Flowers of the Forest – A Remembrance Day Lament

Lone Piper at the Australian War Memorial

A lone piper has been a feature of Australian memorial services since the 1920s. The Australian War Memorial holds a daily Last Post Ceremony. Each ceremony includes a lone piper descending from the Hall of Memory to play a song. The song played by a lone piper on these occasions is ‘Flowers of the Forest’, known also simply as ‘The Lament’.

‘Flowers of the Forest’ is an ancient song, one that has tumbled down to us through time. It has been sung by thousands of voices, been played on pipes, lutes, flutes, and guitars. It has been sung proudly in chorus, and quietly alone. Lyrics have been made, and changed, and made again.

The only surviving work by Scottish poet Jean (Jane) Elliot is a version of lyrics for ‘Flowers of the Forest’. In her version of the song it is a lament for the defeat of the Scottish army in the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

Dool and wae for the order sent oor lads tae the Border!
The English for ance, by guile wan the day,
The Flooers o’ the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The pride o’ oor land lie cauld in the clay.

A verse from Jean Eliot’s lyrics

In 1765 a new set of lyrics was written by Scottish poet, socialite and wit Alison Cockburn, biographers have speculated the lyrics concern a certain gentleman leaving for England.

I’ve seen the smiling
Of fortune beguiling,
I’ve tasted her pleasures
And felt her decay;
Sweet is her blessing,
And kind her caressing,
But now they are fled
And fled far away.

A verse from Alison Cockburn’s lyrics

‘Flowers of the Forest’ has enjoyed various outings in pop culture, a version was released by the folk-rock band Fairport Convention with singer Sandy Denny in 1970, Mike Oldfield, of Tubular Bells fame, recorded a version in 1996, and closer to home a faster rendition was included in the film score of New Zealand film The Piano. This is only the tip of the pop culture iceberg for ‘Flowers of the Forest’.

Ceremonial use of the song is practiced throughout the Commonwealth, it is the official lament of Canadian Forces, both British and Canadian military play the song to honour the death of a solider in Afghanistan.

A song can act as a vessel, holding and then pouring out our sorrows. ‘Flowers of the Forest’ is one such song. All through its long history it has rendered our mourning in sound. It has perfectly expressed our collective, and deeply personal, grief.

We will remember them.

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