Of all the songs I have sung to my grandchildren over the years, as they lie in their beds and I sing them to sleep, this one – the Scottish national anthem – is my grandson’s favourite. He is 13; it still is, perhaps in part, but only in part, because of the broad Scottish brogue I summon to my throat for the occasion.
Go’orn, you think I googled the words? I didn’t even look them up. If there are any mistakes, they’re my own. I can roll those rrrr’s with the best of ’em and I could even give you the other verses, but I’ll spare you – okaaay, they’re at the bottom.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Surprises me too. Och aye, I can hear you noo, wondering how I came to know all the words to the Scottish national anthem.
Actually, I’m really not sure.
Except to say it was one of the quirkier legacies of the year I lived in Scotland with my family when I was 16.
1975. One of the funniest years of my life.
And here I am again! In the highlands at Inverness, heading further north and east tomorrow to Hopeman, the small fishing village that was my home almost 40 years ago.
I caught the train up from London on Monday, Inverness being as far from Edinburgh as Edinburgh is from London. The first thing I noticed is that north of Edinburgh, the signs at the train stations are these days bilingual. And where the Welsh use lots of Ps, Ws and Ds, the Gaelic of the Highlanders is more gutteral, loaded with Gs, Hs and Ms. No wonder I couldn’t understand Hilary Jack’s father in 1975!
In both cases, if you close your eyes to linguistic common sense, you can hear English tongues wrapped around the strange words and find the old word in the new. Or the new in the old.
That year among the Scots taught me something incredibly important about the English language that I have never forgotten – and that is an explanation for the strange spelling of English, words like night and taught and two, for example.
The Scots pronounce every letter – English is actually phonetic.
They don’t say nite – but n-i-g-h-t. Not tort – but t-a-u-g-h-t. Not too but tw-o. Even ing on the ending of words – i-n-g.
I remember Inverness in 1975 as being a grey, wet city of small shops with bells that tinkled when you walked in. Inverness today is bright with the intermittent sunshine. Then it begins to rain and the old city looks just as it always did, only today’s streets are filled with meandering tourists rather than women in scarves scuttling by for their daily bread. And I’m not so sure the hand-knitted woollen shop that is my mother’s sharpest memory still sells hand-knitted jumpers . . . certainly the gloves are not wool, but synthetic fleece.
I wander along the River Ness, gentle and wide – and yes, Loch Ness is down the road; I spy the castle peeping out from behind new developments on the main street and wander up the road towards the keep, past old churches heralding a parade of Christian fashion, and there, outside the castle door, I find Flora MacDonald, large and bronzey green.
Flora! Flora is extraordinary because she is an 18th century woman with a sensible dog, both enshrined in statue. Flora is strong and she is clearly a woman on a mission. Flora is her own person. And the fact I am making such a fuss about Flora indicates how often I see my own reflection, and the reflection of women I know, in public art. Such women have always existed; rarely are they exalted as fine examples of womanhood. Flora is today’s s/hero.
I google Flora: hers is the honour of acceptance by men for her courage in helping princes escape and standing tall in the face of privateers’ demands. I didn’t look very hard, but even so found no mention of the dog.
The castle, the current version of which was built in the 18th century, is the last in a long line of castle forts that have held Inverness for various invaders stretching back to the 12th century. Mary Queen of Scots was here, so too Robert the Bruce.
I hear bagpipes filling the air with the ancient call to life that has sounded in these hills forever, and follow my heart down the hill.
Scotland. As the train rattled north the other night I was surprised to find tears welling in my eyes for the hills of heather outside the window, for misted mountains, for anticipation of what I will find in a small village that is as much home to a wanderer as anywhere; a highland homecoming that has been nigh on 40 years in the advent.
The hills are bare now, and autumn leaves lie thick and still
O land that is lost now, which those so dearly held
And stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.
Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now, and be the nation again
That stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.