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From the Archive: Scottish Rebel Songs

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Authored by Katherine Waite
Published on 3rd February, 2021 15 min read

From the Archive: Scottish Rebel Songs

Drawing upon our exciting new collection, Scottish Nationalist Leaflets, 1844-1973, this article examines the development of Scottish nationalism in the twentieth century through an analysis of ‘Rebel Songbooks’. These songbooks reflect the turbulent, ever-changing landscape of Scottish society, identity, and politics. Detailed contextual notes and song descriptions provide valuable insight into the pride the authors shared in their heritage. Songs tell inspiring tales of Scotland’s rich history, educating and often politicising listeners. It can be argued that music is more than a barometer for public opinion but also a way to actively engage people in the debate. Scotland’s thriving nationalist movement is a dominant political force today, and its music scene more prosperous than ever. Contemporary artists, such as The Proclaimers, are immensely popular and continue to keep the dream of independence and tradition of storytelling alive for the next generation.

Scots Wha Hae, 1793

A timelessly popular song printed in almost every collection of Scots song anthologies in this collection is ‘Scots Wha Hae’, the work of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796). Burns is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Many of his lyrics are dedicated to expertly retelling the folklore and history of the Scottish people. Burns was passionate about preserving traditional Scottish folk songs. To this end, he collected folk songs from all over Scotland. His most famous poem, ‘Scots Wha Hae’, was written from the point of view of Scottish hero Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The outcome of this battle was key to Scotland maintaining its sovereignty until the 1707 Union of Parliaments.

A copy of a Traditional Robert Burns song, called Scots Wha Hae.

When Burns visited the field of Bannockburn in 1787 he was deeply moved, writing to Robert Muir from Stirling, ‘I knelt at the tomb of Sir John the Graham, the gallant friend of the immortal Wallace; and two hours ago, and said a fervent prayer for Old Caledonia over the hill in a blue whinstone, where Robert de Bruce fixed his royal standard on the banks of the Bannockburn’.[1] Burns decided to put his lyrics to the tune 'Hey tutti, tatiti' which he described ‘has often filled my eyes with tears. There is a tradition, which I have met with in many places in Scotland, that it was Robert Bruce’s march at the battle of Bannock-burn – This thought…warmed me to a pitch of enthusiasm on the theme of Liberty & Independence, which I threw into a kind of Scots Ode, fitted to the air that one might suppose to be the gallant ROYAL SCOT’s address to his heroic followers on that eventful morning.’ [2] Burns’ patriotism is unmistakable, and ‘Scots Wha Hae’ served for centuries as an unofficial anthem of Scotland. Its long-lasting pre-eminence is underlined by the frequency of this tune in songbooks. Burns’ popularity has not waned over the succeeding centuries. The egalitarian song 'A Man's a Man for A' That' was performed at the opening ceremony of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 with the approval of all parties. 

A description of Scots Wha Hae by Jim McLean.

It has been argued that in the nineteenth century, that 'between 1800 and 1870…there simply was no Scottish nationalist movement’.[3]  This is reflected in the music scene. Historian Munro argues that the nineteenth-century repudiation of traditional music by urban, literate Scots was not unconnected with a creeping Anglicisation of language.[4] For historian Nairn, as for many subsequence commentators, the answer lies in the Union of 1707, which allowed Scotland access to the first British Empire, with all its new resources in sugar, tobacco, cotton and, of course, slabs. This allowed Scotland to follow England through the path of ‘modernisation’ without having to confront the problems faced by every other country trying to catch up with England’s early industrialisation.[5]

Bo’ness Rebels Literary Society, 1951-1965

The front cover of a "The Rebels Ceilidh Song Book"

By contrast, the twentieth century was a key period in the Scottish nationalist movement. It has been successfully argued that the early twentieth century saw a ‘Scottish Renaissance’.[6] A renewed interest in Scottish traditional music and culture after a century of negligence. This interest coincided with the birth of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in 1934. After the nineteenth-century repudiation of traditional music by urban, literate Scots, historian Munro asserts that the twentieth century ‘folk music revival is a post-World War Two phenomenon.[7] One organisation of this period keen to preserve Scottish cultural heritage was the Bo’ness Rebels Literary Society. The Bo’ness Rebels Literary Society was a Scottish nationalist organisation, and song collective, which began to publish songbooks in the early 1950s. This group’s events were frequented by many famous Scots; Hugh MacDiarmid, Thurso Berwick, and Wendy Wood amongst them.

