‘Protest song’ as a genre is a vague concept, and suggests the earlier songs of Bob Dylan and other later singer-songwriters expressing their personal views on the ills of the world, and suggestions on how to cure them that are inevitably oversimplified through the artistic constrictions imposed by song formats.

Protest in song has a longer and more diverse pedigree. The Scots impulse for protest and civil disobedience when citizens are ‘black affrontit’ about some action or cause seems organically linked to a major element of Scottish traditional song. English folk song collections focus on the bucolic, Scots collections feature accounts of past clan or Border strife, battles, and admiration for individual illegality. More modern Scots folk songs further celebrate and justify individual and group illegal acts, and from a 1961 anti-nuclear ‘singing campaign’ grew a modern Scots habit of writing some songs expressly to be sung while protesting and demonstrating, and others to encapsulate and illustrate issues and advocate action on national political issues.

Most of these newer songs are not directly concerned with organised or spontaneous civil disobedience, but many of the songs protest or comment trenchantly, and are adopted by the civil challengers of the law as assertions and expressions of group identity, intent and justification. These same support uses of song are also evident there is protest and action on local political issues, on disputes with employers and landlords, and much more recently on environmental issues.

While the protest is rarely in conflict with the law itself, a few songs comment on the actions of courts and of police officers, and many more protest on how the law is used by and supports ‘authority’ and the powerful.


I begin with songs of warfare and strife. There are many Highlands song accounts of clan-based fights, assaults and castle sieges. In ‘Songs Of Gaelic Scotland’ Anne Lorne Gillies comments, ‘To the non-Gaelic-speaking historians who chronicled Scotland and her people from the fourteenth century onwards, the words “clan” and “conflict” seemed almost synonymous’. Her section on ‘Songs of clan and conflict’ includes laments or protests against losing the fight, praise for victors, about atrocities committed, or on the death of valued individuals.

Gilles says that the song ‘Groigal cridhe’ (Beloved Gregor), composed about 1570, ‘gives us an extraordinary on-the-spot insight into the barbarity of Campbell justice… The woman’s own brother and father (Campbell of Glenlyon) carried out the execution of ‘beloved Gregor’ [Gregor Roy MacGregor] in front of his wife and baby.’

Eudail mhòir de shluagh an domhain,

Dhòirt iad d’ fhui; an-dè,

’s chuir iad do cheann air ploc daraich,

tacan beag bhod chrè.

(My greatest treasure in all the world,

they spilt your blood yesterday,

and they put your head on an oak stob

A little distance from your body.)

When in 1645 a Royalist army led by a MacDonald met a Covenanting army led by a Campbell at Inverlochy, the Campbell lost the day, and the poet Iain ‘Lom’ MacDonald exaulted.

Bhur sgrios mas truagh leam ur càradh

’g èisteach an-shocair ur pàistean:

caoidh a’ bhannail bhith san àraich –

donnalach bhan Earra-Ghàdheil.

(You needn’t think I’m sorry for your plight,

listening to the distress of your children,

the mourning of the womenfolk on the battle-field –

the howling of Argyll females)

The clans of the North-East were in no wise more peaceable. The ‘Oxford Book of Ballads’ says that in 1666 John Gordon of Brackley impounded the cattle of John Farquharson of Inverey, Baemar. Inverey came to get them back.

Wi their dirks an their swords they did him surroound

And they’ve slain bonny Brackley wi monie’s the wound

Frae the heid o the Dee tae the banks o the Spey

The Gordons shall mourn him an ban Inverey

[ref E Lyle, Scottish Ballads]

In 1592 James Stewart, Earl of Moray, ‘supported the rebel Bothwell. Moray’s enemy, the Earl of Huntly was commissioned [by King James #] to bring him in for trial, but burnt his house and slew him’, [ref Oxford book of ballads] occasioning the ballad ‘The Bonny Earl of Moray’.

Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands

Oh! Where hae ye been

They hae slain the Earl of Murray

And they laid him on the green.

‘Now wae be ighlands and ye Lawlands

Oh where have you been?

They have slain the Earl of Murray

And they layd him on the green.

‘Now wae be to thee, Huntley!

And wherefore did ye sae?

I bade you bring him wi you,

But Forbadabe you him to slay.’

to thee, Hunltly!

And wherefore did ye sae?

I bade you bring him wi you

But forbade you him to slay.’

[ref E Lyle, Scottish Ballads]

The Mackintoshes sought to avenge Moray by invading Huntly’s estates, but were overtaken.

Turn, Willie Macintosh,

Turn, I bid you;

Gin ye burn Auchindown

Huntly will head you.

Head me or hang me,

That canna fley me;

I’ll burn Auchendown

Ere the life lea’ me.

