Author of the Oathsworn series (published by Harper Collins), Robert Low, long time friend of Falcata Times took time out of his busy schedule to write a guest blog about not only his upcoming project but a bit about that rarely discovered beast, scottish history...
As anyone knows who regularly reads my blogs, I have just published the fourth in a series of books about a band of Norse known as the Oathsworn. After four books, I have decided to fade out on these wolves of the sea in favour of a new series, a trilogy on a subject close to my heart – the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Right there is where you hit the first granite stumbling block in researching this period. The Viking Age, I had thought, was a tough fishing exercise, a trawl through sparse accounts to hook out a nugget or two of possible fact and, since I like to keep things authentic, enough hard info for me to make reasonable suppositions regarding the unknown in their life and times.
The problem with coming up a few hundred years in time, to where the Dark was giving way to a little enlightenment, is not the pawkiness of sources, but exactly the opposite; history is crawling with accounts of the great and the good and their part in Scotland’s struggle for freedom. You can’t move for tripping over yet another addition to the legend that is Bruce or Wallace. Any punter in a pub will tell you about Bannockburn, where ‘proud Edward was sent home to think again’.
The biggest problem is figuring out not what they reveal, but what they hide.
In my travels round the world, I once went to Myanmar – Burma as was. The country, when it is allowed to be, is essential Buddhist, has lots of shrines and specialises in taking wafer-thin gold leaf and placing it, damp, on a statue of the Buddha so that, after a time, the original is lost and becomes no more than a shapeless, pioiusly worshipped shining lump of sparkling gold.
The Scottish Wars are like that. Bruce and Wallace are especially like that, so that the men they once were are somewhere under the shapeless preciousness created as legend. The period in history has likewise been gloss-painted almost out of all recognition, so that it is perfectly acceptable for most folk to imagine that the Scottish army painted their faces with saltires and lifted their kilts to show bare bums to the hated English - Not Guilty, Yer Honour, coz I am exercising my patriotic right. I saw it oan Braveheart, yer honour, which is for why I did it at the footie/rugby match. I rest ma case, Yer Honour.
The Scottish Wars of Independence, for a start, were not fought to free a nation from the yoke of the English. The harsh fact is that they were originally fought as a civil war between the Norman families brought in to revitalise the country by David I and also between the same Norman families and the Celtic hierarchy they were ousting from favour. Under Bruce, who murdered his rival – a Scot with a better claim to the throne than himself – the rival families of Badenoch, Balliol and Comyn were all but ethnically cleansed in the respite given to the new king Robert The Bruce by the lethargy of Edward II.
Nothing epitomises the problem more than the legends of Wallace and Bruce. You know the one – Wallace, the Scottish Joan of Arc with a beard like a badger’s arse and a sword not only monstrous but two hundred years too early. An obscure peasant gifted with clarity of vision and a sense of mission who, although serving a confused and undeserving king (John Balliol), gave his nation a sense of its destiny and a belief in itself.
Blind Harry is partly responsible for this, though it has to be said that The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace is only comprehensible in the tranbslation from broad Scots into something approaching intelligible. He may have been, as Burns claimed, a Scottish Homer, but Harry claimed his work was based on a book by Father John Blair, Wallace's boyhood friend and personal chaplain. This book has not been seen in modern times and may never have existed; the poet's attribution of his story to a written text may have been a literary device - many contemporary critics believe that Acts and Deeds is based on oral traditions of Scotland.
In other words, Blind Harry was a typical minstrel of his day, (1440 – 1492) giving his audience exactly what he thought they wanted to hear because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get paid. Nowadays we call them tabloid hacks.
Even by then, Wallace's reputation must have been legendary. Over the centuries, a powerful myth has been created around his person, fostered by diverse writers and even by Hollywood. There have been several periods throughout Scottish history when the interest in William Wallace intensified enormously, resulting in an increase of literary publications on the freedom fighter. Unsurprisingly, these appeared whenever the Scots were hacked off with the English rule and brought the old animosity between England and Scotland to new life.
Even today, these tensions cause many writers to revive memories of Wallace and his ideals by projecting the medieval story into their own time. Thus, more and more bits and pieces were added to the myth whose message seems to have had tremendous effects on the Scots so that, if the likes of Alex Salmond wants to boost the Nats will for more devolved government, all he has to do is say ‘Braveheart’ and he has hijacked Willie to stand at his shoulder.