The preface from "The Rebels Ceilidh Song Book"

The Rebels Ceilidh Songbook is valuable for scholars looking into the musical tradition of Scottish nationalism in the post-war period. The preface of the original 1951 songbook states that this ‘is a Rebel Song Book uniting all the varieties of Scottish Rebels to the realisation that what’s wrong with the world is wrong here and now in Scotland’. The preface was written by chair of the society, William Kellock. The motives for this book appear to be to inspire Scots to a nationalist ‘realisation’. Kellock discusses the inspirational great Scottish storytelling tradition, 'Songs of the drama of resistance against impossible odds, Songs of Land-hungry Scots and Alien land-owners... Songs joy, of sorrow, of Scotland’s pride, of delight in our beautiful countryside'. The publication of the Rebels Ceilidh Songbook coincides with the first Edinburgh People’s Festival in 1951, which brought grassroots traditional singers and players to an urban concert platform for the first time.[8]

The Bo’ness Rebels Literary Society successfully published multiple Songbooks. The preface to the May 1965 edition is pleased that these Songbooks have 'helped in some small measure to reinstate Folksong in Scotland'. The author celebrates that 'Scotland has hit a fertile [musical] period'. This is important as 'where MP's fail, and that is often, these songs provide a VOICE for the Voiceless Scotland' in the 'modern sterile bureaucracy'. Music was an important way to inspire and give a voice to the Scottish people when politics stalled. Studying the Bo’ness Rebels Literary Society songbooks gives a researcher valuable insight into both the nationalist movement and the post-war musical regeneration. The preface emphasises the ‘magic’ of Scottish traditions and encourages the growing desire to preserve, explore and enjoy Scottish cultural heritage.

The preface from Bo’ness Rebels Literary Society May 1965 songbook.

Smile in your Sleep, 1968

As well as preserving traditional songs, a flourishing folk club culture inspired new generations of Scots to write their own work. In 1968 Jim McLean published a booklet of 25 ‘Scottish Rebel songs’. McLean was born in Paisley in 1938, his many songs adding to the Scottish Folk Revival and coinciding with the rise of the Scottish National Party in the 1960s. McLean is an excellent example of the dependent twin strands of music and nationalism. McLean was a dedicated songwriter, Republican and fighter for Scottish Independence. Some of McLean’s songs had already been printed in the ‘Rebel Ceilidh Songbook’ published by the Glasgow Song Guild, when he decided to bring out his own anthology. McLean was inspired by previous greats of the Scottish nationalist musical tradition. He edited an LP of poetry reading from Robert Burns and MacDiarmid. McLean makes his views on Independence obvious in the forward for this book. He describes the ‘fence-sitting, genteel, gormless, cunning attitude to literature that turns my stomach! If this selection of contemporary Scottish Rebel Songs doesn’t offend the Holy Willies, the Anglo-Scots, the right-wing fascists, the left-wing ignoramuses – then I have failed in what I set out to accomplish.’

Notes on a list of songs.

In this songbook, McLean publishes a series of his own songs. One of these is the harrowing and beautiful ‘Smile in your sleep’. ‘Smile in your sleep’ is a lament, detailing the experience of crofters during the Highland Clearances. These were the evictions of tenants in the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the period 1750-1860.   This resulted in significant emigration of Highlanders to the Lowlands, North America and even Australasia. Landowners often paid the fares for tenants to emigrate, who in practical terms had little choice. McLean flinches at the ‘barbarous acts committed against these people and the Gestapo-like treatment of them’ in a note discussing this song.

A copy of a song called Smile in Your Sleep.

McLean asks ‘Where was our proud Highland mettle? Our men, once so famed in battle Now stand cowed, huddled like cattle, And soon to be shipped o’er the ocean’. McClean wrote this song to the Gaelic tune of “Chì mi na mòrbheanna Chì mi na mòrbheanna”, a Scottish song that was written in 1856 by Highlander John Cameron (Iain Camshroin). The original song is a longing for home and, with its wistful, calming melody and traditional ballad rhythms, is often used as a lullaby. McLean wrote that the history of the clearances ‘should be read by all Scots’. He taps into the storytelling musical tradition to that end.

Flower of Scotland, 1969

The last booklet in the collection is ‘Ten Scots songs for Ten English Pence’. This publication collates a series of traditional and more contemporary songs. The introduction to this collection of songs emphatically describes how ‘many might refer to the more nationalist offerings as rebel songs, but the Scots are not rebels, they merely ask what is theirs by right: to govern their own affairs in their own way without interference by anyone else’.

Whilst the patriotic ‘Scots Wha Hae’ served as an unofficial anthem of Scotland for centuries, it has in recent years been superseded by the immensely popular ‘Flower of Scotland’ by Roy Williamson of folk group the Corries. Referred to in this booklet as ‘The contemporary nationalist song’. This song also draws upon the victory of the Scots over Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn. The song has been used as an anthem by the Scotland rugby union team, ever since the winger, Billy Steele, encouraged his team-mates to sing it on the British Lions tour of South Africa in 1974.

A copy of Flower of Scotland song.

