Saturday 10 March 2012

Flower of Scotland

The Scottish rugby crowd singing "Flower of Scotland" sound much better away from home. The reason is simple – they're not being accompanied by a bagpipe band.

Percy Scholes, in his wonderful Oxford Companion to Music, writes: "a very extraordinary scale in common use today requires a word, extraordinary in that it exists side by side with very different scales–the Scottish Highland Bagpipe Scale… The notes are roughly those to which we are accustomed in the white notes of the...piano, except that the C and the F are about a quarter-tone sharp. […] It is a somewhat romantic circumstance that one nation should have been able to preserve in actual use scales so different as the pentatonic, the diatonic major and minor scales, and the strange scale above mentioned. It is to be noted, however, that this last scale is in use only instrumentally, and it would be interesting to know whether any Scot but a bagpiper could, if called upon, sing it or its tunes correctly." (10th ed, p918)

I remember the Corries, who wrote this song, singing it in Edinburgh in the 1970s, to the accompaniment of a number of instruments, some of which they had invented. But not the Highland bagpipes. Again, the reason is simple – their songs used various scales that are completely beyond the great pipes. You hear the problem on the third last note of "Flower of Scotland". It's a minor 7th. The pipes can only manage something a semitone higher. Consquence – at Murrayfield the pipe band play one note, all the instincts of the crowd make them want one a semitone lower, and the result is horrible.

Relief is swift. The band plays only one verse. The crowd has taken to adding the second (actually the third), unaccompanied. They sing the right note, and natural order is restored. But at Lansdowne Road this afternoon, they were led by a brass band, the note was what the song requires, and everything was fine (if a bit um-pah-pah), though we only got one verse.

I haven't yet understood why no one has resolved this. Perhaps it's the feeling that both the song and the pipes are such symbols of Scottish identity that they must work together or, at least, that neither can be jettisoned. Am I really the only person who shudders when I hear it coming?

The Highland pipes are fine. But the Northumbrian and the Uilleann pipes are magic.


  1. Greetings

    I have no strong views about the bagpipe unlike a workmate who used to say "I hate the bagpipes and the b******* who play them"

  2. Hello from Birttany
    I once read that the Corries created this tune with the small norhumbrian pipe, who allows the famous anteultimate note in he right original mode, which is not allowed by the "big" pipe.
    It's a pity that such a beautiful tune, with this typically "celtic" mode (in fact not "celtic" but dorian or phrygian or else, I don't remember the name) could not be played properly.
    And it's a miracle that the crowd is not (or not yet) influenced by the bagpipse tune and goes on singing the right way. But for how much long further ?...
    Well, forgive my old school english and all the errors !
    Thankyou for this article.

    1. Koala – I'm absolutely amazed to get a reply to this post 7½ years after I wrote it! Thank you – I didn't know the story about the use of the Northumbrian pipes, which I love. I wonder what will happen when the Rugby World Cup starts at the end of this week!