Amid criticism of the Bannockburn event, First Minister Alex Salmond hails the celebration and its importance to Scotland 700 years after the fight
Every nation has its iconic touchstones from which it draws its sense of self, and Bannockburn is the wellspring from which modern Scottish nationhood emerged.
The battle was immediately deemed iconic; a colossal victory despite overwhelming odds, and as W Mackay Mackenzie observed in his study of Bannockburn, written for the centennial of 1914, “history is but a literary and political exercise; a mist of rhetoric has settled upon the field”. The victory at Bannockburn was quickly – and has been repeatedly – chronicled in word, poetry and song.
All battles have to be mythologised to some extent if their memory is to survive, and many much more recent than Bannockburn have undergone this process.
But the events of June 1314, however much they may have been immortalised in verse and chronicle, were more, much more, than myth or legend. The inspirational central story of Bannockburn, and indeed the essential truth of the event, lies in its preservation and securing of Scottish nationhood and independence.
If the battle did not in itself win the war, it certainly did prevent defeat – and six years later inspired the Declaration of Arbroath, to become known as Scotland’s Declaration of Independence, which enunciated two supreme and rightly admired ideas.
It supplied the first ever European articulation of the contractual theory of monarchy, better known today as the sovereignty of the people. The Scottish monarchy was thus rendered elective and the contract reciprocal.
The Declaration of Arbroath went on to articulate the aspiration of national and individual freedom for which humankind worldwide still yearns as the most “noble thing”. Such, ultimately, was the legacy of Bannockburn.
However, this formative point in our history was not bought at any sort of bargain. The casualties on both sides in the Wars of Independence were enormous.
The chronicles, poems and songs remind us that Bannockburn is a place where thousands, far too many thousands, of men lost their lives. And part of the remembrance of any battle, even one 700 years ago, should be respect and honour for the fallen.
The new visitor centre I opened at the site of the battle earlier this year is a remarkable and fitting tribute to the events of June 1314. Through sensitive architecture, modern scholarship and stunning computer graphics, it is enabling people from Scotland and around the world to understand why Bannockburn has resonated down these ages.
It communicates to a new generation the significance of this site as the birthplace of our modern nation. And it helps us appreciate anew that the democracy and liberty that we enjoy today, when democratic opinions and peaceful expressions of political will are those which carry the day.
The case for an independent Scotland is not about our nation’s past, but its future. It is about ensuring a wealthy nation becomes a more prosperous and fairer society and about creating a better country for generations to come.
But our future must always be informed by our past, which is why the story of Bannockburn still matters seven centuries on. That story has been played out this weekend in the commemorative events of Bannockburn Live.
Scotland entrenched its place as a European nation as a result of the Wars of Independence. Whether we rejoin the international community as an independent member is, thankfully, something we as a nation will decide in the most profoundly peaceful and democratic way this September. That is something worthy of celebration.