National Memory: William Wallace’s journey from Christian, British hero to Scottish independence icon

by Grant McKenzie

Introduction

National memory is an ongoing dialogue, and one that can span centuries and even millennia. Every country and society have their own key events and figures who help to shape the sense of what is shared. Particularly regarding how that nation or society views itself and its values. However, it also illuminates what we have forgotten. There are countless examples to choose from in examining this, but here I want to focus on the process of memory regarding Sir William Wallace (d. 1305).[1] Originally thought to have descended from minor nobility, more recent discoveries including that of a deed sealed by Wallace himself contest that theory. The evidence points towards Wallace being the son of an Alan Wallace of Ayrshire. Wallace is most famously remembered for leading his men in a victory over the occupying English forces in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297. His subsequent capture and death solidified his legacy as a Scottish Folk hero and martyr to the cause of Scottish Independence. He went onto become a much written about figure, despite the scant contemporary evidence of his deeds. However, it is in these spaces that the fictionalised Wallace grew, and thus the national memory of the Scottish hero. Wallace is an example of how the individuals within a nation can share a common memory, but as we shall see, these memories can evolve. Indeed, memories can almost entirely change their meaning over the course of 150 years. Therefore, we can see how national memory is as much about what is forgotten over time as it is about what is remembered.

I

Known to most around the world thanks to Mel Gibson’s film adaptation of the legend, William Wallace is seen as a romantic, patriotic hero. Someone who led an underdog nation to victory over their more powerful, tyrannical neighbours. Of course, we know that the Hollywood version of events is designed to appeal to movie-goers, but it also led to a revived improvement of national memory regarding Wallace. In fact, this memory bears only a minority in common with the historical facts regarding William Wallace. The Wallace legend has the man cast as a reluctant participant. A man who just seeks peace and happiness with his family. This is the narrative that comes down over the centuries from Blind Harry through to Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, and on to the modern day.[2][3] The reality is that this Wallace is a fictionalised one. A folk hero like in so many other cultures and societies that has taken on a larger meaning thanks to the romanticised fictionalisation of the historical figure. Wallace, who has physical monuments to him erected in Scotland and beyond, is in fact a monument himself. Richard Crownshaw has discussed memorialization and has written in terms of the physical monument. However, his observations are also apt in terms of when the person becomes a site of memory in themselves.

Without a constituency of visitors, who react to monuments, project meanings onto them (not necessarily intended by the monuments’ makers or those who authorized its creation), the monument would lose social significance. In that sense, the monuments meaning is a process of dialogue between its intended meaning and those who visit it.[4]

William Wallace the man has become a monument. One which people are still engaged in a process of dialogue about. One need only look at the constitutional question that has dominated politics in Scotland since before the independence referendum of 2014. The legend of Wallace and his cries from Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) of “Freedom!” can be heard at Nationalist events and marches, and is oftentimes used as a sarcastic insult by opponents of Scottish Independence . Men do still dress up as Wallace, who has become a figure of resistance against the perceived English dominance within the British state. However, such is the fluidity of this ongoing dialogue that, as Graeme Morton discussed in his book William Wallace : A National Tale, the SNP-led pro-independence campaign of 2014 sought to eliminate these stereotypes from the campaign.[5] Of course, this shows the other side of the process of dialogue. Wallace can be used by Nationalist politicians as Morton points out regarding Alex Salmond upon release of Braveheart, but that same politician will see that the dialogue needs to move on less than a decade later.  This underlines Crownshaw’s point regarding projection of meaning onto monuments. For Wallace, the 1995 Nationalist projection towards this figure was one of positivity because of the political usefulness extant in the Wallace legend. However, as time moved on, the projection became one of minimization because it was politically expedient to avoid the militaristic aspects of the legend.

Crownshaw says that visitors to sites of memory ‘project meanings onto them (not necessarily intended by the monuments’ makers or those who authorized its creation)’. I have adapted Crownshaw’s point to refer not just to the physical monument, but the person and the associated mythos. However, here I will apply it to the physical Wallace Monument in Stirling itself. The National Wallace Monument was as much a Unionist project as anything else when it was constructed. The laying of the foundation stone in June 1861 was a part of the Victorian era statue-erecting trend that had spread throughout the United Kingdom.[6] When we think of Wallace today, we think of him as a nationalist figure, but at the time he was simply another Christian, British hero. For those Scots who were Unionist in the early 19th century, Wallace was as great a British hero as Nelson and any number of other English heroes. For them, recognising Wallace was recognising Scotland within the Union and ensuring that Scotland was not homogenised into England.[7] Wallace then as now, became a political tool in the context of Scotland and the Union. Therefore, we see just how accurate it is to say that meanings are projected that might not be as the makers intended. How could those Unionists involved in the erection of the Monument possibly know that 134 years later the Wallace Monument would become a site of importance to those who seek to end Unionism in Scotland? “God Save The Queen” was sung at the foundation stone laying ceremony, as also was the Union Jack raised.[8] This is hardly in keeping with the current legend of Wallace as the Scottish freedom fighter, but it so neatly encapsulates the ongoing journey that societal memory takes as it twists and turns over the centuries.

