Flowers of the Forest is an ancient Scottish folk tune commemorating the defeat of the Scottish army of James IV at the Battle of Flodden in September 1513. Although the original words are unknown, the melody was recorded c. 1615-25 in the John Skene of Halyards Manuscript as "Flowres of the Forrest", although it might have been composed earlier.
Several versions of words have been added to the tune, notably Jean Elliot's lyrics in 1756 or 1758. Others include those by Alison Cockburn below. However, many renditions are played on the Great Highland Bagpipe. Due to the content of the lyrics and the reverence for the tune, it is one of the few tunes that many pipers will perform in public only at funerals or memorial services, with play otherwise limited to private practice or to instruct other pipers.
The tune is a simple modal melody. Typical of old Scottish tunes it is entirely pentatonic, with the dramatic exception of the 3rd and 5th notes of the second line which are the flattened 7th.
Jean Elliot (b. 1727), aided in part by popular poetry selections, framed the tune in 1756 as a lament to the deaths of James IV, many of his nobles, and over 10,000 men - the titular "Flowers of the Forest" - at the Battle of Flodden Field in northern England in 1513, a significant event in the history of Scotland.
She published it anonymously and it was at the time thought to be an ancient surviving ballad. However, Burns suspected it was an imitation, and together with Ramsay and Sir Walter Scott eventually discovered its author.
The song, written in Scots, is also known as The Floo'ers o' the Forest (are a' wede away) and describes the grief of women and children at the loss of their young men. In some ways the song echoes the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin about a similar defeat in about 600.
Powerful solo bagpipe versions of the song are used at services of remembrance, funerals, and other occasions; many in the Commonwealth know the tune simply as "The Lament" which is played at Remembrance Day or Remembrance Sunday ceremonies to commemorate war dead.
The first verse of the song contrasts happier times with grief at the losses:
The song is mentioned in The Scots Musical Museum as The flowres of the Forrest, and the air (or tune) apparently survived, but several versions of the words were written down later, the most usual being by Jean Elliot published about 1755 - see links below.
In 1765 the wit and socialite Alison Cockburn published her lyrics to the Flowers of the Forest beginning "I've seen the smiling of Fortune beguiling" said to have been written before her marriage in 1731 . It concerns a financial crisis that had ruined the fortunes of a number of the Selkirk Lairds. Later biographers, however, think it probable that it was written on the departure to London of a certain John Aikman, with whom Alison appears to have had an early attachment.
The first verse runs
Both versions of the song are part of the traditional music at Selkirk Common Riding which in part commemorates the loss at Flodden. Jean Elliot's version is known in the town as "The Liltin" and is played after the Casting of the Colours ceremony. Alison Cockburn's version is played as a march by the town band but is also the version more often sung; it is the version known in Selkirk as "The Flo'ers o' the Forest".
It was played at the funeral of H.M. Queen Victoria in 1901 which explains its subsequent popularity.
In late 1942, according to the late Duchess of Windsor's Memoir, The Duke of Windsor asked that it be played at the funeral of his brother, the Duke of Kent, who was killed in a plane crash in the Highlands. Apparently it was a personal favourite of Prince George, Duke of Kent.
The song is heavily referenced in the novel Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and features in the 2015 film of the same name, including a rendition by Agyness Deyn, who plays the lead character, Chris Guthrie.
The song is quoted at the beginning and end of the historical novel The Flowers of the Forest by Elizabeth Byrd, which culminates in the Battle of Flodden.
It is the official lament of the Canadian Forces, played to honour fallen soldiers.
The English folk-rock band Fairport Convention covered the song on their 1970 album Full House.
The tune was played by a lone piper at the funeral of singer songwriter Sandy Denny.
Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar recorded a version of the song.
Scots/Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle refers to "Flowers of the Forest" in his song "No Man's Land", in which he muses over the grave of a World War I soldier, and wonders whether "Flowers of the Forest" and "Last Post" were played at the soldier's burial.
An excerpt from J. Elliot's lyrics to this song was used in John McGrath's play Border Warfare (1989).
Australian singer-songwriter Graham Dodsworth recorded a version of the song with Irish/Australian singer Claire Peters on his 1998 folk music album 'In Good King Arthur's Day'.
Michael Nyman sped up and re-edited the song as part of the score of The Piano.
English musician Mike Oldfield covered the song on his 1996 album, Voyager.
The track 'Flowers of the Town' by the English folk band The Unthanks is based on this song but it laments the loss of young men in the First World War. The lyrics of this version are almost identical to the first of "Two Songs" by Cecil Day-Lewis.
In the short story "Flowers" by Robin Jenkins, teacher Miss Laing calls the soldiers flowers - a reference to the song.
In 2007, Scottish singer Isla St Clair was invited to sing Flowers of the Forest at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Flanders, Belgium to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, in the First World War. The ceremony was attended by Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen of the Belgians, as well as other European Heads of State and Commonwealth Representatives. She also recorded the lament in 1998, for the album When the Pipers Play and again in 2011, for the Scots Guards album From Helmand To Horse Guards.
It is standard practice in the British and Canadian military to use this tune to mark the death of a soldier in Afghanistan during the official memorial service.
The Australian War Memorial uses the song during its Last Post Ceremony