MacBRAVEHEART ... Matt Ewart's Wallace Essay

Under the headline:

Cultural myths grow larger than life. Surely this is the case with William Wallace

the following essay by Matt Ewart was printed in the Herald newspaper in Scotland on Saturday November 15th, 1997.

The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins which will boil along till the floodgates of time shut in eternal rest.

Robert Burns


For William Wallace, Scottish patriot, the floodgates of life closed on that terrible day in 1305 when, after a cynical mock trial at Westminster Hall in London, he was dragged through the streets as a treacherous outlaw to barbarous execution at Smithfield. Edward I of England wanted the destruction of Wallace's name and reputation as well as physical presence, but inadvertently created a hero and martyr.

The name of William Wallace as freedom fighter takes on immense fascination and significance at certain times, not only for Scots, but for many abroad. This is one of those times, certainly helped on by a recent hugely successful film and a best-selling biography.

This year marks 700 years since Wallace, at Lanark, "first drew sword to free his native land", and instigated the Scottish War of Independence. Over 80 places throughout Scotland claim a direct association with Wallace, reflecting his national campaign and the myths that have grown in his name.

This is an attempt to outline the historical truth of Wallace as we know it, then look at the developing myth. Interestingly enough, the sources themselves are part of what has become a larger story. In this kind of study truth and myth are in the end inseparable, since over generations they have inter-related, and belief patterns have become a kind of history. Consider the Scotland's Liberator exhibition at the Smith Gallery in Stirling, the Wallace 700 events at Lanark, preparations for Carrick 800 in Ayrshire, the continuing vocal claims at Elderslie in Renfrew for the birthplace of Wallace - all absorb and present truth and myth in their own way. What continues is a deep identification with a remote medieval figure, for centuries extolled for heroism and resistance to oppression. This cannot be explained solely in terms of pride in locality or nation.

Wallace comes from minor gentry in the West of Scotland. The name Wallace, or Walensis, derives from the Welsh-speaking people of Strathclyde. We have no exact date for Wallace's birth. Several factors point to 1272-74, if 1274, then it is one of the quirks of history that is the very year his future adversary, Edward I, is crowned at Westminster. As second son of Sir Richard Wallace, William would be due for the priesthood, although why this alters is unknown. It is often recounted that Wallace's uncle, a priest at Dunipace, near Stirling, taught him Latin proverbs, and with the following endowed in him his love of freedom:

Freedom is best, I tell thee of all things to be won
Then never live within the bond of slavery my son

Wallace rises suddenly in the spring of 1297, kills the English sheriff of Lanark, then leads an effective and oft-hitting operation against English strongholds.

To provide a brief background to this rising: Scotland had been in turmoil since 1286, when Alexander III died, and three years later, the tragic death of the heir to the throne, the young Margaret, maid of Norway. The curator, Elspeth King, for her Liberator exhibition, summed up the calamitous situation: "The uncertainty over who should succeed was used by Edward I as an opportunity to meddle in Scotland's affairs, and in the guise of legal mediator, stir up rivalries, appoint the weak John Balliol as king, make impossible demands of him, and then settle the issue by military conquest."

After John's coronation in 1292, against the Bruce claim, Edward's pressure on him is relentless, forcing acts of homage on several occasions, and causing the Treaty of Brigham, recognising Scottish independence, to be revoked. When Edward haughtily orders Balliol into military service in France, the Scots instead ratify a treaty with Edward's enemy, Philip IV, and war is inevitable.

In response to the Scots' merciless raids on Carlisle and Northumberland, Edward takes Berwick and orders two days of burning and killing. Soon after he routs the Scots at Dunbar. Andrew Fisher in William Wallace writes of the "military ineptitude" of the Scots at this time. Edward has the Stone of Destiny taken to Westminster. Inevitably John Balliol surrenders his kingdom and goes into captivity then exile.

Edward calls on all landowners to offer allegiance to him, then leaves Scotland in the hands of the Earl of Surrey.