Conclusion

Folk heroes often hold a key place in our societal or national memories. Whether they be entirely fictionalised, perhaps even inspired by real figures such as the case with Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or a heavily fictionalised actual historical figure such as Wallace. These figures take on an important role within the way a society and a nation can see itself. In his time Wallace will have been known. His exploits will have reached far and wide in Scotland and certainly into England. However, such is the lack in contemporary records of the time that gaps emerge, and where gaps exist imagination fills the void. In comics the gap between two panels are known as ‘the gutter’. It is in this ‘gutter’ that most of the action happens because the audience fills in the gaps. A man wields an axe over another, then the gutter and the second frame show a city skyline accompanied with a scream. American cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud states that the gutter is essential for success in comics because they provide closure. This closure he describes as ‘Observing the parts but perceiving the whole’.[9] It is us in our dialogue with memory that imagines what went in between the two panels in the comic, just as we do as a society with our national memories. Therefore, it is possible to apply ‘the gutter’ theory to national memory also. Where there only exist static snapshots, the likes of Blind Harry, Jane Porter, on to Mel Gibson and those who see Wallace as the embodiment of their fight for Scottish Independence have filled in the gaps with partially fictionalised, evolving memory. All of us in the nation have filled in the gaps ourselves. Society adapts this memory depending on the times in which they are living. Where once Wallace is a decidedly British hero, over a century later he is a nationalist hero. National memory has forgotten the Victorian era Wallace. Even within the space of a decade in recent times, Wallace goes from a useful political tool to one with connotations that need minimized in the campaign for the very thing many see him as embodying. National memory is a fascinating subject to look into, and Wallace is just one figure of memory which will continue to evolve over time as it has done over the centuries to date. The observation of this ongoing evolution will continue to be worthy of debate and analysis.

Bibliography

Blind Harry, The actis and deidis of the illustere and vailzeand campioun, Schir William Wallace, knicht of Ellerslie (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Blackwood for the Society, 1889).

Crownshaw, Robert, ‘History and memorialization’, in Writing the History of Memory, ed. By Stefan Berger and William John Niven (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), pp. 219-237.

Dunstan, Angela, ‘Reading Victorian Sculpture’, in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 2016 (2016).

Fisher, Andrew, ‘Wallace, Sir William (d. 1305)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

Hall, S C, ‘Memories of Miss Jane Porter’, in Art journal, 1839-1912, (1850), pp. 221 – 223.

McCloud, Scott, Understanding Comics (New York: Harper Perineal, 1994).

Morton, Graeme, William Wallace: A National Tale (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

Porter, Jane, The Scottish Chiefs, A Romance. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1810).

Quinault, Roland, ‘The Cult of the Centenary, c.1784-1914’, Historical Research, 71 (1998), pp. 303 – 323.

The National Wallace Monument, ‘The National Wallace Monument, The Laying of the Foundation Stone, Monday 24th June 1861’.


[1] Andrew Fisher, ‘Wallace, Sir William (d. 1305)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), < https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-28544?rskey=ZyNDYn&result=6> [accessed 2 March 2020] (para 1 of 21).

[2] Blind Harry, The actis and deidis of the illustere and vailzeand campioun, Schir William Wallace, knicht of Ellerslie (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Blackwood for the Society, 1889).

[3] Jane Porter, The Scottish Chiefs, A Romance. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1810).

[4] Robert Crownshaw, ‘History and memorialization’, in Writing the History of Memory, ed. By Stefan Berger and William John Niven (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), pp. 219-237 (p. 222).

[5] Graeme Morton, William Wallace: A National Tale (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), p. 190.

[6] Roland Quinault, ‘The Cult of the Centenary, c.1784-1914’, Historical Research, 71 (1998), pp. 303 – 323.

[7] Morton, William Wallace: A National Tale, p. 176.

[8] The National Wallace Monument, ‘The National Wallace Monument The Laying of the Foundation Stone Monday 24th June 1861’, < https://learn-eu-central-1-prod-fleet01-xythos.s3-eu-central-1.amazonaws.com/5c000dbaa1288/1872705?response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%2A%3DUTF-8%27%27laying-foundation-stone%2520wallace.pdf&response-content-type=application%2Fpdf&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Date=20200302T134037Z&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Expires=21600&X-Amz-Credential=AKIAZH6WM4PLYI3L4QWN%2F20200302%2Feu-central-1%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Signature=7ec9974e664e3f48f2bb9461e1c27713b47d7a469c92520ba6fc9d91c69ff4c4> [accessed 2 March 2020] (para. 2 and 7 of 13).

[9] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (New York: Harper Perineal, 1994), p. 66.

Author: Grant McKenzie

Grant McKenzie is a freelance journalist, broadcaster and streamer. He is the founder of Cross/Rip. He works in radio and has written for Bella Caledonia, DC Thomson and Johnston Press in both news and sport. Grant has worked covering the SPFL, Solheim Cup and European Tour. He also streams regularly on Twitch talking about various issues including mental health. Grant is also a proud Dundonian studying a part time MA degree at the University of Dundee.

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