A few weeks earlier we had heard school children singing it enthusiastically but as we walked around Carlisle Castle we discovered that the song was the result of a desperately sad story.
Perhaps you’ve heard the song:
O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be in Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks O’ Loch Lomond.
I have heard it sung many times and I have not yet heard it sung as a lament. It is always happy, always hopeful, always enthusiastic.
Astonishingly though, according to a display in Carlisle Castle, the words were written by a captured soldier who had been sentenced to death.
The unnamed soldier had joined Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 uprising and had been involved in many victories as their army made it all the way from the Highlands of Scotland to Derby. Things went wrong though and the Jacobite army ended up retreating to Scotland and the writer of the song was captured and imprisoned at Carlisle Castle.
The prisoners were kept in horrendous, dark and cramped conditions and there was so little water that they licked the moisture off the walls.
This soldier had fought for something that he believed in but it had all gone wrong. As he lived out his last days in darkness he wrote these words for his true love who he would never meet again.
The most likely interpretation of the high and low roads is that he believed that he would travel back to Scotland on the ‘low’ or ‘spirit’ road following his death.
The story behind this song is so moving, meaningful and powerful but for me and perhaps many others we have only ever heard it as a happy song.
I think this is an example of a prevalent attitude in our culture. We don’t want to focus on negativity or sadness, everything needs a positive spin on it, every story needs a happy ending.
Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (Matthew 5.4)
God is willing to meet with us in our pain but in order for him to do so, we actually need to embrace our pain rather than trying to gloss over or to hide from it.
There is no blessing on pain and sorrow but there is a deep and powerful blessing in the presence and comfort of God in times when we feel lost, helpless and broken.
Life today will inevitably involves pain and I hope that we can learn what it is to embrace and to accept it and to open ourselves up to the comfort of God who loves us more than we know.