To Scotland went he than in hy
And all the land gan occupy
Sa hale, that both castell and towne
War in-till his possessioune

So wrote the poet John Barbour (l320-l395) of Edward, while describing the English in occupation as "wicked and covetous, proud and cruel". This is not only a military regime, but a complete takeover of the administration, with sheriffs, bailies, and officials of every sort affecting the everyday life of the kingdom.

William Wallace, in the words of James Mackay emerges from obscurity "like some bright meteor in the night sky". As he moves towards the Battle of Stirling, taking town and castle, he finds a worthy ally in the young and resourceful Sir Andrew Moray, who succeeds in clearing the English from the North-east.

The first crucial, and inevitable, pitched battle occurs at Stirling Bridge. According to G W S Barrow, in Robert Bruce, the castle and the bridge "formed the key which would unlock the two halves of Scotland". The Scots are hugely outnumbered, especially in cavalry, by an army commanded by the earls of Surrey and Cressingham. Against advice, Surrey follows Cressingham's idea to cross the narrow bridge, which can only take horsemen abreast. The Scottish troops wait until the trumpet call from Wallace on the Abbey Craig above. They have the English in a trap of their own making, and at the right moment, they strike. The English who have crossed to the north side of the bridge have no room to manoeuvre, and those on the other side watch on helplessly. The massacre brings a victory that sees Cressingham killed and Surrey flee.

The Scots in 1297, as a popular army, as Barrow asserts, "led by Wallace and Moray, had given unmistakable proof that, along with the baronage and gentry, they too had their place in the community of the realm". It is this which allows Wallace and Moray to describe themselves as "commanders of the army and community of Scotland", and to begin a systematic reversal of the effects of English occupation.

Wallace's aim is always towards the restoration of Baliol, and now selflessly denies himself the kingship. Instead he goes on to call assemblies and parliaments, always seeking to speak on behalf of the people, while displaying growing political and diplomatic skills.

In the autumn of 1297 he is in action in Northumberland just the same. The Scots are determined on reprisals, and Wallace provides for their mood. Sometime in early 1298, with several of the Scots nobles now on his side, he is knighted, most probably by Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and he becomes sole Guardian of Scotland. As Andrew Fisher puts it, this is "a massive achievement".

Meanwhile Edward was intent, indeed obsessive, in his desire to defeat Wallace. By summer of 1298, he was on the way to Edinburgh with a large army, twice the cavalry that Surrey had at Stirling, and thousands of bowmen and foot. Wallace, though, had laid waste the land, and the army was next to starved out. It was then that Wallace's position at Falkirk was given to Edward by Dunbar and Angus, two earls who had always been on the English side. It is likely that Wallace intended to starve the English and attack it as it retreated. Now he was to face it head on.

At Falkirk the Scottish longspearmen held out against English cavalry but were decimated by arrows from deadly accurate longbowmen. The Scottish cavalry under Red Comyn, retreated. Eventually the Scottish infantry was next to annihilated. Wallace somehow made his way north with whatever survivors he had. James Mackay says: "This defeat brought to an end the three hundred days of Wallace's government, and with it the hopes of ridding Scotland of the foreign yoke."

Mackay has it that Wallace "would wage war by whatever means ... and even attempt diplomacy if that course helped to free his country." Indeed Wallace, active for seven more years, reverted to guerrilla tactics, interspersing these with diplomatic missions to France and the papacy, until his arrest in Glasgow in 1305.

As a range of charges from arson and murder to treason were read out at Westminster Hall, Wallace responded only once, and announced that he had never given allegiance to Edward.

It is necessary to point out that such history derives from sources that were responsive to and extended the myth that began with his death, if not before it. A brief discussion of this phenomenon may be useful, for we are dependent on these later chronicles.

The first Scottish one is a Latin narrative, written around 1370 by John of Fordun. Many historians expect that Fordun had access to sources now lost, including, importantly in those days, an oral tradition, but no definitive evidence exists.

