Freedom Come all Ye – our new National Anthem?

I am embarrassed to say that up until a couple of months ago, I had never heard the song Freedom Come All Ye. Having been involved with anti-nuclear activity and being an SSP member, I had been aware of, but had never actually heard Hamish Henderson’s most famous song. It is, I think, a real testament to how the whole independence referendum debate has sparked interest in Scottish history and culture that someone like me, whose musical taste so far has consisted exclusively of guitar based indie bands, the more obscure and unpopular the better, could become excited and inspired by a folk song from 1960.

It’s a strange thing, but the indie scene, which is slightly pretentious, with aficionados considering themselves to be “musos” have always turned their noses up to the folk tradition, tolerating perhaps Billy Bragg, maybe even Dylan, but drawing the line at overtly populist singers like Matt McGinn and staying well clear of anything politicised. In America, where what they call the “alternative” scene is dominated by college radio, it’s even worse with sometimes shameful hostility expressed towards great “cultural activists”, to borrow Irvine Welsh’s phrase, like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In Scotland Dick Gaughan is probably our equivalent of Woodie Guthrie, but no-one I know outside of political activism has ever heard of him.

This heightened political atmosphere, which has seen our country, for the first time in living memory take part in an amazing and inspiring flowering of real democracy in the form of meetings, debates and discussions has opened the door to the folk tradition. In fact, it was when I had fancied a wee listen to the famous “Workers Song” by Dick Gaughan that I stumbled on Freedom Come All Ye, which I remembered from September’s Indy Rally in Edinburgh and from an SSP article a few years ago. Interestingly, it was thanks to the previous independence rally in 2012 that I got turned on to another cracking Scottish folk song, the Bleacher Lassie O Kelvinhaugh. If I am being turned on to this music having no interest in it previously, then it must be happening to others.

The Cohen Brothers recently did a great film, called Inside Llewyn Davis, about the folk scene in Greenwich village, New York, in the early sixties, just around the time freedom Come All Ye was being written in Scotland and the filmmakers explore the sniffy attitudes towards folk musicians at that time. An important meta-narrative of that film is that there exists a similar inverted snobbery against class-based storytelling in the film world, again towards anything that is overtly political, with film makers like Ken Loach often on the receiving end of a certain negative attitude from professional film critics.

Freedom Come all Ye is already a well-known song, at least amongst activists and has been partially adopted by sections of the Scottish Left. This essay calls on the wider independence movement to adopt the song as our anthem, with the hope that the song might replace the awful dirge that is the Flower of Scotland as the people’s anthem.

Before discussing the case for adopting this song, there are a couple of problems that need to be raised, not least the fact that the writer never wanted the song to compete with Scotland the Brave, as the “official anthem” of Scotland. This raises issues about the nature of anthems and what they represent, but the important point to note is that Hamish Henderson was writing when independence was not a realistic prospect. Now that we have a fighting chance of building not just any independent Scotland but a progressive independent Scotland that would, whatever the political make-up have to some extent social justice at its heart, the need for a fitting anthem, surely trumps the wishes of one individual even if it happens to be the author of that anthem.

The other problem is that the song doesn’t really outline the case for a progressive independent Scotland. There is no heart tugging images of poverty, or fiery tirades against corporate power. It has nothing to say about the environment, or gender or any policy areas like health or education. In terms of issues the song has a seemingly narrow anti-imperialist focus. Whilst this may be seen by some as a weakness, in fact it is the great strength of the song, that it confronts the people of Scotland with our role in the most shameful aspects of the British empire, before laying down the challenge to take our place amongst the nations of the world.

One of the most interesting things about Freedom Come All Ye is the tune, not so much that it’s from an old standard about the horrors of the Great War, but that it is a melody that is very adaptable in terms of its timing and speed. However the biggest selling point of the song is its wonderfully rich and layered lyrical content. Easily able to stand alone as a poem, the textures of meaning and imagery, draws not only on the deep well of Scottish history and a heart-felt anti-imperial and internationalist message but by borrowing phrases and imagery from the Scots tongue and older folk songs becomes part of the great living tradition of folk music itself as a means of passing knowledge, wisdom and history down through the generations.

In essence the song denounces the British Empire and from the outset delves deep into history and meaning by borrowing phrases. “Roch the wind in the clear days dawnin’, Blaws the cloods, heilster-gowdie ow’r the bay, but there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin through the great glen o’ the worl the day.”

