly recent. Written in 1967 by a Scottish folk singer and his group, The Corries, the tune was adopted by Scotland's national rugby team in 1974 as its unofficial anthem. In 1997, the national football team followed suit.

While there may be a performer leading the song, the crowd usually joins in full-throatedly:

Flower of Scotland commemorates Scotland's victory over the English in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn. England had conquered Scotland in 1304 under king Edward I ("Hammer of the Scots"). Two years later Scotland revolted, led by their revered Robert the Bruce. With victory in the Battle of Bannockburn over Edward II, the Scots regained their independence from England.

For you musicians out there, the tune is not in a major or minor key, but rather mixolydian mode. Typically, only the first and third verses are sung for the anthem:

                          1.       O Flower of Scotland,
                                   When will we see
                                   Your like again,
                                   That fought and died for,
                                   Your wee bit Hill and Glen,
                                   And stood against him,
                                   Proud Edward's Army,
                                   And sent him homeward,
                                   To think again.

3.       Those days are past now,
                                   And in the past
                                   they must remain,
                                   But we can still rise now,
                                   And be the nation again,
                                   That stood against him,
                                   Proud Edward's Army,
                                   And sent him homeward,
                                   To think again. 

          Scotland the Brave

For those who live outside Scotland, there's one tune which most folks recognize as quintessentially Scottish. Called Scotland the Brave, it's played by pipe bands around the world, especially in former British colonies and Commonwealth nations. My guess is that Scotland the Brave is the most well-known bagpipe music of all:


The glaring problem, however, is the song isn't very good for singing. Humming, perhaps. But not singing. Moreover, the lyrics are a problem. The tune was written toward the beginning of the 20th century, while the lyrics were not written until 1950. And those lyrics, unfortunately, aren't any good. At all. Consequently, it's a tune that needs a piper, or a pipe band, which makes regular performances more challenging.

Scotland the Brave earns roughly 30% of the popular vote for a national anthem, but I doubt it'll ever get a majority.

          Highland Cathedral

A somewhat distant contender, with roughly 15% support, is Highland Cathedral. A bagpipe tune like Scotland the Brave, it has a similar difficulty in that there aren't really any usable lyrics. It is, however, an easier song to sing (usually wordlessly) or hum.

But Highland Cathedral was written by some Germans in 1982, which is hardly the profile of a Scottish national anthem. A nice tune, for sure. Sounds like it should be in a movie. But a national anthem for Scotland? Unlikely.


The recent poll of Scottish football fans revealed that Caledonia was second in popularity behind only Flower of Scotland. Originally a 1977 folk song, Caledonia became popular after it was used in a 1990 beer commercial for Tennent's lager. Now, the tune is covered regularly by Scottish singers and bands. Interestingly, Caledonia hasn't gotten much support in earlier polls for a national anthem. Is it just a coincidence that the Scottish football fans have picked a song made popular by a beer commercial?

Other choices for national anthem

There are some other national anthem contenders, but they get little support. A few folks trot out songs/poems by Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, most particularly Auld Lang Syne. Everyone knows the tune, and it's sung in Scotland at more than just New Year's Eve. But in some ways Auld Lang Syne has gone out to the world as a global anthem, and it may not feel quite appropriate to claw back as Scotland's national anthem.

Others contend — I'm not quite sure if they're serious — the national anthem should be I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers. I kid you not, this 1990s pop tune had "strong support" as the third most-popular song in the Scottish football fans poll.

It's catchy, for sure. And the Scots love singing it when celebrating goals at matches or after wins in sporting events. But as a national anthem? Wowsers.

They would, however, win the award for most awesomely catchy national anthem.

Too many choices?

As I noted at the top, Scotland's problem is not that it has no national anthem. Rather, it has too many unofficial anthems to choose from.

It's a nation which struggles with big decisions. For centuries they warred amongst themselves, clan against clan. They were riven by the Catholic / Protestant divide. They joined Great Britain only under duress. They agonized last year during the debate about independence from the U.K.

Will they ever decide on a national anthem?

Don't hold your breath.

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