Scots Wha Hae by Robert Burns

Scots Wha Hae (Scots, Who Have in English and Brosnachadh Bhruis in Scottish Gaelic) is a song written in 1793 in Scots and English. It was considered Scotland’s unofficial national anthem for many years. The song resembles a speech given by Robert Bruce in 1314 before the Battle of Bannockburn. Robert Burns used Hey Tuttie Taitie, a very old Scottish tune, to write it, which is said to have played in that same battle. Initially, Robert Burns called the song Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn. The song consists of six stanzas of four lines each and an AAAB rhyme scheme.

 

Historical Context

The Battle of Bannockburn took place on the 23rd  and 24th June 1314. It was part of the First War of Scottish Independence. The army of King of Scots Robert Bruce won over the army of King Edward II of England. This battle didn’t end the war, but it is still considered a milestone in Scottish history and independence.

Robert Burns, in the postscript of the poem, said that the song was inspired by Robert Bruce’s “glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient”. This can be related to the Radical movement of Scotland of that time and the trial of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, who was accused of inciting the Scottish people to oppose the government. Robert Burns didn’t want to declare his sympathy to the Radical movement openly because he was afraid to end up as Thomas Muir of Huntershill, who was sentenced to fourteen years.

There is no document that says that the tune Hey Tuttie Taitie was actually played in the Battle of Bannockburn but it is firmly believed. While writing Scots Wha Hae, Robert Burns imagined what was supposed to be “the gallant royal Scot’s address to his heroic followers on that eventful morning”. Nevertheless, a document in the French Château Royal de Blois says that Hey Tuttie Taitie was played in 1429 when Joan of Arc entered the city of Orleans. It was played by her Scottish soldiers as a march and it was called Scottish march. Since then, it has been played in the annual Joan of Arc memorial celebration in Orleans.

 

Scots Wha Hae Analysis

Stanza One

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victory!

The first stanza introduces those who fought with Sir Wallace and Robert Bruce. The lyrical voice addresses the Scottish troop directly and tells them to prepare for battle (“Welcome to your gory bed,/Or to victory!”). Notice how the third line uses the metaphor “gory bed” to refer to death. Thus, there are two possible outcomes according to the lyrical voice to this battle, either death or victory.

 

Stanza Two

Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;

See the front o’ battle lour;

See approach proud Edward’s power—

Chains and slavery!

The second stanza refers to the moment of battle. The lyrical voice says: “Now’s the day, and now’s the hour”. Moreover, he also references the scene and what these soldiers are looking at (“See the front o’ battle lour;/See approach proud Edward’s power”). The lyrical voice points out the English forces approaching and the result of a possible defeat (“Chains and slavery!”). Notice the repetition of the first line to emphasize the moment in which the lyrical voice is referring to and the repetition of “See” to gain the attention of listeners and readers and direct them to what is happening on the battlefield.

 

Stanza Three

Wha will be a traitor knave?

Wha can fill a coward’s grave!

Wha sae base as be a slave?

Let him turn and flee!

The third stanza draws attention to soldiers who might affect the outcome of the battle. The lyrical voice mentions three types of men: traitors, cowards, and slaves (“Wha will be a traitor knave?/Wha can fill a coward’s grave!/Wha sae base as be a slave?”). All three are told to “turn and flee”, meaning to leave the battle as they can’t be trusted. Notice how this stanza notes on the characteristics of a bad soldier (traitorousness, cowardice, and acceptance of slavery) and how these are unfit for the army.

 

Stanza Four

Wha for Scotland’s king and law

Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,

Freeman stand, or freeman fa’,

Let him follow me!

The fourth stanza describes the ideal soldier. A man who fights “for Scotland’s king and law” and who is willing to live and die as a freeman rather than becoming a slave (“Freeman stand, or freeman fa’”). This type of soldier is clearly different from the soldier in the previous stanza, stressing the type of man the lyrical voice looks for in battle. The stanza ends by urging this ideal soldier to join the lyrical voice into battle.

 

Stanza Five

By oppression’s woes and pains!

By your sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free!

The fifth stanza explains what the fight is about. The lyrical voice explains how this army will fight oppression (“By oppression’s woes and pains!”), free the enslaved (“By your sons in servile chains!”) and battle until the end (“We will drain our dearest veins”) to free their people from the English. Notice how the lyrical voice uses the plural “we” to talk about the army that he is part of and talking about and how he uses the metaphor “drain our dearest vanes” to talk about fighting.

 

Stanza Six

Lay the proud usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty’s in every blow!—

Let us do or die!

The sixth stanza instructs the troops. The lyrical voice explains how they have to eliminate those who usurp their land and the tyrants. Notice how Liberty is personified and appears “in every blow” as a way of portraying hope. Finally, the troops must accomplish this or they will die in battle (“Let us do or die!”).

 

About Robert Burns

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist. He was born in 1759 and died in 1796. Robert Burns is thought to be the national poet of Scotland and he wrote both in the Scots language and English. Moreover, he collected Scottish folk songs and wrote poems such as A Red, Red Rose, A Man’s a Man for A’ That, To a Louse, among others.

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