Scots Wha Hae: Summary and Analysis

About the Poet:

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist. He is generally thought to be the national poet of Scotland because he is the most widely read among all poets who have written in the Scots language. Burns has also written in English and a light Scots dialect so that his poetry would be understood by an audience beyond Scotland. He has even written in standard English. The volume of works by Burns, which came to be known as Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, came out in 1786. Also called the Kilmarnock volume, it contained much of his best writing. In 1791, Burns was requested to write lyrics for The Melodies of Scotland, and he responded by contributing over 100 songs.

He made many contributions to George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice and to James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum. In addition to making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. While “Scots Wha Hae” has often served as an unofficial national anthem, “Auld Lang Syne” is famous as a farewell song.

“Scots Wha Hae” translates in English as “Scots who have.” It is in the form of a speech given by Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where Scotland maintained its sovereignty from the Kingdom of England. It consists of 6 stanzas. Each of these stanzas is again made up of 4 lines. Hence, the entire poem is composed of 24 lines in total.

Scots Wha Hae: Summary 

Stanza 1: Robert the Bruce reminds the Scottish people of how they have fought for independence from the British before, under Sir Wallace and under him. He is urging them to prepare for another fight. He says they must be ready either for defeat and death or, conversely, for victory.

Stanza 2: In this stanza, Robert the Bruce tells the Scottish forces that the exact moment of battle is approaching fast. He points out the English forces coming towards them, led as they are by the proud King Edward I. However, the consequence of this battle is not mere territorial occupation. If the Scottish forces lose, then they shall condemn their countrymen to become the slaves of the English, tied up with chains at their feet. Hence, defeat is not an option.

Stanza 3: In this stanza, Robert the Bruce aims to root out all soldiers who might contribute to the defeat of the Scottish forces against the English forces; he says that three kinds of soldiers may do so. The first kind is traitors, who would rather sell information about the strategy of the Scottish forces than fight for themselves and their countrymen. The second kind is cowards, who do not have the courage it takes to face the oncoming battle. The third kind is those who have no self-respect and who would passively accept slavery rather than stand up and kill the enemy. To all the three kinds of soldiers mentioned above, Robert the Bruce tells them to turn around and run away from the site of the battle, for he knows he cannot depend on them.

Stanza 4: In this stanza, Robert the Bruce explicitly defines what kind of soldier he wants behind him to go into battle with the English forces. He says that an ideal soldier would be one who would fight not just for himself but in order to uphold the name and honor of the Scottish king and Scotland’s law. An ideal soldier would be one who is willing to draw a sword and use it with a strong hand for the sake of freedom. An ideal soldier would be one for whom it is better to fight and die free than to surrender and live as a slave. All soldiers who feel they can live up to this ideal are told to follow Robert the Bruce.

Stanza 5: In this stanza, Robert the Bruce defines what the Scottish forces will fight for. He says they will fight against the oppression that the English have always perpetuated upon the Scottish, causing them both grief and pain. He says they will fight to free the men that the English forces have tied in chains as prisoners of war. In order to do away with oppression and bring in freedom, the Scottish forces will be ready to shed every drop of blood in their bodies. That is, the Scottish forces will keep fighting till their very last breath.

Stanza 6: In this stanza, Robert the Bruce issues explicit instructions to his troops. He says that they must get rid of the pride of the English, who feel that any land is theirs for the taking, and they must make the English hang their heads in shame and defeat. They must see every enemy as a tyrant and destroy each man of the English forces. In every swipe of their swords, they must realize that there is potential for liberty. All this they must accomplish, or else they will die on the battlefield.

Scots Wha Hae: Analysis 

This analysis of Robert Burns’ “Scots Wha Hae” is divided into three parts – context, rhyme scheme and rhetorical devices, and themes.

