It’s an overcast summer morn: Monday the 24th of June, 1861.
Since dawn – by train, horse, hoof and heel – eighty thousand visitors have converged upon Stirling’s King’s Park – doubling the Royal Burgh’s population for the day. There are forty pipe-bands; volunteers and veterans representing thirty regiments; the Incorporated Guilds; the Provost and Baillies of the Burgh; Masons and Oddfellows. Four hundred soldiers and one hundred and fifty constables line the two-mile train in as it marches toward the rocky promontory of the Abbey Craig. The pipers, strike up ‘Scots Wha Hae’, and the crowd cheers and weeps as the battle-swords of Robert Bruce and the Black Douglas are held high, the flag – the Union flag, mind you, not the Saltire – is raised, and a twenty-one gun salute rings out from the distant ramparts of the ancient ‘Key To The Kingdom’, Stirling Castle…
Riot? Revolution? Lulu’s first gig?
All of this pomp was for…a building site - the laying of the foundation stone of a monument dedicated to a man largely uncelebrated (officially, anyway) since his death 556 years earlier. It would be years yet before those who marched and cheered and wept could climb the two hundred and forty six steps which lead to the summit of the edifice under construction.
The brainchild of the Reverend Charles Rogers, it was funded entirely by public subscription. The richest and poorest in the land (and beyond) contributed…from the aristocratic history-geek Marquis of Bute to the Carbonari revolutionary nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Fair enough: William Wallace is an appealing icon. The defender of the oppressed; unflinching in his willingness to sacrifice his all for sake of cause and country.
What’s not to like?
Yet, for all the passion his name generates, we know practically nothing about him. He led the Scots to victory at Lanark and Stirling Bridge and was named Guardian of Scotland, he did some very nasty things in Newcastle, floundered at Falkirk, fled to Europe, failed to gather support there, was betrayed by the Sheriff of Dumbarton on his return…and was executed for Treason, after a 1305 show-trial.
That’s about it.
He came from Riccarton, Renfrewshire, Dundee, Ayrshire or Shropshire – depending on who is telling the tale. He might even be a Welshman - that’s what his name means, after all – which could account for his palpable proficiency in hill fighting, and for the bloody great dragon - a beastie which occurs precisely nowhere in Scots mythology – said to have decorated his helmet. His first biography – ‘The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campion Schir William Wallace’ – was written in verse by Blind Harry the Minstrel (who wasn’t blind, called Harry or a minstrel – but that’s Showbiz!) 172 years after Oor Wullie was hanged drawn and quartered…was bollocks from start to finish (Randall Wallace used it a lot when writing the equally testicular ‘Braveheart’).
Harry’s was a fan-fiction – filling in the blanks, fleshing-out or re-fashioning a hero to make him more more valiant, more virtuous – cherry-picking only the finest, most flattering features. Think of the interminable bickering of Whovians over whether Paul McGann’s Doctor being half-human is or is not canon – a notion violently rejected by those who think that a taint of humanity somehow lessens their hero. There’s a lot of that with Wallace. I was once chased – literally – from one side of Stirling’s Castle Rock to the other by a nasty Neanderthal Nat who took violent exception the merest suggestion that Wullie might…just might…be a Taff. Would that have diminished his deeds or doggedly determined reputation? No. Had the mouth-breather ever studied the subject? I doubt it. It was just wrong..he HAD to be Scottish. So there!
It’s nothing new, of course. Go back three centuries from where we started.
In 1561 Edinburgh’s Baillies prohibited performances of the Merchants’ popular ‘Robin Hood’ plays on Market Days - objecting to their glorifying the antics of an outlaw. The townsfolk took the ruling in their traditionally tolerant, law-abiding manner: they rioted for a fortnight, set fire to the docks and shot a Magistrate.
What’s that? The citizens of Caledonia’s Capital getting blustrous and bloody over a distinctively English hero? Intentionally or not, they were fashioning a form of fan-fiction - one with rather more local roots than might seem apparent.
Break it down. Hood was (traditionally) a landowner who opposed the usurping Prince John – just as Wallace defied King Edward; Robin fought for the true monarch, Richard – just as William defended John Balliol; each set his wits against an evil Sheriff – of Nottingham and Lanark, respectively; both took refuge in forests – Sherwood and Ettrick – consorting with outlaws and attacking Tax Collectors (Wallace supposedly skinned Edward’s agent Sir Hugo de Cresingham, alive – fashioning a new sword-sheath from the villain’s hide); each even sports a nifty green wardrobe– and a ‘Marian’, ‘Mirren’ or ‘Murun’ (in ‘Braveheart’) crops up in most versions of both stories.
So who were the citizens celebrating?
Years back I wrote a slapstick skit, ‘Robin Who?’, featuring two troupes of Mediaeval minstrels touting for trade on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. One performed a piece about Robin, the other about Wallace. The casts clashed. The wrong hero ended up on each stage…with no change to the plot until the finale, when ‘Wallace’ - realising that if he stays where he is he won’t get executed - decides he’s happy being an Englishman.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that Wallace was Robin – merely that centuries of fannish embellishment and regional influence have helped fashion his meta-fiction in popular history. Ultimately our heroes are what we make of them. Gibson’s Wallace is no more or less accurate than Bling Harry’s, but for many seems more real. Truth actually gets in the way of the marvel of myth: we shape great heroes - our Robins, Wallaces…Doctors - as we want them to be. The idea – the symbol - is more vital than the reality.
In those terms the Rev. Rogers’ little erection is a towering triumph of fan-fiction.