Scotland No More

I was only four years old in 1987, when the Proclaimers’ Letter From America stormed the UK charts, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’ve never known its significance. In my adult life, the Proclaimers have always been the twee, geeky pair who wrote 500 Miles, the anthemic love song used to signal the end of a drunken night at the student union. I’d always assumed that Letter From America was just another love song, perhaps written for a girlfriend who moved abroad.

So I was quite surprised when it was quoted in parliament. As it turns out, Letter From America is an extremely clever, angry song.

The key is in the “No more” refrain. The first time we hear it, it goes like this:

Lochaber no more
Sutherland no more
Lewis no more
Skye no more

Lochaber No More is the name of a pipe tune, which Allan Ramsay set words to in 1724, turning it into the lament of a conscripted Highlander:

Farewell to Lochaber, farewell to my Jean
Where heartsome wi’ her I ha’e many days been
For Lochaber no more, we’ll maybe return
We’ll maybe return to Lochaber no more.

In 1883, John Watson Nicol created a painting of the same same, reframing it as a statement about the Highland Clearances, emigration to America, and a nation’s tremendous loss.


In the peak years of emigration, 1904-1913 and 1921-1930, one fifth of Scotland’s working age population left, mostly for North America. This second wave came on top of the huge losses of the First World War. We still have the diary in my family of one family member who emigrated and eventually died, drunk, in a snow drift in Boston. The Proclaimers are acutely aware of this history:

Broke off from my work the other day
I spent the evening thinking about
All the blood that flowed away
Across the ocean to the second chance
I wonder how it got on when it reached the promised land?

It is the second refrain that shows the true genius of the song. Until that point, it could all be taken as referencing a past that is long gone, but the second refrain replaces the list of places cleared in the 19th century with places traumatically deindustrialised in the 20th:

Bathgate no more
Linwood no more
Methil no more
Irvine no more.

In tears yet? You should be.

  1. most of the boys songs are well thought out ,this is why they can bring tears and happiness to your heart in there music.

  2. Part of Scotland’s Gaelic inheritance shared with Ireland. Between 1846 and 1900 we lost 1-2 million dead from famine and a further 3 million from emigration. The Proclaimers strike a chord in Irish hearts too.

  3. Thank you for this. It is an excellent, most interesting post. I have just reposted it on my own Facebook page, ‘Songs for Scotland’. Well researched, well written and well said!

  1. July 17th, 2017

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