Scottish history is packed into the music passed down over centuries. O Flower of Scotland, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, Skye Boat Song and Auld Lang Syne – all telling stories of the beloved land of Scotland and friendships treasured down the years. Auld Lang Syne is sung around the world on New Years Eve as Scots travelled with it from our Island to pastures new. First shared by Robert Burns, based on on ancient song he’d heard and written down, the lyrics ‘auld lang syne’ translate roughly as ‘for old time’s sake’. It’s a song about preserving friendships and past memories. We cross over our arms, hold our neighbour’s hands and, in doing so, we create a celtic circle together, entwining ourselves in heritage each New Year’s eve without realising it.
The celtic circle of protection goes back many many eons and is a centrepiece of modern day celtic spirituality – entwined together, forever, strength to those inside the circle, protecting them from those outside. Auld Lang Syne is much more than a song – it is a way of connecting with past and present as we look to the future. Used on New Year’s Eve, at the end of Weddings, even sometimes at Funerals, and many other times around the world, this song tells us to entwine our hands with those beside us, draw in together, remember, celebrate and look to the future with assurance of one another’s blessings for what may lie ahead.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne,
For old times sake echoes memories of fond friendships and good times in the past that keep us going in the present. It’s an important part of our spiritual well-being to be able to recall to mind those times, people, experiences that we treasure – those times we felt happy, content and perhaps times of glory, even if followed by times of terrible loss. Auld Lang Syne reminds us of the times gone by we should never forget that shaped who we are today. It tells us we can still share in the cup of kindness as we recall and hold onto the past. For some in Scotland though, the past is full of much loss alongside the glimpses of glory and the ‘good old days’.
Highland life has changed dramatically in the last 300 years. You only need to drive through the highlands of Scotland to see the remains of a thatched cottage or two, stark reminders of the Highland clearances in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The clearances took place after the Battle of Culloden, April 16th 1746. I did my high school years in Glasgow and took History as a main subject, so was taught all about the various battles against the English down the centuries. I enjoyed learning about intriguing characters like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and the dear Bonnie Prince Charlie. We were taught to respect these stories and never forget them!
In the mid 1980s, over two hundred years after the Battle of Culloden put a ceasefire to the Scots chances of independence, young people were still being taught about the English versus the Scots, still studying the bloody battles between brothers on British soil, battles that would stay in the minds of the Scots for centuries to come. At the time I was an intrigued teenager who would stroll through the highlands imagining the plights of the Scots against the English, one who stood on Culloden Moor and ached for time to turn back and the Scots to have had a better chance at gaining their freedom (or at least protecting their way of life). Don’t misread me – I am not for or against Scottish independence – as I am not Scottish. But I do empathise with those whose ancestors fought and died for what they believed in, those who subsequently lost their liveliehoods and homes in the clearances and had to flee, sometimes abroad, leaving behind their Bonnie Scotland.
We left Glasgow in 1986 when I was 16 years old and after 5 years there, I was probably more Scottish in my thinking than English. To this day, I have never reconciled what happened to the Highland way of life after Culloden. Whatever the reasoning was then and whatever your views on Scottish Independence are today, the Highland clearances seemed to be another example of cultures being wiped out and replaced by what some deemed better for the economic and perhaps political future of the country. For those of us with a heart for Scotland, you can visit a small holding of highlanders cottages recreated on Skye as a museum to the old way of life, Here you can experience what it was like to live in these small communities in the remotest parts of Scotland. Here you step into history and stand in the shoes of those whose liveliehoods depended on these simple settlements working together to maintain life in the clans as best they could. It wasn’t perfect – many would say it was anything but fair! – but it was a community and a culture wiped out by the British army (note made up of both English and lowland Scots of the day), a culture that today exists only in history books and song.
One of my favourite ditties I picked up whilst in Scotland is the Skye Boat Song , first written in 1880 and most famously sang by the Corries. It is a beautiful medley that puts the Jacobite rebellion of 1746 and the failed Battle of Culloden into poetic verse, romanticising the rescueing of the Prince by our beloved Flora. Here is the chorus:
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward, the sailors cry!
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.
Flora Macdonald came from South Uist originally , was later educated in Edinburgh and was a practicing Presbyterian, who was taken in the care of MacDonald of Clanranald when her father died and her mother was abducted to Skye. Years later, when the Prince and his companions were living as fugitives on South Uist, Lewis and Benbecula, Lady Clanranald was a key player in organising the Prince’s escape to Skye. She did this by organising passes for Flora, an Irish maid called Betty Burke and the boat crew to sail over to Skye. The Prince then left Skye from Portree on 20th September 1746 for France and never returned to Great Britain.
