Over the past few years, while researching the world’s first book on national anthems – their history and meaning today – I had one conversation surprisingly frequently.
In South Africa, Argentina, even Bosnia once, people would start telling me about their favourite anthems. France’s La Marseillaise would always come first – its unforgettable melody beating out any concerns about its lyrics calling for people “to water the fields with impure blood”. Brazil’s or Argentina’s similarly vibrant and exciting tunes would come next. And then they’d say Scotland’s.
“But Scotland doesn’t have an anthem,” I would reply.
“Yes, it does. I’ve seen it on rugby matches,” they’d say back. And then they would start to sing, embarrassed, “Ohhhhh flower of Scotland,” before tailing off into a string of da-dahs and dum-dums. “You know the song I mean.”
The stories of anthems are filled with perplexing questions, but right among them is why your politicians haven’t picked Flower of Scotland as your anthem despite over a decade of calls to do so. Back in the early 2000s, a pensioner harassed the government to admit it had the power to choose its own song, expecting a quick decision to be made. Since then, Flower of Scotland has topped every poll about what should be your anthem. Yet there’s been no movement on the issue.
They always say Flower of Scotland doesn’t have unanimous support or point out its anti-English sentiment isn’t suited to a modern country. Neither reason is good enough.
Let’s start with the first. None of the world’s anthems have universal approval. La Marseillaise doesn’t come anywhere near it, for instance. Go to France and see how many people tell you it’s racist, a colonial tune, not suited for a multicultural society.
Or go to Japan, a country whose anthem is a beautiful, short poem asking for the emperor’s reign to last “eight thousand generations until the stones grow into boulders lush with moss.” Many of Japan’s teachers have refused to sing that for the past 70 years saying it’s too tied up with old militarism. Right now, Shinzo Abe’s government is trying to force universities to sing it at ceremonies and threatening funding cuts if they don’t.
You are never going to get an anthem that everyone likes.
As for the song’s anti-English sentiment – about sending “proud Edward’s army…homeward tae think again” – in anthem terms, that’s about as gentle as you get. Most anthems celebrate a country’s defiance against old oppressors. In fact, they revel in it.
Take Algeria’s, which at one point says “oh France the day of reckoning is at hand” and claims “the drum of gunpowder is our rhythm, the sound of machine guns our melody.” The poet Moufdi Zakaria wrote that while imprisoned by the French, and most Algerians believe he scrawled it in blood on his prison cell’s walls.
Most of South America’s are the same, filled with anti-Spanish lyrics. Argentina’s asks, “Don’t you see them, like wild animals, devouring all people who surrender?” Meanwhile, China’s March of the Volunteers cries out, “We who refuse to be slaves, with our fresh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall”, then calls for a billion people to go into battle – lines aimed directly at the Japanese.
The uncomfortable truth is that people most enjoy and identify with anthems when they are dramatic and bloody. And there’s nothing wrong with that if they still inspire people to work for a better country.
The countries I’ve visited that have gentle, anaemic anthems tend to be the ones where these songs mean the least.
You could perhaps write new words to the same tune. But I should warn you what happens if you try to write a modern anthem. In the 1970s, the UN commissioned the poet WH Auden to write an anthem for peace saying there had been “enough war songs already”. Auden came up with an effort that includes lines like, “For peace means to change, at the right time, as the world clock, goes tick and tock.” It was sung once at the UN’s 25th anniversary celebrations. It got such a bad reception, it hasn’t been sung again.
Some people will always claim there are better songs than Flower of Scotland, but just look at the other contenders. First, A Man’s a Man For A’ That, the song that opened your parliament in 1999. Yes, it brilliantly expresses the Scottish desire for an egalitarian society, but it’s also a song that to foreign ears just sounds like someone bellowing “for all that” over and over again.
National anthems aren’t just for countries themselves – they represent you to the world – and A Man’s a Man… would tell the world nothing about Scotland apart from you’re really hard to understand.
You could go for Highland Cathedral instead, a lovely melody, but it’s also one written by the German “bagpipe-disco” pioneers Michael Korb and Uli Roever, so choosing it would hardly say much for your own songwriting talents. And then there are songs like Scotland the Brave and Caledonia. But the problem with all of them is they’re just not as loved as Flower of Scotland.
Why avoid the one song that has been accepted in your stadiums and pubs? All the best anthems – the ones that last – were chosen by the public not the establishment. Flower of Scotland has already been picked. Ronnie Browne – the surviving Corrie – is right when he said last week it’d never be replaced.
If your politicians don’t make a decision soon, this debate is going to go on for years, raised every time there’s a major sporting event. Save yourselves the time and anxiety and money, and just make the sensible – the only – choice.
• Alex Marshall is the author of Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems