on William Wallace’s ghost

William Wallace is one of the great names of Scottish history, quite possibly the country’s George Washington (though unlike Washington he didn’t survive his War of Independence to rule the new country — that would fall to Robert the Bruce). Like Washington, Wallace’s ghost has been periodically called up to support this or that cause. This essay will briefly explore how Wallace’s legacy has been handled and manipulated in the centuries after his death.

The Wallace legend took recognisable form in the late 1470s thanks to Blind Harry, court poet and author of the hagiographical The Wallace. The exaggeration of Wallace’s physical and moral prowess are not surprising (nor relevant) here, but the context counts: this was a time of friction between a recovering Scotland and a resurgent England. The publication of The Wallace in this context is no coincidence; given that Harry performed for the monarchy in the 1490s, it is possible that The Wallace was meant, if not for specifically royal consumption (it was possibly a veiled criticism of James III’s conciliatory stance toward England), then at least for the purpose of stoking patriotism in a time of uncertainty for Scotland’s monarchy.

Wallace’s ghost was again called forth some 300 years later, with William Hamilton’s 1722 English language translation of The Wallace. And again, as with the poem’s original publication the context here is telling: this was a time of post-Union national uncertainty, when Scotland’s position with England was, as in the 1470s, uncertain in the face of continued conflict or renewed cooperation. This unresolved tension and the Union’s initial unpopularity fuelled the rise of Jacobitism, culminating in the 1719 Uprising; in this context it is, again as in the 1470s, unsurprising that a national hero would be recalled to give the national consciousness a focusing point, even as Scottish literature was starting to take its own distinctive form, and, interestingly, even as Scotland settled into the Union.

Wallace’s ghost took a more corporeal form with the unveiling of several monuments: the Bemersyde William Wallace Statue (1814), the Stirling Wallace Monument (1869), and the Edinburgh Castle Wallace statue (1929). The first two are unmistakably products of Scottish Romanticism, and went hand-in-hand with the flowering of Scottish literature during the 18th and 19th centuries (which birthed the 1722 translation of The Wallace). As such the erection of the Bemersyde and Abbey Craig monuments seem less pointedly political than the 1470s publication of The Wallace, though nationalistic pride remains in common. On the other hand the 1929 placing of a Wallace statue at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle seems overtly political: this was to the backdrop of the hard-fought 1929 general election and a resurgence in the desire for Scottish home rule culminating in the 1928 founding of the National Party of Scotland. In the late 1920s, as in the 1470s and the 1720s, the image of a folk hero was still seen by some as the antidote for a national spirit unsettled by its relation to England.

Fast forward almost a century, and the SNP, successor to the National Party of Scotland, has regularly found a clarion call in bringing forth the ghost of Wallace — or rather the ghost of the kilted, musclebound hero from the 1995 film Braveheart — to rouse support for its avowedly anti-Union cause, but this of course begs the question whose Wallace? Duality being a watchword of Edinburgh’s collective psyche, it is fitting that one of Scotland’s most famous sons is viewed dually: there is a real tension between the Wallace of history and that of Braveheart; there is a real tension in Scottish historiography, between the nostalgic but firmly pro-Union Victorian interpretation, and the increasingly nationalist 20th century-interpretation; the historical Wallace himself exists in a strange duality — an entrenched landlord whose legend has been taken up by the common people; a scrappy, at times brutal guerrilla fighter who has somehow transformed into the paragon of stern, knightly virtue as seen at Bemersyde and Stirling; and even of his statues, two distinct flavours can be seen — one of the aforementioned knightly paragon, the other of the distinctly Braveheart variety, beloved of tourists but reviled by locals.

This duality perhaps led one blogger to muse: ‘That said, for all the people calling for Wallace to be remembered, how many want the truth? … Now he is doomed to always be someone else’s hero, chained to causes that did not belong to him’. Wallace’s ghost has been regularly called from the grave over many centuries to encourage an unsettled national spirit, and this is perhaps not surprising — on the surface. The other side reveals a national hero with an almost infinitely interpretable legacy, who himself vies with Robert the Bruce for the title of hero of the Wars of Independence. The handling of his legacy says as much about the man himself as the way we play fast and loose with our interpretation of the past. Maybe Wallace would take solace from the fact that he has been lionised for so many centuries; or maybe more so from the fact that in 2009 he was eclipsed by Robert Burns, giving his ghost a brief but well-earned rest.

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