It was September 9, 1513. The place was, and still is, a meadowland on a low hill just south of the village of Branxton, Northumberland, UK. If one looks at satellite images of the area, you can see that the fields still look very much as they must have looked five centuries ago. To find Flodden Field, copy and paste these coordinates into Google Earth or Google Maps: 55°37’44.91″ N 2°10’14.16″ W
The place is called Flodden Field. It is peaceful today, but five hundred years ago, it was a killing field.
That day in 1513, the armies of England, commanded by Catherine of Aragon, met the Scots army, led by James IV. Although the Scots were unmatched for bravery, their leadership was not always the best. The English were outnumbered, having about 26,000 troops. King James IV of Scotland had somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 troops. What made a difference in this battle was the medieval version of an arms race. The English had a new weapon, called ‘the Bill’. It was an ugly beast. A spear handle, five to nine feet long, with a two foot long curved hook on the end that was a cross between a meat cleaver and short sword.
Ten thousand Scots died that day, although some military historians put the figure at closer to 17,000. James IV was killed, apparently hit by arrows and finished off with a Bill. Some Scottish clans lost chieftains. Our own Clan Skene lost a chief that day. The English lost about 1,500 men.
One of the commanders for the English was Sir Edward Stanley. Historians claim that Stanley himself killed James IV of Scotland.
On the Scottish side, the Halyard line of our family were loyal to the Chief of Clan Skene, whose lands were in Aberdeenshire.
The outcome of the Battle of Flodden Field meant that England maintained domination and control over Scotland for centuries to come.
Sometime between 1516 and 1525, a member of Clan Skene sat down and composed a lament for the thousands who died that awful September day. The composer’s identity is not known for certain; however, John Skene is usually given credit for composing Flowres of the Forrest. The title is on the manuscript: The Flowres of the Forrest.
It was probably composed for harp.
Like most old tunes, it may have borrowed a bit from even older tunes. However, a fragment of the original manuscript was found about a hundred years after it was written. It was in the manuscripts of John Skene of Skene. That’s why it’s believed he composed the tune.
Poet Jean Elliot wrote lyrics for the ancient tune sometime about 1757. There have been others who wrote lyrics, but the words of Jean Elliot have had staying power, and are still sung today. Her refrain is haunting, “The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede awa’ “.
The Flowers of the Forest Lyrics by Jean Elliot (1727-1805) I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking, Lasses a-lilting before dawn o’ day; But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning; “The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”. As buchts, in the morning, nae blythe lads are scorning; The lasses are lonely and dowie and wae. Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighing and sobbing, Ilk ane lifts her leglen, and hies her away. In hairst, at the shearing, nae youths now are jeering, The Bandsters are lyart, and runkled and grey. At fair or at preaching, nae wooing, nae fleeching, The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away. At e’en, in the gloaming, nae swankies are roaming, ‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play. But ilk ane sits drearie, lamenting her dearie, The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away. Dule and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border; The English, for ance, by guile wan the day: The Flowers of the Forest, that foucht aye the foremost, The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay. We’ll hae nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking, Women and bairns are dowie and wae. Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning, The Flowers of the forest are all wede away. *Glossary of Scottish idioms at end
Translated from Scots dialect, it means, “The Flowers of the Forest are all wilted away.” The flowers are those who died, and of course, “wede awa’ ” means they are dead forever.
Flowers of the Forest has come to be a tradition for military funerals in England, Canada and Australia, as well as other places. Increasingly, pipers are asked to play it for memorial services in the US. The tune is mentioned in Eric Bogle’s iconic song, No Man’s Land, also recorded as Green Fields of France. In the song, he sits by the grave of a young soldier, Willie McBride. He asks the dead soldier, rhetorically,
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the pipes lowly? Did the rifles fir o’er you as they lowered you down? Did the bugles sound The Last Post and Chorus? Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?
Pipe Major Peter Grant of The Highlanders - 4 SCOTS Pipes & Drums closing the funeral service for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh playing 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓕𝓵𝓸𝔀𝓮𝓻𝓼 𝓸𝓯 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓕𝓸𝓻𝓮𝓼𝓽.
It was piped at my son’s memorial service at the National Cemetery in 2007.
Although it is believed to have been composed as a harp tune, it is more commonly played on the bagpipes in modern times. Due to the content of the lyrics and reverence for the tune, it is one of the few tunes that many pipers only perform in public at funerals or memorial services. Pipers never play it for entertainment. It is reserved for solemn memorial ceremonies and burial of the dead.