Translated into English, this reads “Rough the wind in the clear days dawning, blows the clouds, head over heels across the bay, but there is more than a rough wind blowing through the Great Glen of the world today.” The references to winds blowing are a kind of response to Harold MacMillan’s famous 1960 Winds of Change speech during his tour of South Africa about the independence movements that had swept across the continent. Henderson is saying that imperialism is being swept away by a rough wind, social unrest, with the image of clouds tumbling across the sky, giving the image of Scotland looking out across the sea at the storms of social upheaval gathering. The Great Glen of the world adds several layers of meaning comparing the Great Glen that geographically divides Scotland to both a social division in Scotland, created by the existence of the British union and the divisions stirred up by the British Empire makes the point that this imperialism has been a negative and divisive force.

The lyrics are shot through with this rich imagery and layers of meaning, with phrases like “Gar oor rottans”, or “make our rodents”, referring to social elites having the brilliant effect of creating an image of the powerful as disease-spreading creatures to be hated and despised, a notably Scottish sentiment that fits nicely with certain deeply held cultural attitudes towards the concept of aspiration that true or not have often been associated with Scotland. The second verse offers more rich imagery and more attacks on imperialism and social hierarchy, talking about “braggarts” that “crusely craw” in the context of the kinds of jingoism and xenophobia frequently employed to brainwash people into buying into the idea of warfare. It is however the third verse that catches the ear and eye most, imploring all who are “at hame wi freedom” to ignore what the “houdies croak for doom” before invoking the image of Scotland’s socialist saint John Maclean and the emancipated African,  “frae yont Nyanga” striking the “fell gallows of the burghers doon” which has sometimes been interpreted as a reference to Nelson Mandella and the struggle against apartheid, but most likely just refers to the wider struggle against imperialism in Africa generally.

At one and the same time, the song makes the comparison between Scotland and a subjugated nation, whilst with lines like “Broken families in launs we’ve herriet, will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair” admitting that Scots have played a part others’ subjugation. This gives the song a certain humanism, pathos and authenticity that most triumphalist anthems lack.

Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin
Blaws the cloods heelster gowdie ow’r the bay
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o the warld the day.
It’s a thocht that will gar oor rottans
A’ they rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay
Tak the road and seek ither loanins
For their ill ploys, tae sport and play

Nae mair will the bonnie callants
Mairch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw,
Nor wee weans frae pit-heid and clachan
Mourn the ships sailin doon the Broomielaw.
Broken faimlies in lands we’ve herriet
Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair;
Black and white, ane til ither mairriet
Mak the vile barracks o their maisters bare

So come all ye at hame wi Freedom,
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom
In your hoose a’ the bairns o Adam
Can find breid, barley-bree and painted room
When MacLean meets wi’s freens in Springburn
A’ the roses and geans will turn tae bloom,
And a black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o the burghers doon.

Comments (37)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Axel Koehler says:

    As a graduate of the Dept of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, established on the foundations of Hamish Henderson et al’s School of Scottish Studies, I am proud to say that we sang the “Freedom Come All Ye” to round off our Burns Supper in 2003 in tribute to Hamish himself!

  2. Illy says:

    I quite like that Scotland hasn’t got an “official” national anthem, and that we’ve got quite a few unofficial ones (and some of those have several different sets of lyrics), and we can pick which one is appropriate for the occasion.

    Want a marching song that everyone knows (at least *some* of) the words to? Scotland the Brave.
    Want something lilting? Flower of Scotland.
    Want something slow that most people know some of the words to? Auld Lang Sign.
    Want something “politically appropriate”? A man’s a man.

    The first two can be used without any words quite happily as well.

    1. Alison Duncan says:

      Auld lang syne (not sign!)

  3. Rosa Alba Macdonald says:

    I love the Freedom Come All-ye and it does have its merits as a prospective Anthem, and much of what it echoes are the sentiments of John MacLean et al (its companion song is John MacLean March – also by HH).

    However, it is an aspirational song: with Independence we should have achieved many of those aspirations: (education, healthcare), housing and food of the last verse, and racial equality (written in the 60s the motiv of Black and White intil ither marriet – could have referenced Civil Rights).

    My fave. version is Karine Polwart singing it unaccompanied or a mass singing at TMSA gatherings.

    I think we need a new song – I love Scotland’s Story by The Proclaimers but the words as is, do not fit the scope quite yet for Anthem (I do this piece of work every year with a class – look at various wanna be anthems and find the patriotic language, before writng your own anthem) I also love for children, “One Scotland” by Laura McGhee (she has rewritten the Catholic – Protestant line since to Christian and Buddhist). Actually I think it might be an option.

    The Corrie’s Scotland Will Flourish is not quite… robust or rousing enough. It is too hamely.