Context: The lyrics to “Scots Wha Hae” were written by Robert Burns in 1793 and set to the traditional Scottish tune “Hey Tuttie Tatie,” which, according to tradition, was played by Bruce’s army at the Battle of Bannockburn and by the Franco-Scots army at the Siege of Orleans.

The poem was included in the 1799 edition of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice, edited by George Thomson. Still, Thomson preferred the tune “Lewie Gordon” and made Burns add to the fourth line of each stanza to suit it. In the 1802 edition, the original words and tune were restored.

“Scots Wha Hae” is the official song of the Scottish National Party. It is sung at the close of their annual national conference each year.

Though it has served for centuries as an unofficial national anthem of Scotland, recently, it has been largely supplanted by Scotland the Brave and Flower of Scotland.

Scots Wha Hae: Poetic Devices

Each of the stanzas in this poem follows the same simple rhyme scheme, that is, AAAB. In addition to this, line 4 of all the stanzas rhyme with each other.

Throughout the poem, the poet uses the device of the apostrophe. This rhetorical device is used when a poet addresses their poem to an absent or silent audience. Here Robert the Bruce speaks directly to the Scottish forces, but we do not see any of the soldiers responding to him at any point in the poem.

In line 3 of the 1st stanza, the poet uses the device of metaphor. This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. Here the poet compares the death of the soldiers to a bed filled with blood, such as the one on which they will lie after they have been killed in battle. He again uses the device of metaphor in line 3 of the 5th stanza when he compares fighting with the English forces to shedding blood from every vein of one’s body.

In the 4th and 6th stanzas, the poet uses the device of personification. This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In the 4th stanza, the poet personifies Freedom, and in the 6th stanza, he personifies Liberty. He imagines them to be soldiers wielding swords and fighting alongside his troops.

Scots Wha Hae: Themes

  1. Characteristics of bad soldiers: Robert the Bruce wants his troops to consist only of the best soldiers. That is why he tries to weed out those soldiers he sees as unfit for being a part of the Scottish forces. There are three characteristics of a bad soldier, according to Robert the Bruce. These characteristics are traitorousness, cowardice, and passive acceptance of slavery. He knows that certain soldiers would choose an easy defeat over a difficult victory. That is why he asks all such soldiers to leave their ranks before the battle itself.
  2. Characteristics of a good soldier: In contrast to the image of the bad soldier, Robert the Bruce also has in mind the image of a good soldier. A good soldier, he thinks, also has three desirable characteristics. These characteristics are respect for the Scottish monarchy and civil society, love of liberty, and unwillingness to accept defeat. All soldiers who possess such qualities are encouraged to follow Robert the Bruce into battle against the English forces, for their leader is sure they will fight valiantly for what they believe in.
  3. Contemporary relevance: It is said that “Scots Wha Hae” was not just a chronicle of ancient times but a declaration of Burns’ contemporary revolutionary spirit as well. The song was sent by Burns to his publisher George Thomson with the title “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn,” but there was also a postscript saying that he had been inspired not just by Bruce’s “glorious struggle for Freedom” but also by “the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient.” This has been interpreted as a covert reference to the Radical movement, and particularly to the trial of the Glasgow lawyer Thomas Muir of Huntershill, which was part of a British government crackdown after the French Revolutionary Wars led to France declaring war on Britain in 1793. Muir was accused of sedition for allegedly inciting the Scottish people to oppose the government during the December 1792 convention of the Scottish ‘Friends of the People Society’ and was sentenced to fourteen years of transportation to the convict settlement at Botany Bay, Australia. Burns was aware that if he declared his Republican and Radical sympathies openly, he could be sentenced to the same punishment. That is why he decided to disguise his feelings under the cloak of patriotism. Do share your views about the poem!

Updated by Anjali Roongta on 25 April 2023

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Frequently Asked Questions

The traits of good and bad soldiers are some of the prominent themes in this work. Burns' own revolutionary spirit disguised as patriotism is also a part of the work.

Robert Burns wrote Scots Wha Hae.
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