Tim Cornwell: Much to recommend this Wallace letter

THE Literature Museum of St Petersburg is probably not on Russia’s top ten tourist sites but it includes among its artefacts the pen of Leo Tolstoy. The author of War & Peace doubtless went through a few of them.

But stumbling across the item on a visit ten years ago, in a glass cabinet case in a musty second-floor room, was an unforgettable thrill.

The convener of the Society of William Wallace, Duncan Mackenzie, seemed to be going through similar emotions yesterday, in the presence of a letter that in all liklihood the medieval Scottish hero was carrying on his capture. The little scrap of paper, he declared, “carried all the hopes and dreams of the people of Scotland to retain their freedom”.

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It’s a little hard to explain exactly what the letter is. With just three lines of Latin, and no sign of a seal, it has three ancient creases where it might have been folded into a wallet. In it Philip, King of France, tells his representatives in Rome to ask the papal authorities to “consider with favour” a visit from William le Walois of Scotland.

It was rediscovered in the 1830s among miscellaneous royal letters in the Tower of London, and is in the National Archives in London. Drafted in 1300, it appears likely that it is the “laissez-passe” from the French king, listed in a 1323 inventory of items in Wallace’s possession at the time of his capture.

After a six-year campaign for its return to Scotland, Mackenzie declared himself humbled to be among the few people to have laid eyes on it since it was taken from Wallace in 1305.

The “letter of recommendation” goes briefly on show in the Scottish Parliament this summer, along with the letter that Wallace dispatched to Lubeck, Germany, promising their merchants free access to liberated Scottish ports. Wallace may have had the king’s letter for a European trip to plead the cause of John Balliol, the former Scottish king in the Vatican’s custody.

Critically, the fragile slip so closely associated with a “Scottish hero”, in the words of culture minister Fiona Hyslop, will return to public view in 2014, the favoured year of a certain referendum, as part of a long-term loan from Britain’s, not Scotland’s, National Archives.

It’s usually in places ridden with violent ethnic or particularly religious strife that one reads, in awe, about treasured ancient sites or artefacts that trigger riots or worse. You couldn’t but hear the historical echoes, in the announcement at the National Records of Scotland, of the letter’s “return”.

Hyslop called recent new research on the Wallace letter, in which a panel concluded that its style and wording matched the presumed dates precisely, as a “thorough intellectual exercise”. One question may be: if it comes to carving up North Sea oil, cultural artefacts will also need divvying up. The Wallace letter would be top of the Scottish wish list – hopefully not at drawn swords.

My own particular reading of the largely London-based commentators on the likely referendum date is that they are overplaying the connection to the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. Any sensible nationalist surely reckons that the bigger uplift to Scottish spirits, which they will hope is reflected at the ballot box, will come from the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup. The Braveheart effect will take second place to a good medal haul.

There’s surely more feelgood factor in sporting pride – and more primitive emotion, perhaps – than pilgrimages to a battle site outside Stirling so ancient, and now so overbuilt, that no-one is quite sure whether they’ve actually got the right spot.

The letter is part of the period that led to Bannockburn in 1314. But Hyslop, questioned on whether the Nationalists are “fettishising” medieval history, defly opted to link it to a historic reaching out to the wider world, particularly Europe, as well as Scotland’s own heritage.

There are hopes that the Wallace connections will help to rally more visitors, from the US in particular, to the second Year of Homecoming, also scheduled for 2014. The geneologically conscious Americans go nuts for Old World patriotism, as they have in Ireland’s case. Some American friends of Scotland, it is said, will shift their holidays just to see it with their own eyes.