    I think there is scope for the likes of Polwart, The Procalimers, McGhee, Reader, Kane and Ross to form a a different collective to produce a song. But that ignores some of the talents of lesser known musicians and artists. National Collective with their wealth of talent might well be commissioned to this task, with a selection from which a favourite could be chosen, publicly. It might well be a nation bonding exercise. I think National Collective have a Song for Scotland initiative going on, and this song, Theme for The Early Days has been on the ether waves for a while.

  4. Cath says:

    Think it would make a great anthem.

    I had a similar experience to Jimmy in that I never experienced Scottish music (or culture really) until much later in life. My music was mostly 60s, pop, indie etc with a bit of classical for culture. “Scottish music” was the tacky stuff played on Radio Scotland with embarrassing presenters.

    It wasn’t, ironically, until I left Scotland and spent a year in Canada that I experienced Scottish traditional music and fell in love with it. So when I came back here I found the sessions, picked up the fiddle and now play and hear loads of it.

    It’s cheered by no end to find that “Freedom Come Ye All” is now frequently being played and sung at sessions. I agree its words and tune would make it an excellent anthem. And, while most people might not understand it now, it only needs explained once and if it’s our anthem, everyone will understand it in time.

  5. The Indy Choir sang this at a comedy night held by Edinburgh West last Tuesday. I enjoy hearing it, but after decades, still don’t know the words.

    I was at the first Scotland United rally in George Square in 1992. Speeches were given, promises were made and towards the end, “Freedom Come A’ Ye” was sung. I think Hamish himself was there.

    After it finished, a guy at the side of the square shouted “Noo dae somethin’ we can aw sing”!

    1. MBC says:

      Hamish was there! I met him coming out of Queen Street station, and he was ‘first end’ on my Saltire banner! Together we held aloft my Saltire and waved it to the tune! I knew Hamish from my days at Edinburgh University when he worked the Scottish Studies department a few doors from mine and we often talked. If you see pics of a large Saltire from that 1992 rally, held aloft by two poles, that’s Hamish and me.

      1. I’ll look out for that picture online! I thought I remembered him singing it, but wasn’t sure if my memory was playing tricks.

        My OH interviewed him in the early 90s, and he was often to be found at folk nights and political events around Edinburgh. A great man, but also an approachable, friendly man.

  6. MBC says:

    I think you are right that the words need updating if it is to be a national anthem. It was very much a protest song, against imperial and social elites, a song of rebellion. But also a recording of poignant regret, a turning back from Empire, a rejection of imperialism and an embracing of internationalism and celebration of our common humanity. The lilting tune has a regular beat and is a ‘reverse march’, a march of withdrawal, written during the First World War called ‘The Bloody Fields of Flanders’. This records another historic turning point in Scottish national consciousness when the questions of the cost and futility of British imperial war and Scotland’s role in empire were in the air. But a national anthem needs to transcend rebellion, or regret for the past; a national anthem needs to embrace the future and articulate national values, celebrate virtues and aspirations. That’s maybe why Henderson preferred Scotland the brave?

    The genius of Henderson is to link the two points in time, the withdrawal of Scotland the brave from the bloody fields of Flanders and the questioning of the entire imperial project Scotland had been engaged in for two centuries that this dignified ‘reverse march’ (out of empire?) expresses (a Scottish Home Rule bill was being discussed in 1914 just before the war broke out and interrupted it) and the nationalist struggles and civil rights movement in Africa. Attitudes to the Empire changed markedly during the inter-war period, especially on the left. A 1942 Mass Observation study questioning social attitudes, to empire amongst other things, recorded a large number of responses that echoed the sentiment that ’empire was not entirely fair to coloured peoples’. Gandhi’s Quit India campaign was then at its height.

    I think the line ‘never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom’ is inspirational as is of course ‘come a’ ye at hame wi’ freedom’ both of which transcend time.

  7. Les says:

    ‘Auld Lang Syne’ for me, please. Via Holyrood petitions.

  8. “Is There for Honest Poverty” (aka A Man’s a Man for a’ That) would have my vote, because if modern is Scotland stands for anything, it stands for the common man and woman. Plus it is easy to sing and has a great ending.

  9. JGedd says:

    This would be a great contender – I love the words. The lyrics would be no more of a problem than Auld Lang Syne is now, with most people barely able to sing the first verse. Teaching children the words would be a marvellous introduction to Scots as a literary language. It has poetry in its language, even without music the words have resonance.

