Music, emotion and memory: unveiling memorials to the fallen of the First World War in Scotland by James J. Smyth

It is remarkable just how many of our social events and ceremonies – from children’s parties to funerals – include music, either pre-recorded or played live.  So ubiquitous is this practice that very often we, as historians, either ignore it or just refer to it in the passing; ‘this was followed by some music’, ‘a few tunes were then played.’  Yet this ‘failure’ to recognise the role played by music exists alongside a general understanding of music as a ‘universal language’ and a language that is perhaps unique in its ability to affect and stimulate emotion.  There is, I would argue, a historical blind spot in how we appreciate the role played by music. Somehow it does not lend itself to in-depth or sustained analysis in the way that physical objects or written texts do.  For me this became clear when I began to research the memorialisation of World War One in Scotland.

While I say it became clear, it only did so after a lot of frustration and reflection.  Continuing the work I was doing with colleagues at Stirling – Michael Penman and Sarah Bromage – in particular an exhibition (‘A Stirling Hundred’) of the War memorials of the Stirling District and of those listed on the monuments, I decided to look at the unveiling ceremonies of World War One memorials.  I was interested particularly in the speeches delivered on those occasions and even had a title for the intended article:  ‘The Rhetoric of Remembrance’.  I remain keen on it so please don’t nick it from me.  And yet, the more I looked at those events the more frustrated I became.

Not all the speeches were the same.  There were the (very) occasional challenges to the established narrative of loss and the need for ‘unity’ among the nation, but the more unveilings I looked at the more similar they appeared.  That, in itself, could be the subject of a study, but increasingly I felt there was something else that needed exploration and analysis. Most memorials in Scotland were constructed in the early to mid-1920s, when the emotional connection to the War remained immediate and raw.  As such the unveiling ceremonies were bound to be emotionally charged.  But what most represented or articulated that emotion?  What element of the ceremony made the connection between the audience (the public) and the memorial?  The answer, I believe, was the music.

The Power of the Pipes

The original ceremony at the Cenotaph in London was conducted without speeches, as was that of the Scottish National War Memorial (SNWM) in Edinburgh Castle, and it has always been so.  At both there are definite playlists but no speeches are given.  Apart from prayers, the only words spoken at the Castle in 1927 were those by the Prince of Wales, who simply ‘declared the Memorial open to the glory of God and in memory of the Scots who had fallen.’ [1] Similarly at Aberdeen in 1925 there were hymns and prayers but no speeches.

Going back and re-examining the newspaper accounts of the various unveilings it became apparent to me that the emotional high points of every event were achieved through music.  Recently a strong case has been made for the universal appeal of the Last Post with particular reference to its role at World War One commemorations, and that tune was played at nearly all the ceremonies I looked at.[2]  Within Scotland, however, the music that resonated most and provoked tears among those assembled was a lament played on the bagpipes; more often than not The Flowers of the Forest.  At Aberdeen the Last Post was played and, as its final notes echoed over the granite city, the massed pipe bands began The Flowers of the Forest; at ‘this the most heart-gripping moment of the service, women were seen to break down completely as the touching pipe music rose upon the air.’ [3] At Glasgow in 1924 even the anti-war socialist Helen Gault had her scepticism challenged when the pipers played The Flowers of the Forest; ‘The mournful wail of the pipes seemed to renew an ancient grief.’ [4]

The bagpipes can be seen as particularly well suited to public events as they are martial instruments and exceptionally powerful, but yet can also ‘convey both anguish and tenderness’.[5] The bagpipes are not, of course, to everyone’s taste. That, however, might just be the point.

Context and familiarity

It is widely recognised that music has always ‘served to foster social cohesion through the evocation of empathetic sharing in religious and secular ceremonies.’[6] But not any piece of music in any situation.  Those responding to the music must be familiar with it (though not necessarily the exact piece) and the context is critical. The Flowers of the Forest refers to the massacre suffered by the Scots at the battle of Flodden in 1513 and the melody has been known for centuries.  Pipers will not play it as a request; it is reserved for funerals and commemorations. In Scotland in the early twentieth century the popularity of pipe and drum bands (despite elite hostility) alongside army and navy bands made such music familiar to all.  And the choice of music at unveiling ceremonies was not left to chance.  The papers of the Duke of Atholl, the man behind the creation of the SNWM, show not just his attention to the detail of the day but also his understanding of the emotional impact particular pieces of music would have.  Atholl regarded unveilings as ‘essentially a soldier’s show’ and it is noteworthy that many memorial committees were happy to leave the choice of music to whichever regiment would be playing at the unveiling.

And yet the choice of music was rarely if ever triumphant; a lament expresses sadness and loss.  As John (later Lord) Boyd Orr put it when, during the Somme, he returned from the carnage at the front and heard a lone piper play The Flowers of the Forest, ‘I have never in my life felt so unutterably sad.’[7]  While The Flowers of the Forest was, and continues to be played at the Cenotaph, the cathartic moment of ceremonies retained a distinctiveness dependent upon place; in 1928 the National War Memorial of Wales was unveiled to the mass singing of Land of our Fathers.

The power of music is undeniable, and yet we find it difficult to incorporate it into our narratives and analysis.  Of all the many, excellent studies of memorials and memorialisation there are few which give anything more than a passing reference to the music played. Most monographs on the subject do not include music in their indexes.  Musicology can help us understand better how music stimulates our emotions but it is limited in how far it can explain the collective response at such ceremonies; they were unique events which cannot be replicated in a laboratory.  They can, however, be studied in their immediate context and part of that context was the music played and the response it provoked.  Music may appear to be ephemeral but it is much more.  While it was possible to have an unveiling without speeches it was not possible to have one without music.

J.J. Smyth is a social historian of modern Scotland at the University of Stirling, whose published work includes studies of labour politics, households and employment, women in work and politics, business, housing, crime and punishment, literature in history and the memorialisation of WW1. His article music, remembrance and memorials is available to read online in Social History 43,4.


[1] The Times, 15 July 1927.

[2] A.W. Turner, The Last Post: music, remembrance and the Great War (London, 2014).

[3] Aberdeen Press and Journal 30 September 1925.

[4] Forward 7 June 1924.

[5] J. Purser, Scotland’s Music (Edinburgh, 2007).

[6] L. B. Meyer, ‘Music and emotion: distinctions and uncertainties’, in Patrick N. Juslin & John A. Sloboda (eds), Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (Oxford, 2001)

[7] Lord Boyd Orr, As I Recall (London, 1966).