Flower of Scotland | Do nationalist feelings last longer than 90 minutes?

Ronnie Brown, partner with Roy Williamson in the 1960s’ folk act The Corries, leads supporters in singing the duo’s “Flower of Scotland” at Hampden Park, Glasgow, on Mar 24 before a qualifier for the 2008 European Championships. Scotland defeated Georgia, 2–1, to help build its lead in qualifying Group B, shared at this writing with France and Ukraine.

We have claimed ancestral and psychological connection in the past with the Turnbull clan of 14th-century ascendance, the border dwellers known to royals and the kirk but also to prison keepers and insurgents for fits of prideful violence so shocking that clan members came to be spurned in polite company. Turnbulls joined a diasporic spread of Scots and keep looking back to the valley-bedded sanctity for hints to who they are and what they have become.

A few years ago we sent probing e-mail messages to Turnbull affiliates and Rule Valley organizations in vicinity of the ruined 12th-century Jedburgh abbey, once peopled by canons regular of St. Augustine, inquiring if there were a Turnbull-endorsed football club in Scotland that we might support. Embarrassed electronic silence was the reply, followed by a suggestion that rugby, in the Borders, is the game of choice. The implication was, “If you lived here, you would know that” (see 27 Jul 05).

Separation makes reading last week’s political news that much harder: on May 1, a 300th-anniversary recognition of union with England, followed, two days later, by nationwide parliamentary elections that lifted Scottish nationalists, for the first time, into a plurality of seats in the Scottish Assembly at Holyrood. By the end of the week, the Scottish National Party was attempting to foster a governing coalition with the minority Greens, with a targeted 2010 referendum on Scottish independence nevertheless seeming unlikely.

Football plays its role in the Scottish self-conception, having led to the coining of the phrase “90-minute patriot” for the supporter lustily baying “Flower of Scotland” at Hampden Park while other vestiges of anti-Englishness have worn away. Students of nationalism often cite the construction of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm: “The identity of a nation of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” For Scotland, the statement may be especially true. Writes journalist Roddy Forsyth: “[S]port can claim not only to have been the most popular manifestation of Scottishness within Scotland, but actually to have been its distinct assertion of nationality.”

Nationalist ambitions, of necessity, are defined with an “other” in view. Scottish football exaggerates the nationalist drive, given that the “other,” England, exists just across the border. The two home countries have danced in seeming perpetuity since the first international friendly—a 0–0 draw between Scotland and England in Glasgow in 1872—and in 109 subsequent meetings, many of which occurred in Wembley Stadium in a biennial competition. The idea of a biennial meeting was abandoned in 1989; the two men’s teams have not played each other since a two-leg qualifier in 1999 for the 2000 European Championships.

During Euro 1996, hosted in England, Scotland backers favored the following song:

I’d love to go a wondering along the cliffs of Dover
And if I saw an Englishman I’d push the bastard over.

The tune sounded contrapuntally to the prevailing “Three Lions”–inspired boast that the tournament represented a triumphant “coming home” for association football. Ayrshire writer and radio presenter Billy Kay writes, using Scots idiom (see online dictionary), that Scots were “scunnered by their cheek,” knowing “in our hearts that it just wesnae true.” In a chapter on Scotland’s contributions to association football in The Scottish World: A Journey into the Scottish Diaspora (Mainstream, 2006), Kay elaborates on the Scottish invention and evangelizing, in the association game’s early days, of a short-passing style to replace the kick-and-rush favored by the English. The teaching of the early evangelizers, the so-called Scotch Professors, left its mark in South America, central Europe and, through Presbyterian missionary work, in southern Africa and China.

Kay, in The Scottish World, writes that, as in England, the obsession with folk forms of football, or “fitba,” developed early, such that Parliament banned the game, along with golf, in 1457.