    As I said it, is a strong contender for a new anthem but I would be happy for choice of a new anthem to be put up for debate. Just as long as it’s not Flower of Scotland which I cordially loathe. Oh, and not Scotland the Brave either, please. I find that I have to agree with Alec Guinness in ” Tunes of Glory ” when he declared, ” Yon’s a cheesy tune. ” ( Even though he said it in an execrable Scottish accent and with an orange wig. )

  10. lochside says:

    I’m afraid that I admire this song and its sentiments, but it’s not easy to sing or to hum along to. Like AnneDon, I heard Hamish sing this at George Sq. in ’92 and felt it was leaden as an anthem. O/T George Galloway addressed ‘Scotland United’ from the platform (a truck?) as I recall about the ‘Democratic deficit…at the time we had the ‘feeble fifty’ SLAB).

    ‘Scotland the Dirge’ is jaunty, but risible. It was written by Cliff Hanley for Music Hall audiences. ‘Flower of Scotland’ may be hated by johnny come lately YES supporters, but it sustained the Scottish spirit in the dark days of the late seventies. However, it should be respected, even though its time may have passed, and in the past it must remain(?).

    ‘Scots wha hae’ is rowsing, but again a bit turgid to sing; ‘a man’s a man for aw that’ too restrictive perhaps?; and ‘parcel of rogues’ very apt, but again too mournful.

    I’ve been listening to and attempting to play folk music for many years, but the real key to an anthem is it has to be rousing and easy to sing.
    Unfortunately, braid Scots doesnae wark, a couple of words here and there is fine, but too many and you lose the 3.5 million who claim they don’t speak it.

    I think the Irish have two good ones: ‘A Nation once again’, but with Scotland’s own sectarian thin skin, forget it; and the Rugby one ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ which was specifically designed I believe, to unite North and South and Catholic and Protestant.But its Irish after all and we want our own anthem.

    I think that as most of our creative folk are on board with the Yes campaign that they must come up with an appropriate positive, optimistic, and most importantly catchy song, preferably before Sept.18th.

    I just wish Sam Cooke’s ‘A change is gonna come’ was a tune that most folk could attempt, but alas no!

    1. Crubag says:

      The Irish anthem is the Soldiers’ Song, if you’re meaning national anthems?

  11. I love it and its sentiments. The first question for any national anthem is how would it sing at Hamden or Murrayfield? I think that it fails there. Sorry. Now I know that I am unmusical, but I still like a sing.

  12. HIlary Christie says:

    It’s a rousing and wonderful tune. The words are not quick to memorise but explaining them would indeed be a great lesson in history and language. FIne international sentiments. Just what we need to encourage.

  13. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Really enjoyed reading this. Long time fan of DG – regarding him as the heavyweight champ of Celtic folk along with Christy Moore! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).

  14. Juan P says:

    Nah. Scotland’s Story is a much better anthem.

    Catchy, easy to sing along to and forward thinking.

  15. DaveW says:

    Freedom Come All Ye come with subtitles?

  16. Dick Gaughan says:

    Jimmy Kerr wrote:
    “If I am being turned on to this music having no interest in it previously, then it must be happening to others”.

    My experience is that being unaware or uninterested is certainly widespread.(which is why people like me are still poor. Hands up who said, “Naw, yer still puir because yer shite”).

    Traditional songs are many things but in essence they’re a repository of what has happened in the past. Orthodox written histories etc attempt to tell us what happened, songs tell us what it felt like to be there. Orthodox historians tend to dismiss them as historical evidence because they are, in general, orally (or perhaps aurally) passed on and for the most part are “subjective” and historians make a fair fuss about “objectivity”.

    In general, people only really wake up to them when something happens in their own experience which causes the songs to have relevance to them. I saw this during the 84-85 NUM strike. There is a vast collection of songs which deal with, and emerged from, the mining communities but most of those communities hadn’t the faintest interest in them and turned their noses up at people like me. Once the strike had started, they suddenly realised that people like me were singing songs which were about them and their lives and they took back ownership of them.

    Places like Miners’ Clubs that a year before wouldn’t have let me serve behind the bar were requesting that I come and play, usually to packed houses. What I was doing hadn’t changed – what had changed was that a year before they thought what I was singing about had nothing to do with them. Until experience proved otherwise.

    Similarly, I think the cause of the huge increase of interest in people playing and singing traditional music is the rise in consciousness of what it really means to be Scottish. They link past to present and to hope for the future. And we are moving from the “cultural cringe” where “Scottish Music” meant heather and shortbread tins and Miora Anderson to taking pride is what is genuinely ours and which speaks to the heart as well as the intellect. In other words, at present there is a historical need for it. Whether that need will survive the first decade after independence remains to be seen.

