Marking the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s victory in this referendum year risks reopening old wounds, finds Dani Garavelli.
In the grey stone rotunda beside the Battle of Bannockburn heritage site, Sharon Marshall, David Craig and their daughter Aimee are tucking into a mid-morning snack of crisps and ginger. Carved into the timber ring above their head are the stirring words written by poet Kathleen Jamie to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the great Scottish victory.
“‘Come all ye,” the country says. ‘Ye win me who take me most to heart’.”
The spot in which they are sitting has been chosen not for the potent sentiment, but for its strategic position: not too far and not too close to the famous statue of Robert the Bruce which Aimee, four, loves and fears in equal measure. As well she might. Even cast in bronze and at a distance of several centuries, he cuts a formidable figure as he sits astride his horse and looks out sternly towards the approaching English army.
Having grown up in Bannockburn, the view of Stirling Castle – the brooding stronghold at the heart of the conflict – is as familiar to the Marshall family as the slightly dilapidated shops on the town’s main street or the housing estates on its fringes. “Aye, it’s an impressive sight,” says David, proprietorially, “although they’ve ruined it by painting one side of it cream.”
A single blow with his axe
All around are reminders of the historic events which unfolded here and elsewhere (the exact location of the battle itself has long been contested) on 23-24 June, 1314: the Bruce Hotel, the Bruceview Veterinary Clinic and the new £10 million centre where visitors are taught about the legendary Scottish schiltrons (hedgehog-like battle formations of soldiers with spears) and alternative military tactics can be tested using digital technology. In the nearby 1314 Bannockburn Inn, a wooden wall-sculpture immortalises the moment Bruce lopped off gallus knight Sir Henry de Bohun’s head with a single blow of his axe.
For most Scots, the Battle of Bannockburn is the defining moment in the nation’s history, the point at which Scotland’s army saw off a superior English force and secured its independence (although the reality is much more complicated). The victory, which saw thousands of English drown, has been romanticised and appropriated by a range of political causes from bigging up the House of Stewart (John Barbour’s poem The Brus penned in 1375) to this year’s referendum debate.
Inured to their significance, the memorials which form the backdrop to daily life have less impact on Marshall and other locals.
“Och, all I ever knew about Bannockburn was the story of the spider,” says Hamish Simpson, who moved to the town five years ago and walks his dog on the grassland beyond the statue. “I never really give it much thought.”
Struggled to ignite the public imagination
Recently, however, their appetite for the history on their doorstep has been whetted. With the 700th anniversary coming less than three months before Scotland votes on independence, the focus on the town and the titanic clash it hosted, has never been greater. Though the much-heralded Bannockburn Live event – a multi-million pound National Trust for Scotland/VisitScotland extravaganza involving re-enactments with cavalry, pikes and archers – has struggled to ignite the public imagination (fewer than half the tickets have been sold, and last week the price was cut in an attempt to sell more), a succession of other Bannockburn-related events – including the publication of a graphic novel, a flurry of new history books and The Quest For Bannockburn, a two-part TV documentary which saw Neil Oliver and Tony Pollard hunting for archaeological evidence – has awakened a desire to explore in greater depth.
At the same time, an increased emphasis on teaching Scottish history has seen hundreds of thousands of school children engaging with the Wars of Independence, trying on chain-mail and passing their enthusiasm on to their parents.
“We never heard much about it before, but my older daughter, Courtney, who is nine, has been doing a project at school. She’s right into it and has got us into it too,” says Marshall. Craig spent the previous day at the Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle and the whole family is attending Bannockburn Live. “I’m proud of where I come from and I want to discover more about its past,” Craig says.
While his interest is purely historical, others admit being drawn to the site by a heightened sense of national identity and the links they see between the battle and the current campaign for independence.
‘Take control of their own destiny’
“We didn’t have many victories against the English, so you do feel a sense of pride while remembering the losses,” says Peter McCool, a Yes voter who has come from Lanarkshire. “I don’t know why people today wouldn’t grasp the opportunity to take control of their own destiny. This is our one and only chance and no-one needs to die for it.”
Hamish Simpson too recognises Bannockburn’s power to arouse nationalist ardour. He admits sending photographs of the statue to his Yes-voting nephew’s Facebook page to wind him up. “It gets him all stirred up. Then I tell him we’re a shower of useless people who shouldn’t get independence and off he goes like a wee rocket.”
Fears the SNP would exploit the anniversary celebrations to foster anti-English sentiment and strengthen the Yes vote (in much the same way some claim the D-Day celebrations have been used to boost the No vote) were raised as soon as the date of the referendum was announced. Though battle has also been co-opted to the Unionist cause (in the late 17th century, it was recast as Bruce saving Scotland as an independent entity so it could go into the Union as an equal partner) it has always been a potent symbol for the independence movement.
