Bannockburn Rotunda

Bannockburn Rotunda, National Trust for Scotland

The National Trust and Scottish Poetry Library invited ten Scottish poets to compose an inscription for the 1960’s built Rotunda at Bannockburn. Kathleen Jamie’s poem was chosen, and it was to my mind by far the best of a mixed bunch. 

   Here lies our land: every airt
   Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
   Belonging to none but itself.

   We are mere transients, who sing
   Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,
   Northern lights and siller tides,

   Small folk playing our part.
   ‘Come all ye’, the country says
   You win me, who take me most to heart.

Bannockburn Rotunda, National Trust for Scotland

I found the project raised the issue of inscription itself, as, whatever the merits of each piece, I think I was the only contributor to attempt to compose one. It’s a devilish task, to negotiate the weight of history, nationhood, and the regalia of power. Like Jamie, I found myself embedding found phrases and imagery; we both refer to Hamish Henderson – someone whose relationship to culture and nationalism I could trust.

Freedom Become People, Alec Finlay, 2012
(a note on the text is included below)

If it seemed necessary to me, given the brief, to compose a text within the tradition of inscription, I also found that I had to embed a question, directed toward the figure, or caricature, of Robert Bruce.

Jamie slips out of the grasp of possessive memory in her appeal to the pennants of the sky, sea and brae, which bear no worldly allegiances. I required myself to interrogate the site and the act of commemoration, attempting a poem that was a paean to liberty, while also speaking, in a different way to Kathleen, against the potentially stultifying effects of memory and politically over-determined affiliations.

Kathleen published some reflections here

The rotunda project was also a reminder of the great contribution the Scottish Poetry Library has made to civic life.

Freedom Become People: a note on the inscription

This poem inscription is derived from the text of the Declaration of Arbroath, with its vision of the wandering tribe of Scots who came ‘from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules’ to settle here. After years of conflict, poverty, and struggle, this free people declared their loyalty to a king, Robert Bruce, as long as he did not subvert their rights or betray their freedom.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Robert Burns in his paean to independent thought, ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’, and are restated in our time by Hamish Henderson, who adopted the German poet Heinrich Heine’s motto ‘freedom becomes people’, a phrase suggestive of the endless process by which liberty is renewed.

As with political systems, historical memory can inspire a people toward liberty, or cause them to embrace tyranny or xenophobia. The authors of the founding statement of Scottish independence spoke for ‘the whole community’, warning against the dangers of being subject to autocratic rule. Guided by their precepts we may allow the past to enlighten us, while at the same time remaining alert to the false consolations of the mythic hero.


  1. Alec
    I really enjoyed the class today and had my eyes opened to a different way of seeing. Your poetic inscription is both apt and the moving. I will be revisiting your blog to learn and learn.
    Danny Murphy


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