Notes on 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily

(The following is an extract from an article about the work of Hamish Henderson written by Dr John Mitchell, Professor of English Literature at Humboldt University, and first published in "Chapbook" in 1966. It was reading this article that kick-started my lifelong obsession with this song.)

by Jack Mitchell

This short lyric relays the mood of the Scottish soldiers on quitting Sicily during the Second World War, their attitude to the island and its people. It is an impressionistic poem, a poem of mood, of hints, rather than clear-cut statement. In its language, images, general form, and, partly in its mood, it is very close to traditional folk sources. Like The Freedom Come Aa Ye it is set to one of the great pipe melodies, in this case, "Farewell To The Creeks". It is the great traditional, popular music that unfailingly brings Henderson to his highest pitch of poetry.

Here we are not limited to the statements of the poem itself. The images, singly and as a whole, are rich in implications, in different layers of meaning. Yet here is something obviously near to the folk-song source.

The first thing that strikes one is the surprising dialectical movement of mood in the lyric, the juxtaposition of the two apparantly opposite attitudes to Sicily. In the first four lines the feelings of human attachment and of repulsion, of "not being at home" are inextricably interwoven. It all cuts two ways. Is the piper bored and homesick? Or is he sad at parting? He is both. Is the sky over Messina uncanny and grey because it is an alien sky - or because it too seems to mourn the moment of parting? Both are involved. In the three "choruses" which follow the first verse the negative aspect detaches itself and becomes dominant. This is reversed in the second verse and choruses, where the mood of estrangement melts into the deep human attachment to Sicily and its people. In the final chorus the Scottish troops seem to play a last salute to the mountain island on the instrument which symbolises their own national pride - the bagpipes.

This may not be modern as far as its stated philosophical content is concerned, but it is modern in its closeness to the actual complex dialectical process of human emotion. Contrast it with the traditional songs of farewell, of leaving one's country forever, in which Scottish lyric poetry is so rich ("Lochaber No More", "Farewell to Fiunary" etc) and its significant advance, its modernity, is obvious. Yet these were the springboards.

Thus, in the very fact that it is in the tradition of songs of parting from a place of local habitation, it stirs old, native associations in Scots.

But the emotions thus stirred are brought into connection with a foreign land, with Sicily. The struggle of contradictory emotions and the final victory of fellowship and human wholeness has something important to say about the position of British soldiers, fighting in a capitalist army whose leadership and backers have mixed motives, yet at the same time fighting in a progressive cause - against the barbarism of Fascism and for the freedom of the people of Sicily. No soldier of the Nazi Army could have written this poem, no matter what his personal attitude might have been.

But this is not all. The scenery and society of Sicily are described in Scottish words - "unco", "shaw", "shieling", "bothy" etc. This "strange" southern land whose inhabitants are so often termed "Ities" and "wops" by the imperialist and imperialist-minded is thus "de-estranged", brought close to us. The mask of ignorance and hatred melts. The Sicilians become our intimates, our brothers and sisters. In this great war of human liberation those Scottish Soldiers who have so often "wandered far away and plundered far away" in imperialist wars of aggression appear in a new guise, win through to a new understanding, a new human relationship. A subtle and most important polemic against the "Scottish Soldier" mentality still so prevalent in Scotland.

Beyond this - through Scottish terms and the natural description - Sicily becomes Scotland, becomes the "great glen of the world". The soldiers' attitude to Sicily is the complex contradictory attitude of humanity to the alienated world of capitalism. It is a grey, eerie, inimical, unhuman place reminiscent of the "cold hillside" in Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Mercie, a place where the human feels a stranger, an alien, yet at the same time (and this is the important and finally triumphant aspect) behind the mask it is the world, the place where alone humanity's destiny is forged, where love and laughter and kinship do and will triumph over alienation. It is a song of belief in the infinite resilience of humanity, in the validity of the world, a song of acceptance of life.


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