Flora was arrested and held briefly in the Tower of London. She is said to have told the Duke of Cumberland ‘that she acted from charity and would have helped him also if he had been defeated and in distress.’ Her bravery and loyalty gained her much sympathy, along with her good manner and gentle demeanour. Dr Johnson said of her that she was ‘a woman of soft features, gentle manners, kind soul and elegant presence.’
She married an army captain and emigrated to North Carolina in 1774, returning to Scotland in 1779 and to Skye in 1787, died in Kingsburgh 4th March 1790. One legend says her shroud was a sheet that had once been slept in by Bonnie Prince Charlie. She is buried at Kilmuir cemetery on Skye, her funeral attended by over 3000 people.
Dr Johnson’s tribute is carved on her tomb, A ‘name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.’ She is a national treasure for the Scots and also for women who see in her virtues we all strive for.
Years after I’d left school I went to seek out Loch Nan Uamh where the Prince sailed from to Skye, where you can look out across the waters and whistfully consider how all the dreams of a free Scotland sailed away with the demoralised Prince that day.
What was it that I fell in love with about this story? After all, it was a failed rebellion that led to the highland clearances and destroyed the clans with a Prince who fled and was never seen again. One might say it’s a story best forgotten. Yet it’s still told with passion in Scotland today. If you visit Culloden moor you can stand on the ground where the battle took place, walk past the many stones in memory of each of the clans. It makes one consider the whys of the story and saddens me as an English lass that we were so at odds with our Scottish neighbours and fellow countrymen. Perhaps I fell in love with the dream of what could have been, perhaps I fell in love with the passion and determination that drove the Highlanders to battle against all odds, perhaps I fell in love with the image of a Prince whom the Scots hoped would save them from the English. Perhaps it was, for me, about defending a way of life that was threatened by it’s stronger neighbour. Or perhaps I am just a romantic and fell in love with the story….
In our history class we were also taught about a most important even 400 years before Culloden, where another historic hero – Robert the Bruce – famously won the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Needless to say, the Scots have proudly erected a great monument in his honour to celebrate the victory of that great day and all that followed – albeit for a brief few years.
Following Bannockburn, the Declaration of Arbroath was agreed in 1320, closely followed by the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1328, which gave Scotland independence from England with their own King Robert on the throne.
Whilst this did not last too long before there was more fighting between Scot and Englishman, the Declaration itself is one of the most significant documents of Scottish history, treasured for what it stood for and the hope it still offers today for those yearning for independence. 700 years on, a memorial has been published and can be accessed here: declaration-of-arbroath
Legend has it Bruce got his inspiration for Bannockburn from a courageous determined spider in a cave who showed courage and determination which he took as a sign for his own need to soldier on with strength. Remarkable to think that, 700 years later, there is still some tensions between the English and the Scots when it comes to issues around independence, Europe and what is Scottish and what is British.
History has most definitely not gone away from the hearts and minds of many proud Scots who hold into the hope that, one day, they will be an independent realm from their age-old adversary and neighbour. The national anthem is a constant reminder for proud Scots, aching for a time gone by, 700 years of history resounding around every sports stadium where Scotland plays and sings their hearts out for the Bruce and for Scotland. You can’t get a much deeper sense of nationality and connection to one’s heritage and history in the ordinary man or woman than that.
O Flower of Scotland,
When will we see Your like again,
That fought and died for, Your wee bit Hill and Glen,
And stood against him (against who?), Proud Edward’s Army,
And sent him homeward, to think again.
Meanwhile, we continue to enjoy our time with our fellow countrymen in the Highlands, appreciating their fine countryside, culture and hospitality shown to friend and stranger. I, for one, will never tire of visiting the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I can never claim Scottish heritage, but I can claim affiliation, as one who went from child to adult whilst there, growing up believing we should stand up for what we believe in, protect the weak from the powerful and treasure our past and present, in order to preserve the future. That doesn’t mean I am not an advocate for change if it is needed for the preservation of life, but change needs to be done compassionately, respectfully and care-fully.
The chorus of Auld Lang Syne echoes through my head – ‘we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.’ #bekind has become a modern day motto to encourage us to care for one another during the pandemic, to be considerate of others and – whilst there is no entwining of hands – to remember we are all in this together. There’s a different bond forming, one that tells us to to remember our shared humanity, our shared wellbeing, will be what wins this battle, not any one side trying to thwart the other. Battlefields of the past lend their way to lessons learnt for the future.
‘clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[b] has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3: 12-13)
Let’s raise a glass to those highlanders who gave their lives for what they believed in down the centuries. May their bravery and courage live on in the hearts and minds of those who enjoy being in their mountains and valleys today, may the spirit of Scotland live on, the strong Celtic spirit. May we share in the spirit of friendship, fellowship, forever encircling what we hold most dear.
For auld lang syne, my dear (jo), for Auld Lang Syne