[ref Oxford book of ballads]

Before this, in 1571, Sir Adam Gordon of Auchindoun was feuding with the Forbeses. The ballad ‘Edom O Gordon’ tells how he burns ‘the house of the Rhodes’. The daughter of the house is let down ‘in a pair o shiets’ and Adam Gordon catches and kills her on the point of his spear. Her father arrives, and everyone perishes.

Some ballads recall in partisan fashion larger scale pitched battles. The 1411 Battle of Harlaw was a clash between Highlands and North-East. There are varying versions of the ballad that award victory to each side – whoever writes the ballad wins the battle?

Other battles still being recalled in song in the mid 1950s include Stirling Brig, Bannockburn, Otterburn and Flodden, but the political cause and its battles most commemorated in Scots song is Jacobitism. Killiecrankie, Cromdale, Sheriffmuir, Prestonpans, Falkirk, Culloden – all these battles had near-contemporary songs made about them. The contemporary Gaelic songs in particular include protesting laments at the losses of brave young men, but the real outpouring of Jacobite songs came long after the 1745 Rising when the political issue was dead. [quote Donaldson here]

Most of the well-known Jacobite songs were made by Robert Burns, James Hogg and Lady Nairne many years after the event. The Jacobites were a romantic lost cause associated with old Tory sentiment by Hogg and Nairne, who produced rousing, poignant and sentimental ditties that became identifiers of Scots identity vis-à-vis the English, not our friends but then our foes. Ironically, as is well known, there were more Scots soldiers than English on the side that won at Culloden in 1746.


Some of Burns’s Jacobite lyrics are a more robust assertion of Scots identity. And when he appears to reach further back to 1314 for his ‘Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn’, he is using the Bannockburn story to protest at the 1793 British Government’s legal response to the radical demands for greater liberty on the then current French model.

Lay the proud Usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

LIBERTY’S in every blow!

Let us Do – or Die!

Hector MacMillan [ref] says of Burns' lyric that ‘the basic form was thought out and a first draft put together’ when in 1793 Burns and fellow Dumfries radical John Syme were on holiday touring the Galloway coast, at exactly the time arch-radical Thomas Muir was expected to land on that coast from Ireland. ‘Muir was arrested 30 miles away, and Scots Wha Hae completed in the same or following week.’

The song ‘Scots Wha Hae’ illustrates how a song may be used for differing political purposes. Professor Christopher Whatley [ref] has pointed out that though Burns was at times claimed as a ‘unionist-nationalist’ or as a ‘Briton’, slogans taken from his lyrics were used on 19th Century reformers’ banners.

‘In Glasgow in January 1877, when the waiting crowd gathering in sleet-showered George Square for the unveiling of the new Burns statue was entertained by what was described as ‘a party of vocalists’ who from a warehouse sang Burns’ songs, with the loudest cheers accorded to an anonymous woman who, at the top of her voice, sang

‘Scots Wha Hae’. Equally telling testimony to the same sentiment was the presence in 1896 in a procession in a procession in Dumfries of the centenary of Burns’ death, of an old Chartist flag, with the inscription ‘Scotland shall be free’, while another banner carried the uncompromising words, “Now’s the Time and Now’s the Hour”.’

‘Scots Wha Hae’ continues to be chosen by some social groups as a unifying artefact, urged as a candidate for a Scottish National Anthem. Other groups adduce [ch] it as a song of protest, as when it was published in the late 1950s as the final song in the Bo’ness Rebels songbook of ‘Patriot Songs’ [ref] and was the final song sung at the 1951 ceilidh of the Edinburgh People’s Festival, a Festival which was in 1953 proscribed as a ‘Communist front’ organisation.

Another of Burns’ radical lyrics, ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, is also promoted as an anthem for Scotland, and was and sung at the opening of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. Yet when it was published anonymously in a 1795 radical newspaper it was quickly reprinted in a 1796 pro-Government publication with Burns’ name attached, while he was seriously ill. The Canongate Burns [ref] says that Burns ‘must have known about this named publication which could have had him arrested at any moment from 2nd June 1796 onward and charged with sedition”.

Here is irony. Robert Burns died probably worrying that publication of this new plain speaking political song founded on an older folk song could lose him his job, or even have him transported to New South Wales. 200 years later the singing of it personified a moment in his nation’s rebirth. Other commentators suggest that only his powerful Tory supporters and fans in Government saved him from Muir’s fate of trial and deportation.

The Radical War of 1820 was largely a ‘skirmish’ on Bonnymuir near Stirling between Radical marchers and Kilsyth Yeomanry, but the Government panicked. Fifty men were tried for treason, nineteen were transported and three hanged. Several broadside ballads were composed and sold in the streets lamenting and protesting the fate of the executed Hardie, Baird and Wilson and of their transported comrades. One may speculate that as in more modern times such songs were sung in ‘seditious’ settings, but only speculate, we have no reports of these or other songs being employed in individual or organised group action.