The truth is harder to find as a result. Wallace was no peasant, for all Mel Gibson would like, in his American-inspired way, to evoke the poor good guys against the rich bad guys. Nor was he a knight, as is claimed by many anxious to promote him to the nobility of the day – though it is possible he was knighted later, when he had co-led the Scots to a victory at Stirling Bridge. Nor, despite the many claims for it, was he born in Elderlie, Renfrewshire, though the inhabitants there - in the true spirit of Wallace – refuse to give in. Blind Harry was cavalier with spelling and a better claim was always Ellerslie in Ayrshire - the re-discovery of Wallace’s seal in 1999 identifies him as son of Alan (not Malcolm) Wallace and Alan is known as ‘a crown tenant in Ayrshire’.
Nor was Wallace the democratic revolutionary or freedom fighter of modern mythology. Nor was he a native Celtic hero rebelling against the Norman invader.
So what do we know for sure? Precious little, in the end. I know as much about Harald Hadrada from two hundred years previous as I do about William Wallace. It is possible that he was, like many second sons of minor nobility, in training for the priesthood, but was already in trouble with the law before the whole business of kingship and rebellion began. It is interesting to speculate that, if Alexander, King of Scots, had not tumbled off a cliff and provoked the entire succession row, Wallace may well have ended up as a footnote in history detailing the extent of his band of outlaws and brigands in southern Scotland.
It is certain that, with Andrew Moray, he led the Scots to victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Moray, who had begun a rebellion in the north and joined forces with Wallace, was arguably a more acceptable face for it than Wallace, since Moray was a an altogether brighter knight and lord. He might well have been the one with the military experience, too since without him – he was wounded and died at Stirling Bridge – Wallace lost the return match the next year at Falkirk.
More certain still is the relentless, driving stubbornness that would not persuade Wallace to give in when everyone else had – or give up supporting the cause of the disgraced and fled King John Balliol long after it was clear that no-one, not even Balliol, wanted his bum on the throne. In the end, inevitably, Wallace was betrayed, almost with a sense of relief it seems to me, from a country heartily sick of the depredations of war.
The legend of Bruce is just as monstrous and shrouding and his own chroniclers just as devisive – the best, in my opinion, is the one written circa 1355 by Sir Thomas Gray, held prisoner in the latest round of the Scottish Wars. Called the Scalacronica, it was written more as a history of his father, also called Thomas, who fought against Bruce in the campaigns around Bannockburn in 1314. Precisely because it details the life of his dad – whom he is not about to portray as anything less than heroic – you have to read it through that prism, but it is the nearest to a contemporary, unbiased account as we will get.
The rest of the legend, spider in the cave and all, has made Bruce into The Hero King, so that even the blessed Nigel Tranter could find excuses in his famous trilogy of books, for Bruce’s capitulations, coat-turning and politicking.
The truth, as I have found it, is much more interesting. Bruce was a man imbued with a frightening sense of his own destiny to rule. A man prepared to lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to achieve it. A man who could sacrifice all his brothers but one to the cause, his sister to a cage on a castle wall and his wife to years of confinement. A man who, for all that, knew the worth of what he sought and what he was doing it for.
Nor was he the beloved leader, followed by a rich panoply of brave knights prepared to die for him. The famed Black James Douglas, who eventually carried his heart and died on crusade with it, almost turned his own coat and betrayed him in the dark days after the battle of Methven. Seton, who became the staunchest of Bruce supporters, was an equally staunch Plantagenet ally right up until the very eve of Bannockburn. Patrick, Earl of Dunbar, did not go over to Bruce until Edward II came scampering back through his castle, fleeing Bannockburn. The Earl of Ross was the one who captured all Bruce’s women – sisters wife and two of his brothers – as they tried to make their was through the north of Scotland to safety.
Even Bannockburn, that battle which any Scot can tell you about in detail, is veiled. Strip away what is supposition and hearsay, leave what is fact and you know only that two kings, one of Scots, the other English, came together in a field near Stirling with an unknown amount of men on either side and fought a battle. The English lost.
Mind you, when all is said and done that last fact, for a Scot in a pub, is enough for him not to worry overly about the rest.