Saturday, June 25, 2011

Auld sangs for Armed Forces Day

Or, something in response to the British establishment's conscience salving exercise to make their cannon fodder feel valued. We are all taught at school that violence is wrong. Violence only leads to more violence. Yet, since the justifiable defeat of the Nazis, certain nations have waged unjustifiable war on other smaller nations. The UK and USA are the chief culprits.

Scotland most of all seems to suffer from a strange complex which often takes pride in its role as supplier of young adults ready to die for others' battles. Our young men, for three centuries, have been used to bolster England's many wars abroad. History tells us that before the Act of Union, Scotland traded peacefully with its European neighbours. After the Act of Union, England's enemies became our enemies. The remnants of our indigenous and tribal clan system, imperfect as it was, became moulded into fighting regiments. They fought and died for England in most corners of the globe and they received little in return.

In Glasgow, while a handful of Scottish merchants grew rich on stolen wealth from the New World, momentous architecture was erected while many tens of thousands 'rotted as they lived' - to paraphrase Sorley Maclean. In the Highlands, villages were cleared by greedy landlords, often while the menfolk were fighting in the British Army overseas. In Edinburgh too, refugees from Irish famine and Highland clearance turned the Grassmarket area into a Celtic slum where Irish or Scots Gaelic was the lingua franca.

Even after World War I, there was no land fit for heroes and tens of thousands were forced to emigrate to the likes of Canada. One of them was the 'Crann Tara' of the Gaelic language, Murdo MacPhàrlain - Bàrd Mhealaboist - who himself emigrated only later to return and fight in WWII. One of his later poems lambasts the 'British Hitlers who have destroyed my race'. As an old man in the 1970s and 80s he was a vociferous opponent of the militarisation of the Western Isles and the stationing of a NATO base in Stornoway. A campaign which was also vocalised in the medium of Gaelic rock music by the then young and rebellious Runrig:
Nis leugh t-eachdraich, fosgail suil
Anns gach linn mu dhoigh an Airnm
Stampadh air na croitean seagail
'S beathannan og aig gillean Uibhist

Cha deid mise gu an righ

Cha deid mise an corr a shabaid
O Lunnain mheallt, a Bhreatuinn fhoilleil
Cha seas mi ach 'son sith nan eilean

Now read your history, open your eyes
To every generation and to the ways of the military
Stamping on the rye in the crofts
And the young lives of the Uist boys

But I cannot go "for the King"
I cannot fight anymore
The deceit of London, the treachery of Britain
I'll only support peace in the islands
(Runrig - Tir an Airm )
Lessons were not learned and after World War II, severe poverty still afflicted those who returned despite subsequent provisions like the NHS. In Knoydart - see previous article - seven crofters whose families had lived there for generations were forced to 'raid' the land in order to scrape a living. The laird in question was Lord Brocket - a man so friendly with Hitler that he had even attended the Führer's 50th birthday party in the company of the Duke of Buccleuch. The then Labour government came down firmly on the side of.... Lord Brocket and the rebellious crofters went to jail. The episode was recalled in Hamish Henderson's poem, 'The Men of Knoydart'.

Today, many Scots are still 'proud' of the contribution of our young people to the armed forces. Even when they are not used to defend 'Britain' but are sacrificed in more needles wars for oil - Iraq (twice), Afghanistan and now Libya. Strangely, the equally oppressed people of Syria, Bahrain, the Yemen, Chechnya and China are not deemed valuable enough to save. British morality doesn't stretch to bigger nations that would 'kick its ass' or that don't possess large quantities of oil.

A  friend from the continent has noticed our strange obsession with war. I too have to ask, why are we glorifying this? Is it just a coincidence that many of our young soldiers come from areas of high unemployment? If we are to use socialist economics to provide employment - for some - then why not have the young men and women of Alness, Moray, Lewis or Lanarkshire etc making solar panels, wind turbines, trams or planting forests? Why should our respect for fellow Scots who are prepared to give their lives for others always take the form of war memorials? Better renewable energy surely than body bags and coffins draped in the Butcher's Apron.

Scotland has a martial history but, like clan battles and witch burning, we should leave our martial heroics in the past.
Fuaim a Bhlair
The Noise Of Battle

Fuaim a' bhlair, ceol a' chogaidh
An guth 's an naire
Air cluasan eachdraidh
Sgith dh'an bhlar, sgith dh'an chogadh
An t'eallach 's an cradh
Air gualainn eachdraidh

Blàr nan Gaidheal, an Gaidheal 's an codadh
An fhuil 's am bas
Air braighean eachdraidh
Fuaim a' bhlair, ceol a' chogaidh
An guth 's an naire
Air cluasan eachdraidh

Saidhdear mi sa' Fhraing 's sa Ghearmailt
Saidhdear mi air raointean Chanada
Saidhdear mi san Spàinn san Eadailt
Saidhdear mi 'nam aghaidh fhein an Eirinn

Sa Bheurla...

The noise of battle, the music of war
The voice and the disgrace
In the ears of history
Tired of the battle, tired of the war
The burden and the pain
On the shoulders of history

The battle of the Gael, the Gael and the war
The blood and the death
On the braes of history
The noise of battle, the music of war
The voice and the disgrace
In the ears of history

I have soldiered in France and Germany
I have soldiered on the plains of Canada
I have soldiered in Spain and Italy
I have soldiered against my fellow Gael in Ireland 

Runrig's Recovery album from 1981 must stand as one of the most political and groundbreaking albums ever from a Scottish rock band. Even without the context of young men, punished at school for speaking their home and community language and coming from a deeply religious society where rock music was frowned upon but that was still rich in ancient oral culture, it was an angry but overdue protest. Public Enemy spoke for their people, Runrig spoke for Gaelic Scotland. The record mixes hard rock music with searing bagpipes, waulking type drumming, Gaelic vocables and even singalong choruses.

Most of it is unashamedly in Gaelic with no translations provided. The sleevenotes and introductions to the songs are in English though. Today, 30 years on as Edinburgh 'celebrates' Armed Forces Day while the local council seeks to deny local parents a Gaelic school by using deceit, they are more relevant than ever.

Don't download it. Buy the CD or vinyl. The cover and sleeve are the best parts of an outstanding piece of work. Lastly, a quote from 'Mightier than a Lord' by historian Iain Fraser Grigor:
Year by year in batches of thousands they were sent to follow the battle flag of the Empire. It had been a Highland defence that followed the broken wreck of Cumberland’s army after the disastrous day at Fontenoy when more British soldiers lay dead upon the field than fell at Waterloo itself. It was another Highland regiment that scaled the rock face over the St Lawrence and first formed a line in the September dawn on the level sward of Abraham. It was a Highland line that broke the power of the Maharatta hordes and gave Wellington his maiden victory at Assaye. Thirty four battalions marched from these glens ere the 18th century had run its course. They did not march back.
Anti-war, 80's style...

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