What should Scotland’s National Anthem be?

Scotland's rugby team belts out the unofficial anthem at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scotland's rugby team belts out the unofficial anthem at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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It was the year of flower power, when America was at war in Vietnam, music was psychedelic and eyes turned heavenwards to space exploration and reaching the moon.

Roy Williamson sat in a tenement flat at 69 Northumberland Street. Whatever else was going on in the world was one thing, his attention was on a matter closer to home.

The folk singer had been inspired by, of all tunes, 
Verdi’s Israelites Chorus from Nabucco. As he played around with his tune, the lyrics began to flow. “O Flower of Scotland,” he wrote, “when will we see your like again?”

Today the words and tune are known the world over, powerful and provocative, the opening chords alone can bring a lump to the throat of grown rugby fans as it thunders around Murrayfield.

At Hampden it is proudly sung against a background of colourful waving Saltires and lion rampant flags, the stirring lyrics an inspirational driving force for footballers and, more recently, Scotland’s Commonwealth Games stars.

Penned in 1967 in an Edinburgh tenement, Williamson’s patriotic folk song has become our unofficial anthem. And now moves are under way to finally confirm Flower of Scotland as the nation’s own song.

MSPs have been asked to consider formally adopting it as the national anthem in a 
petition organised by an Aberdeen University student, Chris Cromar. A consultation process is being considered which will examine the arguments for it as well as looking into other Scottish songs and the possibility of an entirely new anthem.

The suggestion has already sparked lively debate between those who favour Edinburgh-born Williamson’s song and those who regard some elements as anti-English. Others are wary of its strong nationalist tones, some believe it’s time to look forward and give a new generation the chance to create a brand new song for Scotland.

But what’s certain is that the man who wrote it would have been astonished that even now, 25 years after his death, it still arouses such passion.

“I didn’t think it was good enough to sing,” Williamson told his Corries partner Ronnie Browne shortly before he died from a brain tumour in 1990, aged just 54. “It was more of a personal statement. I had no idea what I was starting.”

Nor did the Scottish Rugby Union, who introduced Flower of Scotland as the unofficial national anthem that year for the Five Nations Championship. It rang out across Murrayfield as the squad set about beating the Auld Enemy on their way to the Grand Slam. The “anthem’s” status was ensured. But, the awkward question is, whether it is the best?

Not according to social historian, author and folk musician Stuart McHardy. “What should be the Scottish national anthem? The answer is simple,” he says, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That.

“It’s an international anthem, it’s about reaching out, worldwide, definitely not insular. Flower of Scotland is inward looking. ‘Your wee bit hill and glen’,” he groans, “excuse me but isn’t that a bit ‘shortbread tin’? It’s OK at Murrayfield, but it’s reflecting on a narrow historical period.

“Choosing Flower of Scotland is lazy. It is time for change. God Save The Queen is not an option – remember that sixth verse ‘Marshall Wade . . . like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush’.”

In 2004 there were calls for a nationwide consultation exercise. And in 2006 a Royal Scottish National Orchestra online poll resulted in Flower of Scotland receiving 40 per cent of the vote, followed by Scotland the Brave with 29 per cent.

However, Donald Smith, founding director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, believes the time is right for a brand new song to inspire the nation. “Flower of Scotland is very singable but it’s backward looking, it’s about war and it’s also quite a ‘male’ song. I’m not knocking it as a bit of music, but The Corries had a lot of songs that were better than Flower of Scotland.

“We should have an open competition to find a new anthem. An anthem needs to be collective. After all the creative energy that went into the referendum last year, the time is right to look for new songs. Scotland has changed, people are up for being part of things, making a contribution, people want to be part of it.”

Meanwhile, Edinburgh folk musician John Greig agrees that there are plenty of options out there: “They could change it to something like Stop Your Tickling Jock,” he grins, “something to make us smile.

“Flower of Scotland was chosen by the rugby crowd, then the football crowd – surely a wide ranging bunch of people. It might not have the kind of dignity that some anthems have but that’s why I like it.

“Several thousand people use it as the anthem, what’s the problem with it? It reflects our history. And those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

Main contenders

So what might the options be for a new Scottish national anthem?

Scots Wha Hae: Written by Robert Burns to a tune originally played by the Scottish army at Bannockburn. Generally regarded as Scotland’s national anthem for years. Themes of liberty and independence mean it’s a favourite of the SNP.

(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles: The Proclaimers’ internationally-known song of dedication and loyalty. Guaranteed toe tapper.

Scotland the Brave: White Heather Club style words written in 1950s by Cliff Hanley to a traditional melody.

A Man’s a Man for a’ That: Burns wrote this in 1795 while reflecting on the French revolution and its ideologies. Movingly sung by Sheena Wellington at the 1999 opening of the Scottish Parliament.

Highland Cathedral: Penned in 1982 and one of the best-known bagpipe tunes in the world. The tune was written by a pair of German composers, however lyrics have been added, most recently by two rugby fans for the Scotland squad to sing in 2013.

Caledonia: Dougie MacLean’s reflective and emotional tribute to his homeland.