Fifty years after Fordun is the Orygnale Cronykil of Andrew of Wyntoun. Again the exploits of Wallace are presented as a literary work, this time in rhyming couplets in the vernacular. Wyntoun refers to "great gestes", or heroic tales now lost, but there is clear evidence in Wyntoun of a heroic mythology of Wallace strengthening in his own day; and one he is intent on continuing.

In Walter Bower's Scotichronicon, written in the 1440's, according to Professor Cowan in his paper The Wallace Factor in Scottish History, "the legend of Wallace was born". A few descriptive phrases of Wallace by Bower, translated by Donald Watt, indeed exemplify this view: "Tall man with the body of a giant; pleasing in appearance with a wild look; a most spirited fighting man; with a certain good humour; fair in his judgements; above all hunted down falsehood and deceit and detested treachery; for this reason the Lord was with him."

Fisher says: "Both Wyntoun and Bower, whose work was essentially an amplification of Fordun, shared the latter's intention. They were concerned with politics and propaganda." No less so, of course, were the English chroniclers. Matthew of Westminster compares Wallace, somewhat hysterically, with "Herod, Nero, and the accursed Ham".

When around 1478 Wallace is created (or collated) by Henry the Minstrel, often called Blind Harry; we have possibly the most influential long poem ever written in Scots. And here we are most definitely in the realm of powerful and deliberate myth-making. Professor Cowan writes of "borrowings plunderings, plagerisms, inventions, and fancies", and points to two major events at least in the poem that never happened - Wallace's victory at Biggar, and English atrocities at the Barns of Ayr. Mackay; while pointing out "glaring errors", still cautiously recommends the poem as history, particularly in the case of Wallace's early career, where Mackay claims "an air of verisimilitude".

While Professor Cowan quotes from James Moir of the Scottish Text Society in 1889 - "it is sad to think that a poem which has had so great an effect in nourishing the love of liberty will not bear critical examination" - he insists on its importance. He tells us that Moir believed that "the Wallace was, next to the Bible, the book most frequently found in Scottish households". In Professor Cowan's delineation of Blind Harry's myth, placed "in some kind of context", a highly relevant consideration emerges.

Caxton published Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur in 1458, a "work which recalls the Wallace, particularly in the passages about warfare; it's possible Wallace was conceived as a sort of answer to Arthur; nor is it without interest that the legend of William Tell was being concocted during the decade that Harry wrote. As the American scholar William Schofield observed, the critics have never accepted the Wallace as a "fully authentic account of the hero's life, but nearly all have tried to credit as much of it as possible, wish begetting belief that Blind Harry was largely right".

From this it may be suggested that it is natural, often a necessity, for human societies from time to time to stretch historical perspectives in order to substantiate a belief in the themselves through heroic myth. In this regard a string of heroes and heroines can he offered from different times and cultures: Hector, Achilles, Alexander, Cuchulain, Boudicca, Charlemagne, Roland, Joan of Arc, Wallace.

Referring again to Fisher's point about "politics and propaganda": a certain aim within such categories may only be the beginning, for it seems that once a cultural myth is on its way, it grows beyond immediate requirements. The myth grows larger than life, it ultimately produces notions of a higher and stronger order of humanity, ideals to which the myth's adherents can yet somehow aspire. Surely this is the case with Wallace. Even Robert Bruce, so close to Wallace's own time and example could not ignore the presence of Wallace - he tried, as an Anglo-Norman earl and king, to do so - even when Wallace was dead. The following prophetic words, written during an earlier fear of Wallace's demise, and attributed to Sir Thomas Rymour of Ercildoune (Thomas the Rhymer), eloquently support the point:

For sooth, ere he decease,
Shall many thousands in the field make end.
From Scotland he shall forth the Southron send.

Bruce's subsequent victory at Bannockburn in 1314, and that great document of liberty; the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, are in a profound sense the victories of Wallace, and the myth that began with him.

(C)opyright Matt Ewart, 1997
(C)opyright the Herald, 1997

Matt Ewart researches Scottish Studies at Glasgow University.
He is currently writing a book Future Field: The poetry and ideas of Kenneth White.

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