Wallace in Flesh and Stone


To Lanark to deliver the ‘Guardian’s Address’ at the annual commemoration of Wallace’s death in 1305. By bus from Melrose and a lift from Aileen Campbell MSP from Peebles to Lanark through the glorious John Buchan country. Connection with Wallace? Yes, that huge statue above Dryburgh raised by another Buchan, the eleventh Earl.

Assembly by a soulless retail park, a tramp down what could be a handsome High Street, drained of commerce. Then fine fiddle music from Sean Allen, eight I suppose, in his face the same serious joy you see in Raeburn’s unforgettable portrait of Niel Gow.

Bringing other memorials, leave-takings, to mind: Jimmy Reid and Eddie Morgan. Both left political-literary memorials: ‘Alienation’ and ‘Open the Doors and begin!’ – documents that will be read while human life is worth living. One was an idealist socialist and by any standards an intellectual who held to his own belief in people’s dignity:

‘It is my sincere contention that anyone who is totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric treatment than anyone else.’

The other a poet of outstanding cultural breadth, wit and humanity, companion in difficult times, striving for our Parliament, who put down a marker for its good behaviour, Walt Whitman with jokes:
Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!
We have a building which is more than a building.
There is a commerce between inner and outer,
between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who think about the world.
Is it not a mystery? The parts cohere, they come together
like petals of a flower, yet they also send their tongues
outward to feel and taste the teeming earth.

II

Wallace, by contrast, was a gey complex case: myth folding on myth. The closer you got to his own day, the more mythical he got. Aside from the epic by Harry the Minstrel, with its own political programme, written 170 years later, these dwindle to a couple of direct documents (the Scottish records went down in the 1650s in a Cromwellian galleon) and the English royal evidence of trial and deliberately horrible execution, the sort earlier meted out to the Welsh Prince Dafydd ap Llewellyn. Much of the evidence comes from monastic chronicles only interpreted much later.
Monk Walter of Guisborough tells us Wallace was involved in the killing of Sheriff Hazelrigg in Lanark just after the start of resistance to English invasion in 1297, two years after the Alliances with Norway and France. Other bits of the early story seem right out of folkmyth. When you read Walter Scott’s version in Tales of a Grandfather you’re very close to Robin Hood: the prince of outlaws, the murdered wife Murrin, the green costume that all but got him arrested.

But the myth is important. Harry’s Wallace was modernised and made compatible with Presbyterianism in 1722 by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, friend of the Jacobite Allan Ramsay the Elder, whose Gentle Shepherd (1725) became like it a Scottish institution, its hero the exiled Jacobite Sir William Worthy. Ramsay’s pastoral was often performed, just as the 50-odd editions of Gilbertfield’s Wallace made him a ‘Scottish worthy’.

III

‘Scottish Worthies’ had hitherto been the heroes of the Covenant: a brave but dour bunch of text-splitting South-Westerners, maybe theoretical republicans, but hard to thole. They were the best the Scots could do to parallel the English Whig worthies of the Civil War era, notably Milton and Locke, celebrated in huge architectural theme parks like the mid-18th century Stowe estate near Buckingham. They had to be humanised, integrated, by an active patriot industry. Making the ballads of a country rather than its laws, as that last-ditch defender of the Parliament, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, famously wrote. The Wallace story embodied this and made it into popular novel form. Jane Anne Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs: a National Tale was a success in 1810: Porter having got up to speed writing for the suppressed Poles. Scott’s Waverley coincided with the Dryburgh statue being fashioned by John Smith at Darnick, next door to Abbotsford.

‘A commerce between inner and outer’ indeed!

By 1770 any Jacobite future was dead, but Scottish Whigs, coming into money through agricultural improvement, wanted to create a more ‘constitutional’ nation, and Wallace became a central part of that. David Steuart Erskine, eleventh Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), nephew of the Jacobite economist Sir James Steuart, created a modest version of Stowe around his country house next to the ruined Abbey of Dryburgh, which he landscaped like a huge folly. Buchan believed in the ancient constitution, pivoted between self-government and imperial prosperity, and at Dryburgh located it between two monuments: the ‘Temple of the Muses’ (1817) dedicated to James Thomson of Ednam, author of ‘Rule Britannia’, down by the Tweed and his new suspension bridge, and his gigantic statue of the national hero, up on Bemersyde Hill, unveiled only two months after Waverley, on 22 September 1814: ‘Great Patriot Hero: Ill-Requited Chief’.

IV

Lord Buchan was the patron of Byron, Burns and Scott, and he created for their age an instantly accessible national landscape whose heroes would in due time be exported around the Scots-settled globe. This was the first of half-a-dozen Wallaces – well before the 1867 monument above Stirling Brig – almost directly inspired by Burns’ fiery lines:

The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace… The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.

This was what the Earl’s investment was intended to do: create common material symbols of patriotism in an age when Scottishness could all too easily be represented by religious prejudice and the ‘unco guid’.

The culture of a free nation was something that could unite the radical Burns and the High Tory Scott: and that evidence would be found thereafter, not just where Scots migrated to, but wherever people – of every creed – fought Jimmy Reid’s foul fiend of alienation, equally present these days in Moslem and Zionist fanaticism or in the crazy egotism of great wealth: ‘Luxury and Corruption redux’. When the Berlin workers attacked the Palace in March 1848 they sang – as the plaque by the Landwehrkanal tells you, ‘the song “Trotz Alledem!” by the Scottish poet Robert Burns’, which we know as ‘For ’a that!’

Somewhere here, between Clyde and Tweed, between Lanark and Dryburgh, we’re as near as we can ever get to ‘sense and worth, owre a’ the earth.’ We must hold on to it.

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