Cap in Hand, 1988

Journalist Neal Ascherson describes how the 1980s brought ‘an explosion of creativity, much the most remarkable period in culture since the ‘Scottish Renaissance’ of the 1920s’. He goes on to describe that ‘if these novelists, painters, dramatists, or pop bands expressed any political views, they were usually coloured by an angry undifferentiated nationalism…Resentment spread, some of it tinged with dislike of ‘the English’ as personified by Mrs Thatcher’.[9]

Brothers Craig and Charlie Reid were born in Leith in 1962, the duo collaborated to form The Proclaimers in 1983. The Proclaimers have multiple songs that portray a strong sense of Scottish identity and pride. Craig unequivocally states: "We are absolutely total believers that Scotland should be an independent country.[10] The brothers were unique in that they refused to adopt the popular mid-Atlantic singing style, like other big Scottish bands of the 1980s. The brothers were repeatedly advised to modify their voices to achieve success. However, they remained “determined to do it our own way and accept the consequences”.[11] This determination shines through in the song ‘Throw the ‘R’ away’, the brothers were frustrated at the expectation of Scottish people to change their accent to achieve success.

‘Some days I stand
On your green and pleasant land
How dare I show face
 When my diction is such a disgrace’

The Proclaimers struggled for the right to be widely successful whilst expressing their identity through their accent. Ultimately with over 5 million albums sold worldwide, a hit musical and a plethora of nationalistic songs they are a success story. Edinburgh hip hop collective Stanley Odd describes how he is “personally delighted to see how strong the Scottish accent is in song at the moment, with Chvrches, Paolo Nutini…In the 1980s you’d be hard pushed to find anyone but the Proclaimers doing it. Scottish artists have got a lot more comfortable in their own skins over that period.’[12]

It can be argued that the Proclaimers’ music and the independence movement are fundamentally linked. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon explains that "[The Proclaimers] songs over the past 30 years have in many respects been the soundtrack to Scotland's political journey and I think that has made the politics much more accessible at times to younger generations and brought politics alive”.[13] Sturgeon argues that music is more than a barometer for public opinion but also a way to engage people in the independence movement and politicise them. Historian Munroe agrees on the importance of storytelling to educate the public on Scottish national history, ‘a traditional genre ‘new’ to the revival that has become popular in recent years is storytelling…the value of the latter…can hardly be overestimated from both entertainment and educational aspects’.[14]

The import of the Proclaimers’ music to independence was seen clearly in the run up to the 2014 independence referendum. A successful campaign propelled the Proclaimers’ pro-independence anthem ‘Cap in Hand’ to the top of the United Kingdom download chart in the weeks before the referendum. The duo’s verses juxtapose the bravery and pride of the Scottish people, with their perceived ‘beg[ging]’ ‘cower[ing]’.

‘We fight. When they ask us.
We boast. Then we cower.
We beg. For a piece of.
Whats already! Whats already!
Whats already ours!’

 The song culminates in the lament ‘But I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land.
 Cap in hand’. A simple yet effective call to action. 

Calls for an Independent Scotland

The revival of Scottish music in the twentieth century reflected, and often contributed to the emerging nationalist movement and ultimate desire for an independent Scotland. British Online Archives' collections on Scotland hold vital resources for those who wish to understand the historic issues behind Scottish nationalism as a political and cultural movement. Our collection ‘Sottish Nationalist Leaflets, 1844-1973 contains important documents from the last two centuries. These include pamphlets authored by influential Scots such as Archie Lamont, Hugh MacDiarmid, and William Mitchell. This collection also includes research and policy proposals discussing how an independent Scotland might thrive as a separate state, pamphlets from the 1970s discussing the use of oil wealth to support an independent Scotland, and how the European Union might affect independence. This is an excellent resource for those interested in the Scottish Independence, which is a dominant political issue of our time.


[1] Low, Donald. (2005) The Songs of Robert Burns. London: Routledge p.16.

[2] Ibid, p.17.

[3] Nairn, Tom. (1981) The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis And Neo-Nationalism. London: Verso Books.

[4] Munro, Ailie. (1991) The Role of the School of Scottish Studies in the Folk Music Revival. Folk Music Journal 6, Accessed January 7, 2021. p.133

[5] Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain, p.108.

[6] httpsjournals.openedition.orgosb1800

[7] Ailie. The Role of the School of Scottish Studies in the Folk Music Revival. p.132

[8] Ibid, p.135

[9] Ascherson, Neal. Stone Voices: The Search For Scotland. United Kingdom: Granta Publications, 2014. Pg.7

[10], Accessed January 23, 2021.

[11] Ibid.

[12], Accessed January 23, 2021.

[13], Accessed January 23, 2021.

[14] Ailie. The Role of the School of Scottish Studies in the Folk Music Revival. p.138

Authored by Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite is Head of Publishing at British Online Archives. Katherine studied History at Newcastle University, graduating in 2016. She has worked in the editorial and content teams at British Online Archives. As Head of Publishing she is currently working on curating a collection on the history of pandemic disease in the United Kingdom.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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