5 classic Scottish songs you can't help singing along to
Freya Parr shares her favourite 5 traditional Scottish songs
Ah Scotland, the land of the brave. And, like all good Celtic nations, the land of the song. Like many folk tunes, lots of Scottish songs have made their way beyond the nation’s borders to be enjoyed the world over.
If you don’t know the lyrics, you’re guaranteed to have heard the tunes to most of these played by pipers around the world at New Year’s Eve celebrations, birthday parties or international rugby matches. Grab a glass of whisky and join us for a song.
Best Scottish songs of all time
Flower of Scotland
You can’t do a round-up of Scottish songs without including Scotland’s unofficial national anthem. ‘Flower of Scotland’ was adopted by Scots in 1974 when the nation’s rugby winger Billy Steele persuaded his teammates to sing it while they were on tour in South Africa. The 1990 Five Nations game between Scotland and England helped cement its reputation, thanks to the fact that its lyrics celebrate the Scottish victory over England at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Perfect for a little Scottish-English rivalry.
We included ‘Flower of Scotland’ in our round-up of the best rugby songs to sing during the Six Nations.
Auld Lang Syne
‘Auld Lang Syne’ is probably the most famous Scottish song of all time, its reach now extended far beyond Scottish shores. It’s become a firm part of New Year’s Eve around the world, with revellers crossing arms and singing it in unison to herald in a new year. This tradition is believed to have begun in 1929 when the house band at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel led a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in a performance that was broadcast live over the airwaves around the world. Its lyrics been tied to Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, even though he admitted that most of the text was passed to him by an old man.
This song brings to life a narrator longing to be reunited with a departed love on the ‘bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’, Scotland’s largest loch located just outside Glasgow. The text is written in colloquial Scottish, referring to ‘bonnie braes’ (beautiful banks [of the loch]) and ‘wee birdies’ (small birds). The song is believed to date back to the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, with the text created from a poem written by Scottish poet Andrew Lang in the 19th century.
Here are the lyrics to Loch Lomond?
Scotland the Brave
Scots tend to disagree about what constitutes an ‘unofficial national anthem’, but ‘Scotland the Brave’ is often up there with ‘Flower of Scotland’ as a major contender. Often played by pipe bands, ‘Scotland the Brave’ is heard at parades, football matches, and was previously used as the Scottish anthem at the Commonwealth Games – until it was replaced by ‘Flower of Scotland’ in 2010. Its stirring tune was set to lyrics written by Glasgow journalist Cliff Hanley in the 1950s, painting a picture of a glorious Scottish landscape, complete with ‘misty highlands’, ‘shining rivers’ and ‘tropic skies’. As is traditional with many nationalistic folk tunes, the final verse sees the narrator ‘longing and dreaming for the heartland again’.
The Skye Boat Song
This late 19th-century Scottish song tells the story of Prince Charles Edward Stuart – referred to in the song as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ – making the journey from Benbecula (a small island in the Outer Hebrides) to the Isle of Skye as he escapes from the 1745 Jacobite uprising. This song has brought much publicity and attention to the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, with the chorus line ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ featuring in much of the promotional language in the island’s tourism industry. It’s usually sung in a slow, lilting 6/8 time signature, representing the gentle to and fro of the boat on the water.
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Check out the lyrics to the Skye Boat Song
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.