Songs can figure in spontaneous demonstrations. In [ref - a chapter of ‘The Ballad in Scottish History ##’] Professor Christopher Whatley details songs relating to food riots in Dysart in 1720, and in Fraserburgh probably in 1813. [check this]


In the older ballads injustice and the abuse of legal power feature, and many heroic villains are lauded and lamented. In Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ are versified tales of raiding of property and livestock across the Debatable Lands on both sides of the Scotland England border. The distinctive Borders customary system of justice included ‘Hot Trod’, when persons who had lost goods and were pursuing the thieves could raise a cry ‘similar to the Indian war-whoop’ and all ‘were obliged to follow the fray, or chase, under pain of death’. [Minstrelsie, SWS p96] Jamie Telfer Of The Fair Dodhead invokes this right when the Captain of Bewcastle steals his cattle. [Minstrelsie, SWS p114]

In 1530 King James V summoned Border freebooter Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie and his followers to a parley under promise of safe conduct, then hanged him and his men. That betrayal of trust is indignantly told in Johnnie Armstrong’s Goodnight. [Minstrelsie, SWS p249]

Sometime in the 16th Century Borderer Hughie The Graeme is taken by English justice for ‘stealing o the Bishop’s mare’. There is popular protest at the unfairness of his trial in Carlisle, but the court is against him.

Then they hae grippet Hughie the Graeme

And brought him up through Carlisle town

The lads and lasses stood on the walls

Crying ‘Hughie the Graeme, thou’se ne’er gae down Then they hae chosen a jury of men

The best that were in Carlisle town

And twelve of them cried out at once

‘Hughie the Graeme, thou must gae down’

Hughie sends an accusing message from the gallows to his wife.

Twas thou bereft of my life And wi the Bishop played the whore

A ballad dealing with doubtful justice continues to be sung. On the 16th of November 1700 James MacPherson was hanged in Banff for various crimes of violence. The ballad that tells this, ‘MacPherson’s Rant’, was worked over by Burns, but the broadside version of his life and death, retold as it was passed down through the oral tradition, is still preferred by present day singers.

In the song and the traditional account that surrounds it MacPherson is captured by a trick, then convicted through false witness and by a jury packed with the supporters of his accuser the Laird of Grant. The injustice of the unhistorical end of the ballad account still stirs the hearer. It tells of a reprieve being won for MacPherson from the higher court of Aberdeen, but negated by the villainous Laird ordering the town clock of Banff to be advanced so MacPherson could be hanged before the reprieve arrived.

A more historical account by Francis Collinson [ref The trad and Natl music of Sc p210/1] tells us that the Laird of Grant was perhaps a protector of MacPherson and his men, and that the Laird of Braco was his enemy.

The reprieve was comin ower the brig o Banff

Tae set MacPherson free

But they put the clock a quarter afore

And hanged him frae the tree

[book ref]

Other older songs of support or at least admiration for group or solo acts of apparent illegality include the Scots version of the widespread ‘Gypsy Laddies’ ballad, in which gypsies come to sing at the castle door, cast a spell over the lady of the castle and carry her off. Her lord pursues, captures ands hangs the gypsies.

The songs ‘Lads of Kincardine’ and ‘The Ewie wi the Crookit Horn’ both tell of the illicit distilling of whisky and protest at the actions of law enforcers. 1950s Scottish safecracker and serial jail escaper Johnny Ramensky was celebrated in songs written by actor Roddie MacMillan, and by teacher Norman Buchan who subsequently became an MP.

Songs that directly criticise the law and its agents are rare. In the 19th Century broadside ballad ‘Erin Go Bragh’ an Argyll man is taken for a Irish Fenian by an Edinburgh policeman. The accuser denies being Irish but accepts he is a supporter, the policeman tries to arrest him with the help of Edinburgh citizenry, but the hero escapes and sails to the North. In ‘Hot Asphalt’ an Irish roadmender in Glasgow resents a policeman’s aggression and tips him into the boiler of hot tar. ‘Superintendent Barratt’ of 1951 and ‘Ye’ll No Sit Here’ of 1961 seek to name and shame particular officers. In the 1960s ‘The Copper’s Song’ policemen shift a dead body onto another beat. In 1984 Edinburgh school teacher Nancy Nicolson wrote a somber protest about the use of police horses to charge coal miners on strike, ‘Maggie’s Pit Ponies’.


That the act of poaching is a crime is challenged by Scots ballads old and new.

In an old ballad Johnnie o Breadislie goes to hunt the King’s deer, shoots arrows to kill six of the King’s Foresters, and swears he will hunt more. A 19th Century ballad celebrates The Gallant Poachers, and sighs over their capture and transportation.

