The Battle of Harlaw was fought in the north of Scotland in 1411. Part of an ongoing feudal dispute over the Earldom of Ross, it was a largely unmemorable affair which ended in a tactical stalemate. The locals did, however, note its extreme ferocity by the standards of the time, with around 1500 dead by the end of the day. They called it “Red Harlaw” and it inspired contemporary bards to write the odd ballad. Were it not for the fact that those songs have survived and are still being sung today, the skirmish might have passed out of history entirely.
Just like Harlaw, people throughout history remembered wars and battles and the impact and privations it had on their lives. Because many could not read or write, they marked their history in song. Few are as old as The Battle of Harlaw: the majority commemorate the Napoleonic Wars and the Jacobite uprisings. Others belong to lesser-known causes such as the doomed Desmond rebellions of Ireland. Yet more are grisly bits of social commentary, reminding ordinary folk of the awful fates that awaited those unlucky enough to be press-ganged into the navy or foolish enough to take the King’s shilling and enlist in the army.
Given how rich these songs are in detail, and how their arrangements were composed to appeal to popular sentiment, it seems astonishing that they’re not more widely used as the backdrop to historical wargames. After all, although modern folk singers perform these songs and own copyright on those recordings, the lyrics and tunes themselves belong to no-one. Video game music producers are free to arrange, adapt and reuse them as they wish. In an industry of relatively tight margins, it would seem an obvious place to make some savings while enormously enhancing the atmosphere and historical pedigree of a game.
Assassins vs pirates oh my! (image via Joshua Livingston)
The reason, I suspect, is that folk music has become deeply unfashionable since its most recent heyday in the early seventies. It’s seen as the preserve of peculiar, sandal-wearing beatniks, the very antithesis of the way many historical gamers like to think of themselves. Yet the majority of modern folk musicians experiment widely. Some, such as Jim Moray, even incorporate elements of electronic and hip-hop into their arrangements of ancient songs.
Recently a game did take the plunge and showcase how brilliant traditional music can be when used in the right place. But it wasn’t a wargame: it was Black Flag from the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Themed around piracy in the West Indies, the protagonist could collect sea shanties for their crew. These call and response songs were used on board ship to help sailors co-ordinate mass labour such as hauling heavy ropes. Many critics commented on how much they added to the game’s setting, and many gamers took enjoyed collecting and hearing the tunes as they played. It wasn’t history, but it proved there was an appetite for this material in gaming.
Yet almost no-one seems to have run with the baton. The only exception I know of is upcoming title Nantucket from Italian studio Picaresque. It’s a more appealing affair than Black Flag to those of a wargaming bent. Not only is it a strategy game but it’s rooted in the solid history of the US whaling industry.
“We wanted to give players the chance to live the Golden Age of American whaling,” Daniele Monaco, the game’s lead developer told me. “It’s through the adventures of Ishmael, the protagonist of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To accomplish this, we put a lot of effort into the artistic side of the game, including music. We worked with music composer Carlos Sánchez de Medina to have classical music pieces to accompany the players during their days at sea and then we worked on sea shanties to underline specific moments in the game.”
A development mock-up of Nantucket’s tactical combat
I asked him why they’d chosen to use folk songs in particular. “Shanties are probably the most iconic songs of the life at sea, so we made them part of the game but also of all the communication side related to the game,” he replied. “Our first trailer featured an instrumental version of the shanty ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’, from composer Ivan Ciavarella.”
If you listen to a sung version of Old Maui, it gives a clear idea of the power that folk music has in illustrating historical games. It’s so evocative of the horrors of six-month whaling tours in the high arctic, and the anticipation of returning home that it offers an incredible sense of time and place. Daniele explained that they’d chosen other shanties for the game, such as Bonnie Ship The Diamond based more on historical accuracy than personal taste.
The last true folk song I know of to come from the battlefield is Farewell to Sicily, composed by a soldier on the Mediterranean front of World War 2. But modern folk singers keep the spirit alive with their own compositions exploring the horrors of modern conflicts such as the Falklands and the Iraq war. We may not need songs to record our history any more. But in this age of digital images and sanitised news, perhaps we still need them to remind us of why war is best kept on the screen and the tabletop.
There is a Spotify playlist to accompany this piece, with some relevant songs arranged in chronological order of the events they portray.