The Ten Greatest Scottish Moments in Rock History

As in most things, Scotland has punched well above its weight in the world of rock music, but because rock is an "international language" with a mid-Atlantic twang, much of the Scottishness of Scottish rock gets lost in the mix. But once in a while, now and then, an unmistakable glint of Scottish grit breaks out and reminds people of the provenance of the talent on display. In honour of these electrifying, Scotchifying moments, here is my list of the top ten greatest Scottish moments in rock history in reverse order:

10. Van Morrison discovers "Caledonia Soul Music."

Van Morrison is of course from Northern Ireland, but he is self-consciously Ulster Scots and rightfully proud of it, so he counts as one of us. As a singer inspired by American Blues and a great mimic of the Black soul voice, his music naturally raised certain identitarian questions. Van "the Man" dealt with this by developing his idea of "Caledonia Soul Music," the belief, based on sound fact, that a lot of the influences on which American Blues and rock were built came originally from Scotland. In particular, Morrison believed that the Scottish Border Ballads played a very prominent part in the birth of the Blues, as the White ethnicity that Blacks most came in contact with in their early days in America were Scots or Scots Irish, the economically displaced Scottish settlers of Northern Ireland, many of whom emigrated to America.

9. Rod Stewart's World Cup song leads Scotland to footballing disaster

Thanks to his work with the Faces as well as an active solo career, Rod Stewart was one of the biggest international stars of the 70s. But, born in London – to a Scottish father – and singing American blues rock, he had a transatlantic public identity rather than a Scottish one, except when it came to football, where he was a fanatical Scot. This came to the fore when a particularly strong Scottish team qualified for the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, while England stayed at home. Stewart was called in to record a quick cash-in World Cup record. The A-side was a collaboration between Rod and the Scottish team on the old standard Que Sera Sera, but it was the B-side, done in a jokey samba style and called Ole, Ola that best epitomises this unique musical and sporting moment. With lyrics like "Ole Ola we’re going bring that World Cup back from over there," it expresses the optimism surrounding the Scottish team, optimism alas that soon turned into complacency and a party vibe that undermined the teams' discipline, resulting in an early exit for the Scotland team after disappointing results against Peru and Iran.

8. Jack Bruce lights Ginger Baker's fuse

You wouldn't think there was anything ostensibly Scottish about 60s jazz-rockers Cream, but one of the three members Jack Bruce, the bass player, was a Lanarkshire lad and had all the drive and aggression that you would associate with a great Scottish musician. Plus he also wrote most of the trio's songs. But what earns this a place on the list of top ten greatest Scottish moments is the perpetual strife between Bruce and London-born drummer Ginger Baker, especially the way that "the Bruce" would wind up Baker just for the hell of it, even though Baker was a borderline nutcase. Bruce’s attitude was replete with Scottish gallusness of the sort that says, "If this c*nt’s going to make trouble I may as well be the one pushing him." Before the band imploded, the tension created by this microcosm of the 700 Year's War with the Auld Enemy created a lot of the chemistry and energy that made Cream into legends.

7. Fish out of Marillion channels the deindustrialization of Scotland

The 80s were a bitter time in Scottish history as the nation's industrial identity was being stripped away by massive deindustrialization and the political disenfranchisement imposed on the country by England's infatuation with Margaret Thatcher. But the 80s were also the heyday of Marillion, perhaps the greatest prog rock band ever, dominated by the massive presence, stage charisma, and poetic genius of Dalkeith-born Derek Dick, a.k.a Fish. As part of a brilliant ensemble of musicians from different parts of the British Isles, Fish's overt Scottishness was left on the back burner, but on the song Slàinte Mhath (Gaelic for "cheers!") from the Clutching at Straws album, Fish let fly some of his most impassioned Scottish lines, referring to the way that a capitalist and imperialist Britain had wasted the lives of Scottish men in war and industry over the years: "From the dream on the barbed wire at Flanders and Bilston Glen/ From a Clydeside that rusts from the tears of its broken men/ From the realisation that all we've been left behind/ Is to stand like our fathers before us in the firing line." Stirring stuff...somewhat undercut by the baldness-hiding sweat-band and children's TV presenter's suit - but that's why we love the Big Man.

6. Simple Minds condense the essence of Scotland into a stadium anthem

In a geographical sense Scotland is defined by its position at the far end of Europe under the squalling, rain-sodden Westerlies of the Atlantic. It is also a gritty industrial and now post-industrial country. How to fit all this into one song? The answer was provided by Simple Minds in 1984 on their Sparkle In the Rain album with Waterfront, which sometimes fools you into thinking it's the greatest song of all time. The thumping clattering beat evokes the heavy thud of Scotland's once vibrant industrial heartland, while Charlie Burchill's howling guitar calls to mind the harsh climate with its "banshee winds," as Jim Kerr's messianically-sung lyrics bring in the theme of rain, yearning, and grimy dockland politics. Under its modernist sheen this is as Scottish a song as anything sung by Sir Harry Lauder with his kilt and knobbly stick, and you could also make Irn Bru out of the same girders used to build this song and the stadium it is played in.