Although the poor of Scotland do labour and do toil

They're robbed of every produce and virtue of the soil

Those proud imperious landlords, if you break their commands

They'll send you by the British hulks to plough Van Diemen's Land

The author once heard sung in the 1990s at a late night ceildh in Dornie a very modern song of going up the hills with gun and spyglass to take a deer, but was unable to get the text or information on the maker. Such things could be sung of in friendly company but not passed on to a wider audience.

The land owners’ crops are his property. The actions of a group of 19th Century hungry farm workers on Craigie Farm in Fife in stealing potatoes from their employer’s store, and being taken by ‘twelve big polics men’ and transported for the theft despite the protests of the farmer, are told in the song ‘Tattie Jock’. [ref – Scottish Folksinger]

Action that seeks to repossess farmable crofting land in land raids features in song.

Gaelic Land raid songs [#see A L Gilles book] / Battle of the Braes

Two songs about recent land raids in the Highlands appeared in the Rebel Ceilidh Song Book. Hamish Henderson’s 1948 ‘Ballad of the Men of Knoydart’ is a furiously vituperative attack on English landlord Lord Brocket. The other song, Morris Blythman’s ‘Ballad of Balelone’ tells in more wryly humorous style of a successful 1952 ‘land raid’. [ref RCSB]


Accounts of organised group political or social actions sometimes include mention of songs sung to support and hearten the group or individuals. John Broom [p78] tells that when in April 1916 socialist leader John Maclean was sentenced to three years penal servitude for “statements likely to prejudice recruiting, to cause mutiny, sedition and disaffection” etc, as Maclean made his way to the cells he “waved cheerily to his wife and friends. They stood up spontaneously and sang the ‘Rd Flag’ lustily.”

The act of singing itself could be an offence. The July 1920 issue of the ‘Vanguard’ journal “carried a strong article by Maclean attacking the savage sentence passed ona Sin Feiner, Joseph O’Shea at Dumbarton on 10th June. Maclean attended the trial at which O’Shea received six months imprisonment for singing an Irish freedom song in a public house in the town.” [Broom, p130]

A song written by Edinburgh born James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, featured in a 1933 spontaneous act of song-led mass trespass on Royal ground. A national march had been accommodated and victualled by towns around Scotland, but when they arrived in the nation’s capital the authorities wanted them to disperse. The marchers’ road to a mass meeting at the Edinburgh Meadows lay down the Royal Mile, leading to the gates of Holyrood Palace.

“‘Turn to the right’, says a police official. The March leaders turn a deaf ear. ‘Straight on!’ ‘Straight on!’ it is, right through the Palace grounds itself. The pompous offical is charge at the Palace almost took an apoplectic fit! His eyes literally bulged out with mingled astonishment and horror.

“In go the columns, a mile of flaming, flaunting scarlet banners, headed by the Maryhill [Flute] Band playing Connolly’s ‘Rebel Song’ as if their lungs would burst.

Come Workers sing a rebel song, a song of love and hate

Of love unto the lowly and of hatred for the great

The great who trod our fathers down, who steal our children’s bread

Whose hands of greed are stretched to rob the living and the dead

Then sing a rebel song, as we proudly march along

To end the age long tyranny that makes for human tears

Our march is nearer done with each setting of the sun

And the tyrants’ might is passing with the passing of the years

“What a sight! The proletariat, the indomitable proletariat in their ragged clothes, have stepped into the most sacred precincts in all Scotland!” Connolly’s ‘Rebelsong’ was followed by “the thunderous battle cry of the world’s workers, ‘The Internationale’.” [McShane 1933]

An example of protest song featuring strongly in spontaneous support for and encouragement of an illegal act happened after on Christmas Eve 1950 the Stone of Destiny was illegally removed from Westminster Abbey and returned to Scotland by a team of four. The authorities reacted with outrage, but the people of Scotland were delighted. Morris Blythman later wrote about the response of the Scottish people to the Lifting. ‘For the first time in generations, Scotland had asserted herself in an active way. This was a departure from the passive whining about what England was doing to us and a real blow for freedom. Above all, it was an action with which virtually every Scot could identify. It was England’s turn to do the whining – and the Scots treated it all as a marvellous joke.

‘Within days – just like the chapmen and balladeers of days gone by – Scots were writing quite independently at all levels about this great event. One song above all others has lasted from that period, ‘The Wee Magic Stane.’

O, the Dean o Westminster wis a powerful man

He held aa the strings o the state in his hand

But wi aa this great business it flustered him nane

Till some rogues ran away wi his wee magic stane

Wi a toora li oora li oora li ay

The polis went beetle’n up tae the North

They huntit the Clyde an they huntit the Forth

But the wild folk up yonder juist kiddit them aa

For they didnae believe it wis magic at all

This song, to the tune of ‘Villikins and His Dinah’, was made by John McEvoy, and gathered with several others into an anonymous pamphlet of ‘Sangs o the Stane’, to which poets Norman McCaig, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Blythman himself and others had contributed. When a fresh Scotland Yard detective arrived at Glasgow’s Central Station to take over the hunt for the Stane, Blythman and eight friends decided to welcome him with song. Bystanders stopped to listen, and probably to join in the choruses.

