Flowers of the Forest

I have been asked by the local boys college to play the bagpipes at their ANZAC Day memorial service and in accepting the task I mentioned I would play the Flowers of the Forest as the lament when the boys and others are laying wreaths. In my acceptance email I touched on the history of the tune. I have played it at various events over the years and there is a good chance that if a piper is present wherever you are on ANZAC Day you will hear the tune. The tune has an ancient history but it is generally accepted that it was written and set to music to commemorate the terrible slaughter of the Scots at Flodden Field in 1513 where 10,000 men, a third or more of the Scottish army, were killed. There were few prisoners.. The history of the tune has, like all things Scottish, some arguement as to it's exact origins.
According to The Scots Musical Museum there is a fragment of an old ballad in the Skene Manuscript titled The flowres of the Forrest, and an air so titled appeared in Oswald's collection and several others. However, the old ballad did not survive, and later three versions were written.
The earliest version was this one, by Mrs. Cockburn. According to the Museum, a man known to Mrs. Cockburn heard a shepherd playing a flute. Fascinated by the air, he learned it was The Flowers of the Forest. He committed the air to memory and communicated it to Mrs. Cockburn. She recognized the tune and knew some lines of the old ballad. He prevailed upon her to write new words.
Jane (Jean) Elliot (1727-1805) also wrote the poem The Flowers of the Forest A Lament for Flodden. She published it anonymously circa 1755. It was, at the time, thought to be an ancient surviving ballad. However, Burns suspected it was an imitation, and Burns, Ramsay and Sir Walter Scott eventually discovered who wrote the song.
Another version, beginning "Adieu ye streams that smoothly glide," was written by Mrs. John Hunter.
The Battle of Flodden Field took place in 1513. Because of the alliance between Scotland and France, James IV attacked England when Henry VIII invaded France. The Battle of Flodden was a disaster for the Scots, with estimates of Scottish losses numbering as high as ten thousand. Numerous nobles were killed in the battle, including King James.
I have never thought of the Jocks as diplomats. They call their main national instrument the War Pipes for God sake. While Bach and Beethoven stir the heart, bagpipes stir the soul and kilted men have struck fear in the hearts of their enemies as they attack with pipers leading the charge. For centuries there has existed a pavlovian response to the sound of the pipes as men of many nations have heard them and looked around nervously for a path of retreat. As well, their broad Scottish accent leaves little room for diplomacy - people simply don't understand what they are saying. In the late fifties my family left the farm and headed for town. Dad's WW2 service had been too demanding and he couldn't handle work anymore. We moved into a Housing Commission house at Albany WA and in due course a carpenter turned up to repair the damage left by the previous tenant. He was a Jock dour by nature and face... he was simply put, a picture of fear. Dad and he spoke at some length and as I listened I couldn't understand what the Jock was saying. When he left I asked Dad, "What did he say?" He replied, sotto voice (just in case he was still within hearing) "I don't know" We eventually worked out that he was starting up a Pipes and Drum band in Albany and I looked like a likely piper. For seven or eight years I learnt the bagpipes under this man and never really understand his accent but really didn't have to....he spoke eloquently with his fingers on the chanter. In Vietnam, whenever we lost a soldier, the Battalion piper played the Flowers of the Forest and once when he played at FSPB Anne, on the edge of the jungle, I wondered what the Viet Cong made of the sound. He made a obvious target but he was never shot at...maybe Charlie had heard of the war pipes and didn't want to mess with anyone associated with them. The 'Flowers' of the tune were the 10,000 Scots. I couldn't find a rendition of the tune by Australians so this will have to do [youtube]vW9M5wYHh2w [/youtube]

6 comments

  • The bagpipes gives a sense of occasion don’t they Kev?

    I was involved in the dawn service at the Wagga war cemetery for a few years some 12-15 years ago.

    There would be a bagpipes player further up the hill among the graves.

    I don’t know what tunes he played, but just being there at dawn, the graves, the people gathering without a word, the chill in the air and then to hear those bagpipes wafting in the air made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up!

  • Clearly you’re not a Sassenach then Cav. Yes they do stir up the hackles. They can also make you teary – I used to love playing Danny Boy to a mob of drunken Irishmen, me amongst them, and then hit them The Wearing of the Green. From the feelings of Danny Boy to ‘Lets look for a proddy to kill” effect of the second tune. I never told them I was a Proddy dog

  • Kev, I’m sure you’ve heard this one a dozen times but…

    The definition of a gentleman is someone who can play the bagpipes… but doesn’t!

    I can still remember when I was a 19 year old kid doing my reserve recruit course at Bardia Barracks. One day we got the opportunity to march round and round for an hour or two to a Scottish band. It was simply wonderful. The tenpo was a bit quicker from memory and the general sound of the band made the hair on the back of my neck stand up as Cav has rightly said. I have never forgotten it.

    Cheers, Gibbo

  • I’m Infantry so not insulted. People ask why I march up and down while practicing….to make myself a moving target

  • I’m not a piper but a singer, and have sung “Flowers of the Forest” many times as an unaccompanied piece, often as a coda to Eric Bogle’s “No Man’s Land”.

    The mark of success, with either set of pipers, is making the hair stand up on end. Such a haunting work.

  • I’m organising an ANZAC Day service for a local nursing home for the aged, I have found maost of what I require. What I have yet to find is a downloadble, decent, rendition (on the pipes of course) of the ” Flowers of the Forest”. To play whilst the tributes, wreaths etc are being laid.
    I did my basic training at Ingleburn and the passing out parade with the pipes and drums is still fresh in my mind.