Gazing out from his newsagents shop, William Turnbull remembers how, 20 to 30 years ago, thousands of people – nationalists and clansfolk – would pour into the town for the annual Bannockburn Day Rally. “There would be 50 to 70 coach-loads and they would be dressed in kilts and all the regalia. There would be saltires and speeches from leading SNP politicians,” says Turnbull, who is at pains to point out that, though his surname was bestowed on his ancestors when one of them saved Bruce from a bull, he will be voting No come September.
Numbers began to dwindle after devolution and the SNP stopped attending in an official capacity in 2008.
This year, James Duffy, the owner of the 1314 Bannockburn Inn is expecting just one coach of die-hards. Still, the association between the Battle of Bannockburn and freedom – an association established by Bruce as he rallied his troops – resonates with SNP members, who sing Scots Wha Hae at their conferences, and when Bannockburn Live was first announced, critics complained it would be used to promote nationalist propaganda. Then the decision was made to hold the UK Armed Forces Day – a free event replete with Union flags, Spitfires and Princess Anne – in Stirling on the same weekend, a move which has left locals feeling their best interests are being sacrificed to other peoples’ agendas.
“It’s ridiculous. The two biggest events to be held all year scheduled for the same weekend,” Duffy says. “It all comes down to political infighting and who suffers? People like me who rely on tourism.”
At the visitor centre, much effort has been made to set the Battle of Bannockburn in its broader context and avoid triumphalism.
“If you ask, nine out of ten Scots will say the Battle of Bannockburn secured Scottish independence,” says historian and writer Dr Fiona Watson, who was on the academic panel advising on the new centre. “And historians will very boringly say it didn’t. There were 14 more years of fighting before the peace treaty with the English was signed and that had more to do with the deposition and murder of Edward II than with anything the Scots did. In fact, it is difficult to pinpoint anything concrete it achieved other than strengthening Bruce’s reputation and giving him his women back [held by Edward II, his wife, sisters and daughter were later exchanged for English prisoners] which is useful if you want to found a dynasty.”
In particular, the centre offers a more rounded portrayal of Bruce, a man who was both a brilliant leader and a murderer and usurper (he slayed rival noble John Comyn in Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries); a force for unity and division.
Not that any of this contextualising undermines the scale of his achievement; the English army was much bigger and better equipped than the Scottish one, though it was riven with in-fighting. Children visiting the centre are shown how Bruce’s tactics, his knowledge of the terrain, and the discipline he instilled in his troops secured a victory that, on paper, looks impossible.
A powerful story
Even stripped of its myths, then, the Battle of Bannockburn is a powerful story, as capable of inspiring great works of art now as it was in the days of Barbour, Walter Scott, Robert Burns or latterly Matt McGinn. Jamie’s is only one of several poems which competed for the spot on the timber ring, with Valerie Gillies, Aonghas MacNeacail and others also commemorating the events in verse. Artist Iona Leishman has created a series of vibrant paintings – on display at the centre – which evoke the energy and chaos of the battlefield. “As part of the human race we can all wonder how it must have felt to be there,” she says. “I have a strong Scots connection to the water and the rock and the air I breathe and I find it immensely moving to stand at Bannockburn and at Stirling Castle and realise these people would have looked out on Ben Lomond and Ben Ledi just as we do.”
Though he lives in California, Steve Clark also feels a connection with those who fought and with those who will vote in the referendum. On a tour of Scotland, he has brought daughters, Kristina, 23, and Alicia, 18, to the site to mark their ancestors’ contribution to the victory. “Their grandmothers’ maiden name is MacLaren and we have traced her family back to the town of Balquhidder,” he says. “We know the MacLarens fought on Bruce’s side, the right side. There aren’t many bright spots in the MacLaren history so this is a proud moment.”
Arriving during the Clare Lally/JK Rowling row, he is aware that the question of identity is at the top of the national agenda and is reticent about expressing an opinion. “It’s a historic decision – a crossroads for the country – so it’s fun, if a little intimidating, to find ourselves in the middle of it,” he says.
How great an impact the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn will have on that decision is impossible to say; it seems unlikely it will directly influence the vote, but could the re-examination of our past help to inform people’s choices?
“I don’t think anyone should be voting on the basis of ‘they did that to us’. That would be a very immature approach and I don’t think anyone is taking it,” says Watson. “But I do feel that people should have a knowledge of the whole sweep of Scottish history and that any nation needs to understand the past – its good bits and its negative bits – to be reconciled with who they are.”
So as the 700th anniversary approaches and we pause to imagine the thundering of hooves, the sweat and noise of battle and the panic of the retreating English, what lessons should we draw from this event? “We need to remember what happened,” says Watson. “We need young people to experience and enjoy a seminal moment in Scottish history so the next generation can move forward without a chip on its shoulder and be proud of what it means to be Scots, warts and all.”