‘Officialdom, however, were unable to view this spectacle as a group of people having a peaceful singsong, and for reasons best known to themselves, interpreted this as a potential riot, an ugly mob of demonstrators, diverted the train and cleared the station.’ [Blythman, 1968]

The Stane was being passed from place to place and hidden by various Nationalists. Broken off bits of the Stane were given to and are still treasured by various people. A further spontaneous demonstration challenged the law when in April 1951 Morris and Marion Blythman, with Hugh MacDonald, heard that ‘The Stone had been found in Arbroath Abbey. The police were going to transport it back south. I had inside connections, and heard details. I got on to Morris, we took Stane songbooks and a large Saltire and went down to Central Station. It was an England Scotland game, so the station was mobbed, Morris was singing the songs and selling the books, and I was holding up the banner. Suddenly two policemen came and said, “Get that flag down”. I said, “If ye care to take it - try it”.

’”Shift that flag!” An alternation struck out, with the Scotland supporters on our side, and I saw a helmet going up. Morris said, ‘Let's get out of this.’ We ran out of the station, unscrewing the flagstaff as we ran, and up to the SNP office at Elmbank Street, and got the caretaker to take the flag in. ‘Just dropping this off.’ Next morning SNP officialdom was not pleased. ‘When I get hold of these bastards’.” [Hugh MacDonald, 2008, interviewed by the author]

The 1953 Bo’ness Rebel Ceilidh Songbook provides a listing of the repertoire and song topics preferred by supporters of protest and illegal acts that promoted Scottish rights and self-determination. They include battles, land raids, [what else? #]

Three songs tell of the February 1953 blowing up by ‘Sky High Joe’ of Edinburgh pillar boxes that bore the EIIR symbol, a symbol rejected in Scotland since there had never been an Elizabeth the First ruling Scotland.


Hamish Henderson’s biographer, Timothy Neat, is confident that Henderson was ‘Sky High Joe’, [book ref] but others interviewed by the author name piper Seamus MacNeill as the likely culprit. Whoever lit the fuses, the campaign was effective, and pillar boxes in Scotland thereafter bore no royal initials at all.

The title of another song, ‘Sky-High Pantomime’, suggests it too was about pillar boxes, but it tells of the four students accused of being part of the Scottish Republican Army, plotting to blow up St Andrew’s House, the base of the government’s Scottish Office. The song 'Grieves Galorum' celebrates the 1952 prison sentence given conscientious objector Michael Greive, son of Hugh MacDiarmid. In the 1940s and ‘50s several young Scots were imprisoned because they refused to fight for an English monarch.


In Spring, 1961, the US Navy nuclear supply ship Proteus ‘sailed up the Clyde with her Polaris missiles and sparked off a wave of demonstrations and songs which were to make headlines all over the world in the months ahead. In [the songs produced] we find the first real singing campaign ever undertaken in Scotland.’ Morris Blythman [ref#]

The jaunty determined 'agit-prop' and narrative protest songs were created by a loose-knit team of songmakers led by Blythman under the name The Glasgow Song Guild. In the Marxist term agit-prop, agit is agitation and prop is propaganda. The songs were created to support a campaign of peaceful mass civil disobedience, a refusal to accept the limits of the law on action, the 1961 mass marches and demonstrations at Dunoon against the siting in the Holy Loch of American nuclear submarines. These involved mass arrests of sit down protestors while they and a group of singers known as ‘The Eskimos’ sang songs ridiculing the Americans, and occasionally the Argyll Police.

The anthem of the movement was ‘Ding Dong Dollar’,

The songs were being created through a workshop approach by the Glasgow Song guild songmakers, the key members being Blythman and Jim McLean. Some of the songmakers, the Eskimos, then took the songs to the marches. The name Eskimo had arisen because the first boat to arrive, a supply ship, was escorted in by protesting canoists, and the supply ship’s captain dismissed them as “a bunch of eskimos”. The songmakers took this as a wonderful metaphor, since they believed there were Eskimos in the USA, Canada, Greenland and Russia, and none of them had ever been involved in warfare, so that to assert oneself as an Eskimo was to be peaceful, exotic and absurdly surreal all at once.

