DSCN0777This week’s blog comes from another of our MLitt British Studies students, Sarah Hunter, and is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’. Sarah has recently graduated with a PGDip in History of the Highlands and Islands.


Linda Colley writes that ‘Identities are not like hats.  Human beings can and do put on several at a time.’[1]  With this in mind, it is intriguing to consider the seemingly contradictory identities attached to William Wallace, firstly in the halcyon days of empire in the mid-nineteenth century – when subscriptions were collected to erect a monument in his memory – and, secondly, in the late twentieth century, when the Hollywood film Braveheart was released.

 

Today, more than twenty years after the release of Braveheart, with the SNP the dominant force in Scottish politics, it seems incredulous to imagine Wallace as anything other than the mythic figure of independence into which modern culture has moulded him.  The image of Mel Gibson’s Wallace charging into battle, yelling that Scotland shall be free, is burned into our collective minds as the visual representation of a man who died centuries ago. However, at the time the Wallace Monument was constructed, common belief among unionists was that Wallace was integral to ensuring that the Act of Union was a marriage of equals.  Rather than ensuring Scotland’s separateness from England forevermore, Wallace was deemed to have secured Scotland space to grow into a worthy partner. [2]

800px-Wfm_wallace_monument
By Finlay McWalter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=248435

Graeme Morton describes Wallace’s life as ‘One of the great myths in Scotland’s national past’.[3]  From Blind Harry’s epic to the romantic poetry of the nineteenth century to Braveheart itself, there is no one, single story agreed upon by historians, antiquarians or archaeologists – and it is that lack of certainty, of proof, of fact, almost, that allows us to adorn Wallace in such different, seemingly diametrically opposed, hats with the same outfit. When so little is known about any person, it is easier to bend their identities to our will; the absence of evidence that an event occurred, for example, becomes proof it could have as nothing is known to the contrary.  With Wallace, this cloaking in myth allows us to consider him an icon of both nationalist independence and unionism.

 

To me, the unification of these two identities initially seemed ludicrous.  Yet, watching Braveheart I began to understand how this contradiction evolved.  If we consider religion, for example, Wallace is depicted as a devout Catholic – but not an absolutist; the absolutist figure is the ‘pagan’ English king, Longshanks.  Transporting this to the mid-nineteenth century, when Wallace was an icon of unionism (a thoroughly Protestant notion, in Colley’s opinion), we can transform Wallace into a man practicing the modern religion of his contemporaries, and his antagonist Longshanks that of his repressive ancestors.  This removes the Catholic Stuarts’ absolutism from association with Wallace, allowing him to be identified with Protestant unionism in spite of his religion.  He stands for freedom and peace; Longshanks tyranny and war. [4]

800px-Scott_Neeson_on_the_set_of_Braveheart,_1995
On the set of Braveheart, 1995 By Scott Neeson (Scott Neeson) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/
        The example of William Wallace highlights the truth in Colley’s statement; we are all the sum of our parts, parts which must be addressed individually.  Wallace is identified in both instances as a patriot, fighting for the freedom of ‘Scotland’, a unified entity that did not exist within his lifetime.  Where our two icons differ, is the purposes for which the myth behind the man was used.  The pro-Union Scots of the mid-nineteenth century were as correct in their assessment that Wallace’s actions ensured that Scotland was not incorporated into the English state in the same manner as Wales (thus allowing for an Act of Union), as the pro-Independence Scots of the late twentieth century were to argue that he fought for a Scotland free from England’s rule.  We are thus able to separately adorn Wallace in two very different, seemingly antithetical, hats.

 

[1] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the nation, 1707 – 1837 (New Haven: 2014), p. 6.

[2] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Stirling_(city,_Scotland)#Wallace_Monument

[3] Graeme Morton, ‘The Most Efficacious Patriot: The Heritage of William Wallace in Nineteenth-Century Scotland’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 77:2 (1998), p. 224.

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112573/mediaviewer/rm2372799488

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