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Issue 23 - Wallace, Bruce and political correctness

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005

 

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Wallace, Bruce and political correctness

Seven hundred years ago, on August 23, Sir William Wallace, the Scottish resistance leader, was sentenced to death in London. Thereafter, he was hung, drawn and quartered, and his body parts despatched for display in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth.

Wallace's principal opponent, the psychopath King Edward I of England, certainly knew how get his message across.

Yet his message, that England held sway north of the border, seriously backfired on him, and brought Scotland's other great hero, Robert the Bruce, into the independence equation. Tyrants universally should remember the lesson. Never make a martyr out of your enemy.

An awful lot of nonsense has been talked about William Wallace since the actor Mel Gibson's absurdly inaccurate, but enormously entertaining, film Braveheart. The reality is that we know remarkably little about him, apart from that which is contained in an epic poem composed by a blind man and dictated to somebody else around 180 years after Wallace's execution.

Since Blind Harry's verses contain 11,861 lines, they more than compensate for any lack of previous detail, but the story is unashamedly littered with historical inaccuracy and blatant anti-English propaganda.

What is clear, for those prepared to dig deeper, is that, living in the late 14th century, the author was using Wallace to promote his own political agenda. William Wallace, if we are able to believe such solid evidence has survived, was most certainly not the ‘common man’ of popular imagery, but the son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, a modest Ayrshire landowner.

That such a man existed cannot be denied. That he led an aggressive guerilla warfare against England and was elected Governor of Scotland in 1297 can also be confirmed. Thereafter, his reputation rests entirely upon Blind Harry's The Actis and Deidis of... Schir William Wallace, Knicht of Ellerslie, 1570.

All of the portraits and statues of Wallace – notably the statue at Dryburgh and the monument at Stirling – date from the early- 19th century, inspired by Robert Burns's alternative national anthem Scots Wha Hae, and Scotland's need to identify a national super-hero.

Under such circumstances, the 700-year-old shadow of Wallace straddles the land, whereas that of his contemporary, Robert the Bruce, suffers from his having been born of royal blood. In a dogmatically egalitarian age, the image of Wallace, a ‘man of the people’ who rose from obscurity to become Governor of Scotland, is currently considered far more politically correct than that of King Robert I, hereditary descendant of generations of Scottish monarchs.

Which is a pity, and a wrong that will hopefully be righted next year with the 700th anniversary of Bruce's inauguration as King of Scots at Scone on March 25. After all, it was he who picked up the pieces of Scotland's struggle after Wallace's death, and it was his personal tenacity which led the Scots to their great victory against the English at Bannockburn in June 1314.

What is more, it came at a bitter personal cost. His brothers, Alexander, Thomas and Nigel Bruce, were all captured and executed by the English; the survivor, Edward, was later killed in battle in Ireland. When King Robert's first wife Isabella, his daughter Marjorie, and his sister were taken prisoner, they were hung in cages from the walls of various castles.

It took guts for him to have carried on the fight the way that he did, hence the story of the spider and the maxim, ‘If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again.’ Furthermore, Bannockburn did not end the conflict, which staggered on until the Treaty of Northampton was signed in 1328. Eight years prior to peace between the two countries being confirmed, the nobles of Scotland petitioned the Pope with the Declaration of Arbroath, which asserted their loyalty to their chosen king. That declaration has resonance to this day... “It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” That Bruce could command such a passionate personal following speaks for itself, yet it has recently become fashionable not to give him his place.

I write this not in any way to belittle Wallace, who was a giant among freedom fighters, but to remind those who have been blinded by Hollywood fiction that both men deserve their historic status and reputation.

Without Wallace and Bruce, Scotland would never have achieved the sense of self-identity and self-confidence it enjoys today. And when it comes to praising great men, let us do so in equal measure.