The 1961 'Glasgow Eskimos' lyric shows in trenchant and aggressive form the Eskimos' contempt for Captain Lanin and his supporters. The word ‘spear’ in the chorus employs a neat double sense, a fishing tool for the Eskimo but with a Scots meaning of ‘ask’. It also reminds us that many of the activists were in no simplistic way pacifists. Several were ex-soldiers, opposed to war in general but quite interested in discussing violent response at home. They proposed ‘in fun’ the employment of a spear for Lanin in ‘The Glasgow Eskimos’, a .220 rifle to “pick them aff the pier-o” in ‘Twa Twa Zero’, and “A second front at Holy Loch” and “Victory for the Vietcong” in ‘LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’

There was ongoing use of these 1960s songs, and creation of many new songs, by the 1980s Scottish CND Buskers, who were a fundraising and message spreading group, not as a group undertaking directly any involvement in civil disobedience, but supporting and advocating such action through their lyrics. Performances, and the cassette and booklets of the new crop of Buskers’ songs, were actively used to support the frequent direct action that closed the gates of Britain’s own submarine base at Faslane Base, the ongoing vigil at Faslane Peace Camp near the base, and demos and meetings elsewhere.

Song was used to protest directly about a High Court ruling in around 2005. An anti-Trident Peace oratorio was composed and rehearsed and given a stealth premiere, in “the High Courts in Edinburgh. We all kind of dressed up as lawyers, and managed to get into the building by stealth, and take over a hall and sing it, when the ruling on Trident came out. It had gone up to the High Court, whether our Law Lords deemed whether it was legitimate, whether there was a case in international law to fight against nuclear weapons. [ref ##, interviewed by author in 2008]

Songs protesting angrily or lamenting about war and its effects have been created by Scots songmakers down the ages. Recent songs include ‘Sergeant Where’s Mine’ by Billy Connolly, ‘Don’t’ You Go My Son’ by John Martyn, ‘Where Do You Lie My Father?’ by Karine Polwart, and are Australian-domiciled Scot Eric Bogle’s ‘Willie McBride’ and ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. These singer-songwriters make their individual protest on stage and CD rather than on a march, their songs are made from a sense of outrage or puzzlement, but mixed with urge to create.

Such songs are claimed as support for political positions and named as favourite songs right across the political spectrum, but they are sung with fervour and a sense of ownership in concerts organised to fund and support political causes by groups who use public civil disobedience as part of their protests, and are printed in samisdat songbooks alongside unequivocal calls to protest using either Gandhian or violent tactics. [e.g. – Songs for National Liberation#]

The 1961 Holy Loch songs and the 1980s SCND Buskers songs are of three types. Some of those to be used on the march are short, punchy and lively, and use deliberately repetitive sloganising. Some titles give the message. ‘We Dinna Want Polaris’, ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’, ‘Ban Polaris – Hallelujah’.

Other peace songs use choruses that ram the message home, but the verses have more detail and bite. ‘Ding Dong Dollar’, ‘Boomerang’, ‘Cheap-Jack the Millionaire’.

Songs to be sung on marches can be hastily assembled. In the [date, 199# ]]run up to the First Iraq War the author would at his Saturday morning breakfast table scribble out a song, meet at Blythswood Square members of Euridyce, the Glasgow Women’s Socialist Choir, teach them the new simple chorus, and they would lead off the march singing it.


Few songs were made to be sung at the 1980s [date?] Poll Tax protests in Scotland, but a cassette of ‘Songs Against The Poll Tax’ was recorded and issued in Edinburgh [ref]

At least one song was composed and sung as part of the Skye Bridge Toll protest, but the fundraising CD ‘Trouble Over Bridged Waters’ was of tracks donated by musician supporters.

The 1990s vigil and protests against GM crops at Munlochy on the Black Isle resulted in enough songs for a mini CD to be issued, and the [date] protests against the closing of the South Side Baths were supported by two full CDs of songs, guided by singer-songwriter Alastair Hulett.

[quote from South Side]


Strike songs are pre-eminently used for direct action, and often are more chant or roughly worked couplet than song. They use is to taunt or chastise bosses or strike-breakers, to assert solidarity and sometims to explain themselves to passersby or the reporting media. Other than in media reports the lyrics seldom survive. A rare exception was discovered by Professor Christopher Whatley in court papers relating to an 1824 strike of Glasgow cotton spinners where violence had included a strikebreaker being shot. Strike breakers were called Nobs, and the girl workers on strike gathered around the works gate where they “Shouted and s hurrada nd Sang what they called the ‘Nobs Song’”. [Scottish Labour History Society Journal ##] Whatley gives lyrics for two of the five or six Nobs Songs. One begins

We are the braw cheils that belongs to the wheel

That earns their bread by the spinning o’t

And continues in criticism of the mill owners

I think they would tak both the quick & the dead

And howk up a Corpse for the Skinning o’t

Their houses are Shinny their children are braw

Their tables are costly, their privies warst of a

But when they go on they will soon get a fa

And wha will they be the beginning o’t

The other Nob song refers to the shooting, saying “Wasn’t he a fool to come out & be Shot”. Both songs are set to old Scots tunes. A few years later, a group of Glasgow cotton spinners were sentenced to transportation after organising an 1837 spinners’ strike. Their crime was ‘being leaders of an association engaged in illegal activities (mainly picketing)’. [Roy Palmer, History in Ballad ##?, p115] Th event was remembered in a Glasgow children’song.

