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Comment: A song to inspire and unite nations

Pumeza Matshikiza entrances the audience with Hamish Hendersons song Freedom Come All Ye Picture: Getty

Pumeza Matshikiza entrances the audience with Hamish Hendersons song Freedom Come All Ye Picture: Getty

  • by BRIAN WILSON
 

THE Commonwealth Games opening ceremony had, for each of us, high points as well as, er, less distinguished moments. If ever there was a game of two halves this was it, and fortunately it all came together in extra time.

Perhaps the most unexpected cameo was when the late Andy Stewart made an appearance, the “self-deprecating parody” of which may have been lost on viewers from Mumbai to Rwanda. I liked the tweet: “What next? Glen Michael?”

All this was swept aside by the sheer joy of the participants. There are plenty of very serious athletes involved, but there are also many from poor backgrounds for whom this is by far the biggest opportunity to appear on an international stage. And the happiness in their faces made everything else secondary.

My own highlight, apart from the magnificent vista of Celtic Park, was the rendition by Pumeza Matshikiza of Hamish Henderson’s great song Freedom Come All Ye. It was made all the more poignant because the singer came “frae yont Nyanga”, the black township near Cape Town mentioned by Henderson as a symbol of both oppression and hope.

The census last year produced the statistic that 1.4 million people speak the Scots language. That is a conclusion which clearly needs heavy qualification, though most of us use and savour Scots words in everyday speech.

If there is a mood to make the rich Scots vocabulary more accessible and, by implication, widely used, then where better to start than through the language and sentiments of Freedom Come All Ye – not least to ensure the value of that noble word “freedom” is respected and understood.

I have been familiar with this song since childhood in Dunoon. Written circa 1960, it was adopted by the anti-Polaris movement which developed around the Holy Loch base. I could not claim to have understood much of the language, which was my loss, but I never felt any doubt about the great sentiments it embraced.

The Holy Loch connection, coincidentally, took the song back to its musical roots since the pipe tune which Hamish borrowed, The Bloody Fields of Flanders, was written by a great composer, Pipe Major John MacLellan of Dunoon, inspired by the horrors of the First World War.

Hamish Henderson said he first heard it on the beaches of Anzio in the course of his own distinguished service as an Intelligence Corps officer. The Bloody Fields of Flanders stayed in his head and became the stunningly fitting melody for a song which addresses our role in an Imperial past alongside a vision of peace and racial equality in the future.

Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin

Blaws the clood heilster-gowdie ower the bay

But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin

Thro the Great Glen of the warld that day

That was Hamish Henderson’s hope for the wind of change then blowing through the colonised world. I don’t suppose the assembled Commonwealth athletes would have caught the precise words any more than most of the Scottish audience. But there is one stanza in particular which was extraordinarly appropriate to such a gathering:

Broken families in lands we’ve harried

Will curse Scotland the Brave no more, no more

Black and white to each other married

Make the vile barracks of their masters bare.

More than half a century on, the Commonwealth with all its imperfections is a remarkable reflection of that brave hope. Few would have foreseen that most of the countries breaking away from the British Empire, sometimes through bloody struggle, would volunteer to remain within an organisation which perpetuates that association.

Turning an Empire into a Commonwealth must be one of the great re-branding jobs in history, which at a time like this cries out for study and explanation. Why has the post-Imperial legacy of Britain, with all its blemishes, held together in this way? I suppose it has to be interpreted as a tribute to at least some aspects of how the British Empire behaved.

The great multi-culturalism of these Games is the most public expression of continuing links. How much practical good the Commonwealth does the rest of the time may be debatable. But the least that can be said is that an organisation which seeks to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights can only be a force for good in a troubled world.

Personally, I would prefer to hear Freedom Come All Ye (or A Man’s a Man for A’ That) sung as a Scottish anthem since both express sentiments that are internationalist, humanitarian and aspirational. Meanwhile, we have Flower of Scotland, which started life as a lovely historical song, written by the gentle Roy Williamson, and should really have been left that way. You can see why Hamish Henderson resisted anthem status.

Having introduced our children to Henderson via Freedom Come All Ye, maybe we could move on to the most biting satirical song in English, Scots or any other language, The D-Day Dodgers. My impression is that this was part-collected from a fellow soldier and part-written by Hamish but it is usually attributed to him.

Lady Nancy Astor had complained in the House of Commons that soldiers who took part in the Italian campaign were still hanging about Italy several months later rather than moving on to France. The term “D-Day Dodgers” was attributed to her, though it is not clear if she actually used it.

When Prince Harry went to Monte Cassino a couple of months ago to mark the 70th anniversary, the veterans he met still spoke of the terrible offence caused to them by the label. Somewhat insensitively, the prince was accompanied by Viscount Astor, the woman’s great-nephew, who is apparently a defence minister.

Look around the mountains in the mud and rain,

You find the scattered crosses, some that have no name;

Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone, the boys beneath them slumber on,

They are the D-Day Dodgers who stay in Italy.

I digress – but perhaps one of the tangential legacies of the Commonwealth Games should be to give Hamish Henderson the status he deserves and which a black girl frae yont Nyanga so movingly reminded us of.

 

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