Raising the flag against suffering

Saltire or St Andrew's Cross

The Scottish Saltire - a symbol of triumph over unbearable, unrelievable suffering?

Ancient legend places the history of the Scottish Flag – and the Scottish ‘National Anthem’ – as a symbol of triumph over insuperable odds, of hope for the future. The Flower of Scotland anthem commemorates self-determination in days that are, “in the past and must remain,” but still inspires us, for instance, before a rugby match or any occasion of national pride and determination. Now a new investigation shows a distant link with ‘self-determination’ in the sense of ending one’s life in the face of unbearable suffering.

Alan Campbell, in this weeks Scottish Herlad newspaper, uncovers the troubled past of the songwriter’s family. When Roy Williamson of the Corries wrote Flower of Scotland in 1967, the public knew little of his family’s troubled past, the personal crosses they bore, or the reasons behind the suicide of Roy’s father. Yet even a successful family can face the same life and death dilemmas that we all face in one way or another. Roy’s father, Archibald, was a prominent advocate and tipped for great things in the legal profession. Yet he kept his troubles to himself and, still only 45 years of age, took his own life in the way suicides usually happened in those days – apparently putting his head in a coal gas oven.

The year was 1944. Scotland has come a long way since then. Openness and treatments for depression, palliative care and maybe a happier society. In 1944, World War II raged in Europe and the horrors of the concentration camps had also put self-deliverance at the fore. Lord Kagan escaped a concentration camp in Lithuania during World War II and would later recall, when speaking to parliament in favour changing the laws on assisted suicide:

“I witnessed the fears. The greatest fear was not of being killed, it was not of being dead, but the manner of one’s death, the timing of one’s death, the power of decision leading to one’s death and not having the ability to prepare for one’s death. It was not dying, it was not death, but that. There was the fear of torture without escape, without limit as to its extent and without a limit on its time.

“The most fervent prayer in the camp was to acquire the means to end one’s life, to achieve the death of one’s own choosing at the time of one’s own choosing and in the manner of one ‘s own choosing. This became the ultimate liberation and the greatest prize. To achieve this in the camp one was prepared for any sacrifice and to submit to any deprivation. Having it proved to be a great comfort. It did not encourage one to use it . . . Having the means of the decision to end one’s own life in one’s own way did not encourage people to use it. It gave one strength to carry on fighting because one felt one had the means, ultimately, not to buy or extend survival at any price. It prevented the collapse of courage.”

Before Kagan could speak to Parliament, Scotland produced a first: In 1980, Dr George Mair, a retired surgeon, horrified at the pain and suffering he had witnessed, produced the world’s first self-deliverance manual. Entitled How to Die with Dignity it was an immediate success.

Mair raised the Scottish flag in the face of English indifference (as supporters down south dithered over whether to publish or not). North Sea Oil (which also made coal gas ovens a thing of the past) invigorated the debate over Scottish Independence. The 90′s saw the Scottish publication of an updated manual Departing Drugs, as calls for legislation allowing assisted suicide grew louder.

Today, there is still no assisted suicide legislation. But Scots remain fiercely and quietly determined. The devolved Scottish Parliament sees Margo Macdonald preparing a bill. Exit has been invited to submit further evidence to the parliamentary committee considering the proposals. Beaten down but never beaten, Scots lead the way against inhumane laws that force competent adults to suffer. In the face of unbearable and unrelievable indignities, the stoicism that forms such an integral part of Scottish history, raises the flag and sings for freedom. Not against some age-old territorial enemy: but against the enemy of hubris. The dogma that says you have no right to control your own life. That it is not your decision to make.

  • 1967 Flower of Scotland, long recognised as the ‘unofficial’ anthem of Scotland, is first sung.
  • 1980 Scotland produces the first manual in the world on how to end one’s life.
  • 1993 Scotland produces the updated manual, Departing Drugs, that will be translated worldwide.
  • 1999 The first Scottish Parliament under Devolution.
  • 2007 Scotland again produces a leading self-deliverance manual, Five Last Acts.
  • 2010 Margo Macdonald MSP, develops a bill for assisted dying with wide consultation.

Flower of Scotland is a song of hope and courage. Courage in the face of adversity. Use it as a tribute to all those who have fought and died in suffering, kept alive with tubes and ventilators. As a song of hope that we can find the strength to change an unjust law, to hold our heads high and be able to determine the timing of our own departure from this world. As a song of courage in the face of unknown adversity and an unknown future near the end of life. And the determination to make things better.

Resources
True story of man behind The Corries (The Herald uncovers the history of Flower of Scotland)
Flower of Scotland (sung before the Rugby in 1990)
Flower of Scotland (sung by the Corries, with lyrics to sing along to)
Flower of Scotland (on Wikipedia)
The story behind that song (for history lovers!)
Some history of the flag of Scotland (on Wikipedia)
An old Exit History Page (George Mair, and events in history)
Margo Macdonald (this blog)
Exit’s written evidence to parliamentary committee (Macdonald’s Bill)
Submissions by other groups and individuals (Macdonald’s Bill)

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