Wha saw the cotton spinners? Wha saw them gaun awa?

Wha saw the cotton spinners marchin doon the Broomielaw.

[ref Ford?]

Another song, from the 1926 Miners' Strike, tells of the arrest of the author’s grandfather Hugh Reynolds and other Union officials for peaceful Gandhian [sp] picketing in the village of Plean where he was Union Branch Secretary. Reynolds was sentenced to six months hard labour, and blacklisted from employment in the mines. The tune is ‘The Wearing of the Green’.

Oh the model village Plean, oh the model village Plean

They’re going to build a prison wall round the model village Plean

You go into the court, and you stand before the Dean

And the Prosecuting Council says, “It’s Reynolds frae the Plean”


Up until the 1970s Irish ‘rebel’ or ‘I.R.A’ songs were much sung in Scottish folk clubs and folk concerts, as part of a repertoire that expressed the singer’s and audience’s identification with protest against authority. In other Scottish partisan social settings these and newer songs of Irish political conflict are still lustily sung, pro I.R.A. songs like ‘The Bold Fenian Men’ and ‘The Foggy Dew’, pro-Orange songs like ‘The Sash’ and ‘Dolly’s Braes’. There are only a few songs about Scottish aspects of Irish politics – ‘The Billy Boys’ and ‘The Derry and Cumberland Boys’ are both about Glasgow gangs, and ‘The Smashing of the Van’ is about an armed attempt to free an Irish prisoner.

Such songs are banned in many pubs as ‘likely to lead to a breach of the peace’, and when sung at or in the vicinity of football matches they are sometimes used as a form of protesting and defiant civil disobedience. More often, like various other categories of Scots political song e.g. songs about sexual politics or harsh working conditions, or lampoons that attack the attitudes and actions of national and local politicians, the Irish songs are used for general group identification, support and self-justification.

Songs from outwith Scotland are much used in political protest or social settings. From the USA came ‘Hold the fort for we are coming, Union men be strong’, ‘Last night I had the strangest dream’ and ‘If I had a hammer’. The song ‘The Red Flag’ was set by the lyric writer to the old Scottish Jacobite tune initially ‘The White Cockade’.

Where permission is given or not needed to march or meet en masse there is not an element of direct disobedience of or confrontation with the law, e.g. an evening demo of song, poetry and speeches in Glasgow’s George Square to protest the Libyan bombing, weekly Friday singing protests and fortnightly singing marches from Blythswood Square. The annual May Day marches to and concerts on Glasgow Green include unequivocally fierce politically challenging songs, but not in the context of illegality. However, the same songs are used in these events as in concerts raising funds to support marches and actions that challenge the law, and sung by people as they march.


In general terms, settings where songs are used directly in protest and civil disobedience in Scotland include strikes, spontaneous demonstrations, marches, vigils and public meetings. The targets of action and criticism can be employers, landowners, various branches of government both national and local, political or religious groups, and private enterprise e.g. GM crops. The songs voice criticisms, beliefs and demands espoused by the group, in language and formats that ensure the messages contained are clear, unequivocal and fairly simplistic in language. Often well-known tunes are employed, so that the whole group can more easily be active in singing choruses and refrain lines.

Such songs are also sung in support settings – fund-raising and consciousness-raising concerts and recordings - along with others that are more narrative-based, are the commenting voice of the solo songmaker or use newly composed tunes that are less immediately accessible to the hearers. The songs may tell of and commemorate previous linked protests and actions, of individuals who were active in or victims of this cause or analogous struggles, or attack the character or actions of individuals or groups. Older songs that talk of war and strife, past injustice and heroic illegality were and are used for support of and at times justification for newer campaigns and action, and for group solidarity.

While the political protest songs of individual singer-songwriters appear openly on their commercial recordings, direct action or issue support songs are ephemeral, being made for current need, with the name of individual creator or lasting poetic quality far less important.

The makers of songs to be used in direct settings create them out of need rather than as a creative impulse, often through a sense of urgency of occasion the songs are quickly assembled, phrases from speeches or a common stock of sayings are employed as well as tunes from other sources, and though initiated by an individual the songs are typically amended and added to when they are taken up and sung. Equally typically, these songs drop quickly from sight after the event that drew them forth, and the majority may never reach the respectable status of print or recording medium. The songs which more fit the support performance settings have a better chance of longer life.


