Writing Contemporary Scottish Fiction

IN PRAISE OF ANTHEMS

I am a fan of the Scottish Rugby Team. And they don’t make it easy, believe me.

 

But, this week-end, they made me proud to be a Scot. The annual, Calcutta Cup, played between Scotland and England, as part of the Six Nations Championship took place on Saturday, 16th March. I sat down to watch with some trepidation, my worst fears confirmed when England immediately took charge. And, as the score climbed, my attention began to wander, a necessary coping strategy for any Scottish fan. We do not have a great success rate against the English team. At half-time, Scotland was losing by a doleful 31-7.

 

Whatever they had on their slices of orange at the interval, I’d like some of it because they emerged into the second half a different team. By four minutes from the end, Scotland had reversed their fortunes, leading England 31-38. It was hard to credit such a turnaround.

 

To their credit, England fought back hard, particularly in the final two minutes, levelling the score at 38-38. As the current holders of the cup, the draw allows Scotland to retain the Calcutta Cup for another year.

 

This is a cause for some celebration and, indeed, we did so — in style.

 

It was only later that I flicked through the sports pages of my local paper and read a piece by journalist Steve Finan, written prior to the match, noting the wearisome words of our de facto national anthem, Flower of Scotland.

 

The music and lyrics of this song were written by the late Roy Williamson of the folk duo The Corries and it’s been a staple of parties and gatherings since it came to popularity in the 1970s. I was and remain a fan of The Corries who wrote and performed so many memorable songs. Flower of Scotland is a beautiful air which suited the mellow voices of the duo.

 

But, as a national anthem, it lacks something. Just as Steve Finan takes issue with the lyrics, I struggle with the musical elements.

 

In my view, a national anthem should be rousing, stirring something within those who sing it. Take the French anthem, Le Marseillaise. In musical terms it is a march, ie it has four beats in the bar. Likewise, the Russian national anthem is also a march and has a strong feel. Flower of Scotland, by contrast, is in waltz time — three beats to the bar, giving it a mellower, less attacking mood.

 

The opening notes are important too in setting the tone. Both the Russian and French anthems open with an upwards leap, a strong opening in musical analysis terms. But the first four notes of Flower of Scotland fall, stepwise, ie from one note to the next without gaps or leaps. This a weaker opening is far more suited to ballads and laments than an anthem designed to spur a team on to success.

 

It does, however, redeem itself at one point where the words We Can Still Rise Now are accompanied by a rising melody (see what he did there?) and a long top note on the word rise. It’s a line that rings round rugby grounds. Fans may not know the words to all the verses but everyone knows that line. However, as before, the top note is approached by consecutive notes, not leaps.

 

In years gone by, the Scottish football team used the quite different Scotland the Brave. It’s a quick march with high notes at important points in the melody and it leaps around like a startled haggis. So why is it no longer the anthem of choice?

 

And here, we come full circle, back to the lyrics which are warlike, representing the long-standing rivalry between the Scots and the English. Moreover, it is easy to sing. The simplicity of the melody, lacking in leaps, makes it ideal for large stadium crowds where there can be a lag as the singing takes hold, not unlike a Mexican wave.  

 

Scotland the Brave, sadly, is trickier to sing, particularly when taken at the correct pace, 120 beats per minute.

 

Flower of Scotland, I must concede, is here to stay and, despite my reservations, I sing it loudly and proudly whenever Scotland play.

 



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