    1. Maybe enjoyment of folk music is about exposure, seeing that it isn’t a dead thing, preserved in aspic, but a living, developing piece of our culture? Just my opinion, of course!

      However, I totally agree with you that recovering from the Scottish cringe helps us to appreciate our culture, instead of shying away from it.

      In fact, I think the cultural aspects, including pop bands in the 80s and 90s singing in Scottish accents, predated the political aspect.

  17. YESGUY says:

    Here my hope for an anthem

    Say’s it all for me

    And my buddy is singing

    Bias ? If it’s good enough for the BBC then it’s ok for me.

    Caledonia .

  18. YESGUY says:

    oops wrong link

    this one


  19. barakabe says:

    This is a really beautiful rendition of a great song- utterly stunning!

  20. Colin says:

    If we are to have a number one hit for Yes in the run up to the referendum, then someone needs to take charge (Bella) and start coordinating it now. Get the song chosen and get it out there so we can all buy 10 copies each.

  21. Graham says:

    In every poll that I’ve seen on the question of Scotland’s national anthem – it seems like the same question is being repeatedly asked in the hope of getting a different answer – Flower Of Scotland has been the clear favourite. Those who object (even strenuously) to that song would be well advised to just listen to something else; loads to choose from.

    Living on the other side of the world right now, yesterday I felt the need to listen to something from home and Flower Of Scotland hit the spot. That Caledonia clip is beautiful, thanks.

    1. YESGUY says:

      Scotland has talent in every nook and cranny . These lads are brilliant and the song is apt for the times , i think.

      Thanks for listening folks. Maybe hear it on radio soon.

  22. Crubag says:

    I’d say if it’s an anthem, it needs to start with the tune. Think of the great national anthems – US, French, EU, Russia (?) – and it’s the melody that crosses language boundaries.

    Most people hearing it won’t know the words, and that will also go for a great many people singing along.

  23. Craig P says:

    Freedom Come a’ Ye is a great, spine-tingling song, but not suitable for an anthem. An anthem should be easy to sing by a large crowd with a good tune (and ideally good lyrics, though realistically as long as you have one killer phrase as a hook nobody cares about the rest). For inspiration we should be thinking hymn type tunes designed to be sung by large crowds, rather than folk songs designed to be sung by individuals or small groups.

  24. Zen Broon says:

    The real radicalism in this song is in its unashamed use of the Scots language. Hence the comments here ‘not easy to sing’, ‘need to change the words’ etc. The fact is now, as it was in Henderson’s day is that many middle-class Scots are still deeply uncomfortable and even embarassed about any use of Scots outside its long-proscribed trivial rolee.

  25. Michael says:

    Possibly one of the greatest works of art to come out of Scotland in the 20th century.

  26. Matt Seattle says:

    This is intended to be what the title says, something slightly different from an anthem, a theme as in a theme for a film, a play, an unfolding story, a story we are all writing as we go.

    For more performances, the lyrics and the melody for pipes and fiddle see

    If and when an anthem is needed it will arrive or make itself known from the candidates already present. Among which, I cannot think of anything better than Freedom Come All Ye.

  27. gapdouglas says:

    The Freedom Come All Ye could definitely form the basis of an Independent Scotland anthem – a beautiful pipe tune and poetic lyrics with a human international message. However as some have said already, the words could do with updating, but as Hamish himself championed the folk tradition carrying stream, I reckon he would be comfortable with additions and subtractions, which people have done to songs for centuries.

    Having seen Kathleen Jamie’s dignified words at the Bannockburn memorial, I know there is the talent and judgement to make suitable changes

    Flower of Scotland, a great lament though it is, would not make any sense after independence (we are a nation again) – and besides it is not a pipe tune, and hearing it played by a pipe band is embarrassing to me as a musician, waiting for that third last note ( a la Les Dawson)

  28. Iain says:

    The Clutha did a tremendous version of this, with 2 fiddles, small pipes and Ronnie Alexander on vocals.

  29. HAIVERS says:

    Great post. I’ve tried to develop the theme at my own blog:

  30. John Caskie says:

    I love this song and think it would make a great National Anthem. It actually sounds good when sung by a crowd. One small point. It is anti colonialism, anti racism and anti war. I would like to think that these points don’t make it left wing – just bloody common sense! So no need for anyone to be uncomfortable singing it.

  31. Alex R says:

    FCAY isn’t and was never intended to be a national anthem, more like an international anthem

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.