Inevitably, though, the sobering reality dawns that despite the clever terrace wit, the bonhomie of the traveling Tartan Army (see the feel-good ESPN promotion during the 2006 World Cup finals) and its historical custodianship, Scotland in the international game has woefully underachieved. Many commentators as a reflex reaction blame the Scottish Football Association, and Kay adds the obsession with England as a contributing factor to Scottish insularity.

[T]he England v Scotland rivalry was actually a hindrance to our development as a footballing nation on the world stage. The guid conceit we had for our passing game was also part of our problem—in the early decades, we were so thirled to our mainly victorious fixtures with England, that we did not see the wider picture and the need to participate in the developing world game—a world game that we had more or less created. The philosophy that prevailed was if we could continually beat the mighty English, with a tenth of the population, then we could beat anybody.

No one, in our reading, has yet to definitively link passions for Scotland football with the political situation. Harry Ritchie, in his 1998 essay “We’re the Famous Tartan Army,” suggests that poor performances in major tournaments—Scotland has never advanced to a second round or knockout stage—contribute to poor national self-esteem and political timidity. Yet Scotland has not qualified at all for a major event since 1998, and voters in this period have approved “devolution” from the United Kingdom—that is, the creation of a Scottish Parliament (in existence since 1999)—and now potentially even bolder steps toward independence.

Researcher Joseph Bradley of the University of Stirling in 1996 supervised more than 400 interviews with Scottish supporters at European qualifiers and tournament matches in Birmingham and London. In contrast to Scotland matches of the 1960s and ’70s, when attendance was compared to “going to see [Glasgow] Rangers,” Bradley’s research team discovered that Tartan Army regulars favored nationalist affiliations over the primarily unionist sentiments epitomized by Rangers’ support. Fans at Scotland matches wave the Scotland flag and sing, in “Flower of Scotland,” of Robert the Bruce‘s defiance in meeting 14th-century incursions of King Edward II (see above):

O Flower of Scotland,
When will we see
Your like again,
That fought and died for,
Your wee bit Hill and Glen,
And stood against him,
Proud Edward’s Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tae think again.

Ritchie writes that “singing about bonnie Scotland” has proven easier than enacting change at the polls, linking lack of political independence to footballing independence. The independence in football has evolved from the long-standing institutional integrity of the Scottish FA and similar organizations that pre-date FIFA, although, as Ritchie speculates, then FIFA boss João Havelange might have preferred a unified Great Britain “given that the home nations have a weaker political status than Catalonia or Bavaria.”

A voter (SNP supporter?) strides toward the polls at Pencaitland, outside Edinburgh, on May 3. The Scottish National Party secured 47 seats, out of 129, to 46 for Labour. (Copyright © 2007 The Scotsman)

But, whether given voice by these terrace chanters or by the uptick in Scotland’s performance in the latest UEFA qualifying rounds, some commentators ventured a bold line around the May 3 elections, and voters took a collective leap. Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, the off-kilter ode to Hibernian fandom, referred in the Financial Times to the previous Labour-controlled Scottish hierachy as “a spineless Vichy administration” (“Sneers and Self-Loathing on the Scottish Campaign Trail,” May 5). Kevin Ferrie in the Herald in Glasgow critiques the devolved government for failing to “release the power of sport in … addressing the physical, mental and spiritual health of the nation,” and he challenges “80/90-minute nationalists” by asking how long “the rest of the world will let us get away with the status Scotland currently holds as a province allowed to participate in international competition?” (“Politicians Are Persistently Fearful of Sport as an Election Issue,” May 3).

It is surely only a matter of time before other governing bodies look to the Olympic example. With so many nations fighting for representation at their major events, to allow—with apologies to the many proud Irish who do not like this geographical description—the British Isles to have four or five slots seems a remarkable indulgence.

