M a c B R A V E H E A R T ... the True Story of Braveheart

( Last updated 6th September, 1997 )

The following article by Elspeth King, the Director of the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling, appeared in the Glasgow Herald of 6th September, 1997 under the headline ....

The true story of Braveheart

700 years after Stirling Bridge, Elspeth King considers that Mel Gibson's Oscar-winner has been a valuable catalyst in promoting interest in Scotland's supreme patriot.

As Stirling prepares to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the condemnation of Braveheart, the film which made the celebrations possible, rises to a crescendo. Academic historians and professional semiologists have combined forces to heap censure and disapproval which at times borders on the libellous. Braveheart has been blamed, among other things, for giving courage to those on the lunatic Celtic fringe, including Umberto Bossi in Lombardy and the right wing racist militia groups of North America, from the Branch Davidians to the Klu Klux Klan.

The latest attack on Braveheart comes from Professor Tom Devine of Strathclyde University and Director of the Scottish History Research Unit there. In the Herald he claimed that 'Scotland is in danger of becoming a national theme park for historical heritage', with heritage hijacked and repackaged for the instant consumer market at the expense of serious historical study.

Certainly, serious historical study of Wallace is hard to find. In the last fifty years, the Scottish Historical Review has devoted a mere nine pages to William Wallace, regardless of his status as Scotland's most remarkable international icon since his victory at Stirling Bridge seven hundred years ago. The hysterical reaction of academics to Braveheart reveals more about the maintenance of a taboo than any wish to shed light. 'We hardly know anything about William Wallace' says Professor Devine, and one might add that if it is up to the work of Scottish academics, we never will.

Mel Gibson is only the unwitting surrogate for these charges of fiction and inaccuracy, for the film Braveheart is largely based on the work of Blind Harry, who wrote his powerful epic poem on the life of Wallace in the 1470s, about one hundred and seventy years after the patriot's death. Harry claimed that his source was the book written in Latin by John Blair, Wallace's personal chaplain, at the behest of Bishop William Sinclair of Dunkeld (1309-1337) who intended to send it to the Pope.

Blind Harry's work is quite naturally anglophobic in its substance, based as it was on the personal recollections of Wallace's chaplain, and half-remembered, and considerably embroidered 'gestes' or folk tales transmitted orally by the intervening generations. That Blair's manuscript like the bulk of Scottish medieval writings has disappeared is seized upon as an excuse to deny the very existence of both Blair and his book. Certainly, there has been no scholarly stampede to the Vatican archives to search for it, and when important Scottish medieval texts (like the Miracles of St Margaret of Dunfermline in the Escorial in Spain) can still be discovered in continental libraries, who knows where this book may be?

If Blind Harry were the only source for Wallace, and his text, like Blair's, had disappeared, he and his hero would no doubt be dismissed by academia as mere figments of anglophobic fantasy.

Professor Devine of all people should understand the importance of the oral tradition in a largely illiterate population. To this raw material Harry brought his own remarkable talents as a makar or poet, his knowledge of contemporary literature, military matters and warfare, and Scottish and French culture. His poetic reputation is attested to by his great contemporary William Dunbar who mourned his passing in his 'Lament for the Makars'.

Harry earned his living by singing or giving recitation of his epic poem. He made it clear that he took on the task of collecting and writing the Wallace stories, only because others had failed to do so.

It seems a peculiarly cruel twist of fate that Harry, who by his literary endeavours had defeated the various political vested interests who sought the erasure of Wallace from the records, should now be rubbished as untrustworthy and taboo.

With the passing of centuries the contemporary popularity of Harry's poem began to wane through the inevitable anachronism of his language. However, when in 1722 William Hamilton of Gilbertfield the poet and correspondent of Allan Ramsay produced a modernised and abridged version it once again exerted a powerful impact on the Scottish psyche. Contemporary critics like Maurice Lindsay while ruefully admitting its huge popularity have dismissed it as devoid of literary merit. The entry on Hamilton in the Dictionary of National Biography also condemns it as a literary failure which was nonetheless popular with the 'less critical section ' of the population. The fact that these included Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and Robert Southay was evidently an inconvenient aberration.

