Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back - A We'de Away

Looking Back

Image: archives-pic_cropped.jpg

Friday November 2 2018

Looking Back: A' We'de Away

A Remembrance meditation, from November 1968, drawing on the tragedy of Flodden and The Flowers of the Forest.


A Remembrance-Tide Meditation

COLD and grey the November day had been, with a snell bite to the wind that skirled round us as we stood about the Celtic Cross that is our local War Memorial. As I took my homeward way across the hill from our Remembrance Day Service I thought of these bairns in uniform who had laid wreaths and wondered what it could all mean to them; I heard again the minister’s voice reciting the ageless words of John the Divine, They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more… In fact I thought of many things, but through it all there echoed, sobbing and crying in my ears, the sound of the piper’s lament –

I’ve seen the forest adorned the foremost
Wi’ flowers o’ the fairest, baith pleasant and gay,
Sae bonnie was their blooming,
Their scent the air perfuming
But now they are withered and a we’de away.

To me it has ever seemed that all the bitter anguish of a world in travail is caught up into the notes of that dirge that must be the greatest lament of them all. It is as though all the pain that man has ever suffered, all the grief that has ever torn the heart of woman, had suddenly wiped away its tears and ceased its sobbing for it had found a verse in which to express itself and an air to which to sing it. The formless has taken a shape, mute silence has found a voice.

It’s a tune that comes moaning and sighing to us from Flodden Field, that saddest spot in all the story of Scotland’s past. And here was I returning from a memorial of a war of twenty odd years ago, thinking again of events that are four and a half centuries old.

It was on the ninth of September, 1513, that James IV of Scotland was entrenched on a hill called Flodden above the point where the sluggish River Till flows into the Tweed. A gallant array it was that was gathered with him there. Less than a month ago they had mustered at the Boroughmuir of Edinburgh in answer to the call of a sovereign they loved – 50,000 of them – and marching south had crossed the Border taking all the English strongholds on their victorious way.

And now they were strongly entrenched on Flodden Hill with their enemy, under the Earl of Surrey, in an exposed position in the Millfield Plain below them. Unwilling to attack his adversary in a position of such strength Surrey decided to outflank them to the west, though this involved crossing a narrow bridge and fording a river. For some reason that has never been explained – it may well have arisen from his innate chivalry – King James waited until these difficult operations had been completed before giving the order to advance.

The Scots attacked in four parallel columns but such terrible carnage did the left flank suffer from the English archery that not even a partial success on the right could steady the army. Within a couple of hours all that survived of the Scots was the centre column consisting of the sovereign and the cream of his nobility, the weight of whose armour had protected them from the deadly effects of the English archery. The King was dead, as was his adversary the Earl of Surrey, but still the battle raged. It was only under cover of darkness that the surviving fragments of the Scots army drew off in silent despair, leaving on the stricken field their King, two bishops, two mitred abbots, twelve earls, thirteen lords, five eldest sons of peers, gentlemen beyond all counting, and what is believed to have been 10,000 of what are now commonly known as “other ranks.”

Never in all her history had Scotland known so shattering a defeat, so terrible a disaster. Little comfort could she take from the thought that the English were too crippled to be able to follow up their victory. In every village in the land, alike from the wall of the castle and from the door of the hovel, women looked for sons and husbands and lovers who would return no more. In every heart there was sadness, in every eye there were tears, sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning, for the flowers o’ the forest were a’ we’de away.

In later years the Field of Flanders was to give us the poppy. It was the Field of Flodden that gave us the flowers o’ the forest.


"Thank God! O, thank God!": December 1918 editorial

Previous: The Church and the Highway

Looking Back menu