The national anthem isn't a matter most folks – including myself – normally consider. But Ukraine's current desperate plight means that the music of that nation's anthem is now known to at least some of us. Indeed, it was hearing it on BBC Radio 4 news recently that germinated the thought of researching and writing this piece for SR.
Scotland doesn't have an anthem officially, not least because we lost our status as a nation state in 1707. We were bocht and sold for English gold, as our national poet Burns wrote so memorably in his Sic a Parcel o Rogues
. (He wasn't born till decades after 1707, but its memories remained fresh when he lived and wrote.) Burns didn't just put it memorably, but as at least some of us think, with uncanny accuracy. That's maybe why the (uneducated ploughman, mind) poet of a rather wee nation is so celebrated worldwide? Ploughman he certainly was, originally. Uneducated and daft he wasn't.
He could – and still does – make complex matters accessible, even in today's world, over two centuries after his early death. And mostly in a language few Scots, never mind others, can now properly understand. He gars folks think, worldwide, even yet. Maybe that's why an 'uneducated' working-class Scot remains, deservedly, one of the world's most internationally celebrated poets.
According to Wikipedia, Japan's national anthem has the first words of any such in the world, dating from over a millennium ago – 905. But it wasn't set to music until 1880 when that ancient nation was preparing to enter the 'Western' world – maybe adopting a national anthem was part of that process?
Other than that, Wiki tells us that the Netherlanders were the first (c1570) with a national anthem. Perhaps because that wee state has always had to try to reconcile its internal political differences, initially those between 'Papists and Proddies'. Scotland wasn't the only European state afflicted with that unfortunate division.
Spain's national anthem was the first – officially designated in 1770. The writing of that of our presently rather disunited queendom dates from slightly earlier, in 1745. But one of its original verses, which Wiki tells us 'was not used before the song became accepted as the British national anthem in the 1780s and 1790s', was this:
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush.
God save the King.
Hardly surprising that verse was deliberately officially 'forgotten'. Its words are historically inaccurate – Jacobites weren't all Scots, and if some writers are correct, most Scots didn't care, then or since, about restoring the Stuarts to their 'rightful' throne. But in how many other national anthems in the world are there words so viciously hostile to an important part of the allegedly 'united nation' the song purports to celebrate?
Scotland to this day doesn't have a 'national' anthem, although the most widely respected (outside rugby and football grounds) is probably Burns' rather warlike Scots Wha Hae
, which celebrates Bannockburn, when Scots' military guile (for once) beat a much larger invading English army. For which reason 1314 is a date burned in the minds of many Scots, at least of my generation.
Such victories remain uncommon yet, between a wee country and its much more populous – and richer – neighbour. Most decent folks now hope, I think, that Ukrainians will prove similarly – and successfully – thrawn too.
To my mind, Hamish Henderson's remarkable Freedom Come A Ye
, conceived in the early 1960s when the Sharpeville massacre rang in all our minds, celebrates human decency whilst acknowledging some less than decent episodes in our history.
Nae mair wull oor bonny callants
Mairch tae war when the braggarts croosely craw…
For me, it remains the best choice of our anthem when we finally regain the nationhood which our ancestors – or a tiny minority of them – sold at much profit to a handful of Scots – to our larger neighbour in 1707. (To access the slave economies of its colonies.) Hamish's words are more honest and profound – and downright beautiful – than any of its current bravado-full – and anti-historical – alternatives. Read, or better, sing it please. If you don't already know it, click here
Like most of us, I don't know the words of a lot of anthems of other nations. One that I certainly do (or to be more honest, I know only its first verse) is Nkose sikelele Africa
. This was adopted when the beleaguered nation of South Africa finally ended decades of intensely damaging apartheid and years of brutally-repressed struggle, and was thus able to rejoin the world. Something I will always mind.
When 'wise folks' say all protest is daft, I remember playing a wee part at Murrayfield in late 1969, organising the largely student protest which helped to end apartheid many decades later. What we did wasn't much; we mainly made a lot of noise. But the apartheid 'Springboks' certainly got the message; they never dared return to Scotland till their dismal creed was finally ended decades later.
According to Wiki, Nkose sikelele
is unique in that it includes stanzas in five of the 11 officially-recognised languages of this remarkable multinational state. That not atypical. Sensitivity may be part of the reason why the bravely anti-racist nation survives yet, notwithstanding the profits provided to 'our' ruling class by its criminally – and militarily-enforced – undemocratic predecessor. And the problems 'our' ruling class have therefore deliberately caused for its democratic successor.
Some anthems which many will recognise, have most memorably stirring tunes – consider France's Marseillaise
and Ireland's Ambhran bhFiann
). But both were born, necessarily, of armed struggle, when the then-rulers of France and Ireland would only concede victory to democracy, when faced also with armed opposition. More than reason was required.
I most sincerely hope that Scots won't have to contemplate taking up arms to achieve the independence our nation deserves. But in the face of English intransigence – and apparent apathy on the part of far too many Scots… well, who dares foretell the future?
Dougie Harrison is an auld socialist who has been politically active since his teens in the 1960s. He is currently as active in the Scottish Green Party and in community affairs as his age permits