In spite of the popularity of Braveheart, the last popular poetic edition of Blind Harry was published in 1859. The Luath Press, a small independent Scottish publishing house has undertaken to publish a new edition by the end of the year. The worthy but inaccessible academic text of 1968 has no translation and costs a swingeing 60 GBP.

It is fitting that Wallace should neither be the property of establishment publishing houses nor the establishment historians. His most recent biographer is Peter Reese (Canongate, 1996) a retired soldier with the vision, insight and understanding to consider the significance of Wallace across the centuries.

Organising the 700th anniversary exhibition which is now running at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum showed the same factor. The paintings and artefacts borrowed for the exhibition were, for the most part, in private hands. Borrowed treasures include the sword of Sir John de Graham, owned by a Masonic lodge in Auchterarder, a Wallace portrait, carved in sandstone in Montrose in the 1830s, a fine pair of silvered statuettes of Bruce and Wallace, owned by a Scottish businessman, and the banners and memorabilia of the Sir William Wallace Lodge of Free Colliers of Falkirk, who still honour the memory of Scotland's Liberator. Dozens of household items, including an 1840s grandfather clock, an umbrella stand, and numerous ornaments and Wallace Monument souvenirs have been loaned by families, collectors and individuals, who have treasured them for generations.

Items from public collections include the Mitchell Library's 1507 fragment of Blind Harry, printed in Scotland, the painting of the heroic Countess of Buchan who crowned Robert Bruce, and a stone associated with Wallace (both from Dundee Museums), the great Stirling Bridge triptych from Paisley Museums and the 1914 Bannockburn anniversary paintings from Glasgow Museums. All of this material has been brought together for the first time. Not even at the height of the Wallace cult in the 19th century was such an exhibition attempted.

The positive impact of Braveheart is evident from the 30,000 visitors who have come to the exhibition so far. Visitor surveys show that eight out of ten visitors have seen Braveheart, are interested in William Wallace, and have come to find out more. The heroic story of Wallace is one which inspires, unites and motivates. There have been visitors from Ballarat, Australia, and Baltimore, USA, who have come to make sure that we have information on and photographs of the Wallace statues in their respective towns. A visitor from Avignon, who saw the film, then learned about the exhibition from a label on a bottle of Maclay's Wallace Ale bought in her local supermarket, brought her whole family on a pilgrimage to Stirling.

The mood of visitors to the exhibition has been celebratory, and devoid of the racist and violent tendencies with which its detractors would like to dismiss the cult of Wallace. Most are intelligent and discerning enough to know that the film is not factual in every respect but it has excited and inspired them, and they want to know more.

In the act of collecting and exhibiting the memorabilia for this exhibition, with the aid of dozens of people world-wide, I feel that a chapter has been added to the story of the material culture of Scotland. Operating within the Scottish cultural themepark as museums do, this will not be recognised by our academic historians.

Speaking at the Strathclyde Conference, on 'Whither Scottish History' in 1993, Professor Devine claimed that 'There is so much myth and ignorance about the Scottish past that careful archive-based empiricism probably had to be the sine qua non of any mature development of the subject'. Such document-focused myopia, excluding as it does oral evidence, tradition, material culture, poetry, and most of women's history, leaves the way clear for both Hollywood and the heritage industry. There are, however, histories with value and significance other than those produced, processed, eviscerated of their human interest and given the nihil obstat of safety by our university professors.

For that reason, people will continue to visit and enjoy exhibitions in museums and heritage centres in increasing numbers. Mel Gibson had the wit to recognise in Blind Harry's neglected makarspiece an epic tale of universal appeal, and those who liked Braveheart have extended their enjoyment through visiting Stirling with its Castle, National Wallace Monument and Wallace exhibition at the Smith. Fortunately for Scotland, Blind Harry's epic 'The Wallace' has now re-emerged as a very real and powerful part of our literary and political history, as indelible as Dante and thanks to the medium of film and the efforts of Mel Gibson, probably as widely known.

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