ALEX Salmond did not attend the Flodden memorial service in the High Kirk of St Giles’. This wasn’t surprising, and not only because the occasion was organised by the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, a body with which our social democratic SNP has little in common – some of the chiefs are, after all, Old Etonians.
One may sympathise with what one suspects was his true reason for not being there; the leader of the campaign for Scotland to resume its ancient independence is naturally shy of associating himself with the memory of our most terrible defeat.
The 700th anniversary of Bannockburn next year is a very different thing, a celebration where the First Minister can happily take the lead. So Scots Wha Hae yes, The Flowers of the Forest no, even though the latter has the finer and more moving words and tune.
Both battles resonate in our national memory, shorthand for Kipling’s “two impostors” – triumph and disaster. Bannockburn secured our independence and, therefore, is remembered as a great national victory. It was that, but it was also something less than that. Scotland’s hero-king, Robert the Bruce, belonged – as the name by which he was then known, “De Brus”, indicates – to the same Anglo-Norman aristocracy as England’s king, Edward II.
Bannockburn was also an episode in a long-running Scottish civil war, fought between branches of that same aristocracy, some Scottish members of which fought on the English side at Bannockburn. That war would be revived after King Robert’s death, when Edward Balliol, son of the deposed King John, attempted, with English help, to regain his father’s throne, dislodging King Robert’s son, David. The Balliols and Bruces were both descended in the female line from the native MacMalcolm kings of Scots, but both held lands in England as well as Scotland, the Balliols in France, too. They weren’t exactly founding members of the SNP. Yet, Bannockburn and the Wars of Independence are rightly celebrated by all of us because, however confused the politics and however murky the motives of some of the leaders, they ensured that Scotland survived as what we would now call a sovereign state, and was not incorporated into England, like Wales.
Paradoxical as it may seem to nationalists today, unionists celebrate Bannockburn with as much enthusiasm as they do. The fact that Scotland was never conquered determined the nature of the Union that followed in two stages centuries later; first the Regal Union when James VI of Scots became King of England, then the Treaty of Union in which the two sovereign states were extinguished by the terms of the treaty, which declared that “the two kingdoms of Scotland and England be united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain”.
What then of Flodden, that disastrous battle? Strangely, this crushing defeat had no immediately terrible political consequences. It didn’t mark the end of Scottish independence. No English invasion followed, though one was feared and a new wall was built around Edinburgh. James IV was succeeded by his young son, James V, and there was a confused and fractious minority. But there was nothing unusual in that. Scotland had endured three such minorities or regencies, and the baronial in-fighting they provoked, in the 15th century.
Nor – though the philosopher and historian John Mair argued that it would be a good thing if Scotland and England were to be united under one monarch – was there a shift in Scotland’s foreign policy. James adhered to the Auld Alliance with France – both his wives were French – and though there were Scottish nobles who questioned this and who adhered to England, this, too, was not without precedent, and their motives were usually selfish.
Moreover, there was no cultural withering. James V pursued his father’s policy of extending his palaces, importing skilled craftsmen from France and the Netherlands. Scottish vernacular literature continued to flourish, Gavin Douglas making his great translation of The Aeneid and David Lindsay writing Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites, which the king ordered to be performed before him at Linlithgow.
What changed things and led, over three decades, to a reorientation of Scottish foreign policy and a new relationship with England, was not Flodden, but the Protestant Reformation, first in England with Henry VIII’s break from Rome, and then in Scotland. James V refused to reject the Pope as his uncle Henry urged him to do, and this led to sporadic warfare. Then James died suddenly and, during the minority of his daughter Mary, the Protestant Revolution in Scotland brought the Reformers into the English camp; the historian Gordon Donaldson called John Knox “the greatest angliciser in our history”. The Auld Alliance ended when the Reformers called in an English army to expel the French troops supporting the Regent, Marie de Guise. Subsequently, the political follies and failure of Mary, Queen of Scots, ensured that Scotland’s future would be linked to England.
None of this can be seen as a direct consequence of Flodden. It was Knox’s success, not James IV’s failure, that shaped our history. Politically, Flodden was insignificant; and yet the memory of folly, heroism and defeat resonates down the centuries. Visit Flodden Field and you understand why. Stand on that lonely and beautiful hillside and you feel the sadness. You feel also the strength of the argument for peace. There is talk of developing the battlefield, no doubt with a lavish visitor centre. The talk is foolish. The silence already speaks eloquently. There is a single modest memorial to “The Brave of Both Nations”. It’s enough.
It also has a message for us in this coming referendum year: that we should continue the debate without rancour. It is to the credit of the SNP that it has conducted its campaign by words, not deeds, that it has eschewed violence and refrained from trying to stir up anti-English feeling.
Flodden speaks of the folly of war and the beauty of the peace that prevails now. Standing there in autumn sunlight, it is not only the lines of The Liltin’ that should sound in your head, but also those of Paraphrase 18: “To ploughshares men shall beat their swords … and study war no more.” So, maybe Alex Salmond would have gained rather than lost if he had attended that memorial service.