Address Mark Mulhearn’s final section points


‘The March, The story of the historic Scottish hunger march’, written by Comrade Harry McShane and published in 1933 by The National Unemployed Workers Movement


Notes on editorial queries etc


1] RE LEGAL ACTION AGAINST SUCH SONGS? No, I’ve said all I know about in the piece about this area. I would have thought there would be some censorship / punishment for publishing at times, but I’ve not encountered any evidence.

Re sectarian songs, they were said to be [and probably were] the reason why in Glasgow – under local bylaws I believe – singing was only allowed in bar lounges, but not in the public bars, but this is anecdotal info acquired while drinking and not singing in Glasgow pubs. I’m unsure of the above, and don’t know what happened elsewhere in Scotland. Nor do I have dates for changes - I seem to recall the prohibition being lifted in the 1960s.

2] BOTHY BALLADS? See Item B below as a suggested insertion in page 10.

3. GLOBALISATION? I’d said a little about this on p19/20, so I’ve expanded that. See Item G below.



On Page 8, line 3, after ‘gae down’ insert final single quote mark


ON PAGE 10, BETWEEN PARAS 1 AND 2, AFTER ‘evictions on Skye’.

The group of 19th Century rural songs composed by farm workers that deal with conditions and characters on farms in the North-East, the Mearns and Angus, are currently termed ‘Bothy Ballads’. Peter Hall says that many of them ‘express discontent on the specific subjects of food, long hours, and the early start of working hours, but more often than anything else the attitude of the farmer to his servants is the major point at issue.’ These songs are often labelled by performers as ‘political’ or ‘protest’ songs. Ian A Olson disagrees. ‘The idea that the bothy ballads are a significant form of socio-economic protest … is a fairly modern one, unsupported by contemporary evidence.” Olsen says the idea is “arrived at by a combination of simple assertion and a highly selective quotation of verses’.


Peter Hall quote – Hall, ‘Farm Life and the Farm Songs’. In Shuldham-Shaw et al, 1987, xxvi.

Ian Olsen quote – Olsen, ‘Bothy Ballads and Song’. In Beech et al, 2007, 340.


On Page 10, Groups Against The Law, start of line 3, replace letter ‘I’ with numeral ‘1’.


In the next para on Page 10, beginning ‘In the 1920s’, change ‘1920s’ to ‘1920-1927’. [Yes, this song use belongs specifically to that date, I will develop the endnote to clarify that.]


Endnote reference should be ‘McShane, 1933, page not known.’


Your query at bottom Page 11, top Page 12. Replace as follows.

‘marvellous joke. ‘ Within days’ should be ‘‘marvellous joke... Within days’


ON PAGE 19/20 IS

Many present day singer-songwriters sing songs of individual protest on stage and recording. Their songs are made from their sense of outrage or puzzlement, but mixed with the urge to create and have their own voice recognised.


The 1951 poets who made the Sangs o the Stane were not identified in that publication, but were named in subsequent Rebel Ceilidh publications. Some of them continued to make protest lyrics, but these became widely known through performance by Scots professional or semi-professional performers. In the 1960s the concept of the singer-songwriter arrived, the performer of his or her own compositions. In part drawing on the approach of the Rebel Ceilidh songmakers, in part following the example set by Bob Dylan in his early years of fame, Scots singer-songwriters created and included in their repertoires songs of individual protest or general comment. Their songs are made from their sense of outrage or puzzlement, but mixed with the urge to create and have their own voice recognised. Very few such songs are performed or recorded by anyone other than the maker, but are easily widely disseminated through self-financed digital recordings on compact disc, and featured in such Internet outlets as MySpace.

In contrast to the determined use of urban Scots or Lallans vocabulary and grammatical construction by the Rebel Ceilidh makers, the newer singer-songwriters usually employ standard Scots-inflected English, often sung with an Americanised accent, so that their work fits accessibly into the globalised genre of modern ‘protest song’. However, when semi-professional or amateur song-makers choose to write in protest about local events and issues, demotic Scots and older Scots tunes are still much employed.


See above, plus amend current endnote 38 as follows. [I checked with Billy Kay, he confirms this programme etc not in any of his books.]

From interview in BBC Radio Scotland Odyssey programme Clydebank Rent War, broadcast 6th March 1984. For a printed account of the campaign see Rent Strike! by Seán Damer, a Clydebank People’s History Pamphlet.


Broom, J. John Maclean, Loanhead, 1973.

Damer, S. Rent Strike! The Clydebank rent struggles of the 1920’s. Clydebank, 1982.

Hall, P A. ‘Farm Life and the Farm Songs’. In Shuldham-Shaw, P, Lyle, E B and Hall, P A, eds, The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, Volume 3, Aberdeen, 1987, xxi-xxxiv.

Olsen, I A. ‘Bothy Ballads and Song’. In Beech J, Hand O, MacDonald F, Mulhearn M A, and Weston J, eds, Scottish Life and Society, Oral Literature and Performance Culture, Edinburgh, 2007, 322-359.