5. The Proclaimers don’t even try NOT to be Scottish (or geeks)

The most refereshing thing about the Proclaimer's surprise 1987 hit Letter From America was the fact that they refused to make the slightest effort not to be Scottish. Usually any Scottish musician with ambition to appeal beyond the "White heather circuit" will do what they can to tone down their images, and internationalize their appeal by being a wee bit what they're not. But not these two brave lads from Leith, despite looking like a couple of anoraks. With so much talent behind that look, the Reid brothers obviously had the confidence to be themselves, and the gamble paid off as the world - and Shrek - took them to their collective hearts.

4. AWB make way better funk than James Brown

Some might have their doubts about Van Morrison's theory that the Black music underpinning rock n' roll is ultimately underpinned by older White music. They might also think that White rock is just a 'whitiefied,' inauthentic version of "authentic" Black music. If so, then the Average White Band is their worst nightmare as these White boys from Scotland took to the blatantly Black music of funk as if it was an ancestral memory encoded in their Scottish DNA.

3. Alex Harvey mistakes the stage for a Glasgow pub on fight night

It's easy to see why Alex Harvey was such a big influence on fellow Scots AC/DC (three of whose founding members were born in Scotland). Alongside the tight riffing, what most appealed was the sheer manic genius of front man Alex Harvey's edgy stage persona. Roughly one-third pissed-up charmer and two-thirds hollering hard man, this was the kind of frontman that only Scotland could have produced - or would have wanted to. Midnight Moses gave Harvey the perfect platform to yell at his audience as if he was going to glass it the next moment. Meanwhile somebody in clown make-up leers from the sidelines at the absurdity of it all – in other words a typical Saturday night out in Glasgow.

2. Big Country's bagpipe guitars wail against MTV’s visual vacuity

Thanks to the launch of MTV in 1981, the early 80s was the era of the New Romantics and gender-benders like Boy George, who looked "interesting" in pop videos. As an aural medium became a decadent visual one, Scottish Puritanism kicked back in, and Big Country, spearheaded by the great Stuart Adamson was launched. With an unfashionable check-shirted anti-image that predated Grunge's own embrace of the somber plaid several years later, BC shoved up two fingers to MTV's camera, and launched a one-band musical revolution that placed the emphasis firmly back on the music. With the use of the dreaded e-bow, Adamson and fellow guitarist Bruce Watson created a rich droning guitar sound that could be potent and poignant by turns, and which perfectly evoked Scotland in rather too many ways for the average music fan to handle.

1. AC/DC bust out the bagpipes on It's a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock n' Roll

There's nothing quite like the prodigal's return, and some of Scotland's greatest prodigals are Bon Scott and the Young brothers of AC/DC fame, all born in Scotland and then taken out to the Land of Oz by immigrating parents. OK, these Jocks speak with Aussie accents, but there's no denying their Scottishness and they have always been proud of their tartan origins as they showed on one of their greatest songs
It's a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock n’ Roll, recorded in 1974 and included on the TNT album the next year. The theme of making life hard for yourself by pursuing a chosen path regardless of the consequences is one that has inherent appeal for the "thrawn" Scottish nature. But this could be just another American Redneck-sounding "rawk" song, until that glorious moment halfway through when Bon Scott picks up his bagpipes and blows off a solo that sounds so at home amid the riffing. Whatever else rock may be, it is clearly also something essentially and fundamentally Scottish. 

Colin Liddell
Revenge of Riff Raff
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  1. And what about Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull?

  2. Too many Scots in major bands to list them in a top ten I suppose. Geordie Mark Knopfler from Earl St in Scotstoun Glasgow, Jimmy Barnes, John Paul Young, Jimmy Barnes, all Scots in Oz. Colin Hay (Men At Work) from Kilwinning etc etc etc

  3. Gotta include Mike Scott & The Waterboys...that's a given.

  4. Jimmy Barnes, Ian Anderson, and Mike Scott were all in the running when I compiled the list, but the criteria was an example of overt identity shining through - and only ten places! Anderson's music harks back more to an English folk tradition as Scott's does to an Irish one, great Scottish musicians though they are.

  5. Nazareth ! ...... if only for Dan McCafferty's voice .

  6. Proclaimers from leith? Eh naw I think they are from Auchtermuchty