Whatever the motivation, Scotland’s voters have tweaked the modern-day equivalents of the Scotch Professors, managers Alex Ferguson (Man Utd), Walter Smith (Rangers) and Alex McLeish (Scotland). Shortly before the election, the trio joined 12 other former Scotland players and coaches in a poster campaign supporting the Labour Party, saying, “We are proud that Scotland has always stood on its own two feet, but we also believe that Scotland stands taller because we are part of the United Kingdom” (“Scots Football Stars Team Up to Support the Union,” Edinburgh Evening News, Apr 23). Raith Rovers supporter and Britain’s prime-minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown also faces the peculiar task of leading a new Labour government while those from his homeland look toward possible separation.

If an independent Scotland can even be imagined, study of native sporting cultures and the multitude of identities expressing themselves through football shows that “being Scottish” defies easy description. While we auslanders imagine a land of clan and tartan, “[f]ootball demonstrates,” writes Bradley, “that not everyone born in Scotland wants to be imagined as a Scot and even if they do, the nature of this Scottishness can vary in relation to ethnicity, geography and religion, among other influences.” Football creates easy opposition, but difference must be accommodated and not just jeered from the terrace, as if one were watching, to quote George Blake in The Shipbuilders (1935), old clans reliving “ancient hatreds in this struggle for goals.”

On crossing the border into Scotland in June 1952, a family disembarks and a young Turnbull assesses pastureland 11 miles from Jedburgh, the abbey town near the ancestral Turnbulls’ Bedrule home. (Turnbull Family Home Movie Collection, Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, University of Georgia)


Joseph M. Bradley, “Images of Scottishness and Otherness in International Football,” Social Identities 9 (2003): 7–23; Richard Giulianotti, “Enlightening the North: Aberdeen Fanzines and Local Football Identity,” in Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football, ed. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 211–37; Colin Kidd, “Brown v. Salmond,” London Review of Books, 26 Apr 07; Harry Ritchie, “We’re the Famous Tartan Army,” in Perfect Pitch: 2. Foreign Field, ed. Simon Kuper (London: Headline, 1998), 73–85.


  • Forsyth details the entanglement between politics and sport in the confluence, within 12 days, of Princess Diana‘s death on 31 Aug 1997, a Scottish World Cup qualifier versus Belarus and the vote on the referendum for a Scottish Parliament (“Time for Scottish Football to Catch Up,” Daily Telegraph, Sept 7).

    He also, on Sept 28, says that the Scottish Football Association has had no luck in “generating a productive spasm of creativity amongst Scottish composers” in its charge to replace “Flower of Scotland” (“Search Over for Alternative Scottish Anthem,” Daily Telegraph). SFA press officer Andy Mitchell tells Forsyth that polls consistently show “Flower of Scotland” as the top choice.

    Competitions aren’t much better—we get numpties phoning up to say, “Ah’ve written this song and mah pals say it’s brilliant—d’ye want tae hear it?” And you can imagine what they’re like.

    Forsyth runs through a list of alternative anthems, but none seems to fit the bill.

  • With Brown scheduled to take office as British prime minister on Jun 27, The Scotsman writes that he “will inevitably continue to face conflicts between his Scottish heritage and UK obligations and ambitions” (Mike Aitken, “New PM Can Score with Sport If He Plays Right Game,” Jun 25).

    The “Tartan Army foot soldier” who has traveled to watch Scotland in major international tournaments has had to perform this balancing act with regard to football. The Sunday Herald of Glasgow writes that Brown has been known to trim “his footballing sails to the prevailing political wind” (Alan Campbell, “Political Football,” Jun 26). For example, Brown is said to back Cowdenbeath in Fife despite his lifelong support of Raith Rovers. He has also backed England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup and said he appreciated Paul Gascoigne‘s goal to defeat Scotland in the 1996 European Championships.

    New Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond, meanwhile, a Heart of Midlothian supporter, “had hardly got accustomed to the lush carpets of Bute House,” Campbell writes, “before he was doling out the Scottish Cup final medals at Hampden.” The medals went to Celtic.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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