William Wallace statue, Aberdeen
William Wallace statue, Aberdeen

by Allan Armstrong

Commemorating William Wallace, yesterday and today

This year is the 700th anniversary of the death of William Wallace. He was brutally killed at what is now Smithfield Market in London, on the orders of Edward I, the Plantagenet King of England. How is this event viewed today? Whatever the real significance of Wallace in his own time, he has been seen, since the late eighteenth century, as an international icon representing the struggle for national freedom. Robert Burns invoked the memory of Wallace in Scots Wha Hae. This became a favourite song for national democrats everywhere, rather like Bandiera Rossa did for later communists. It has even been said that Napoleon carried a copy of Jane Porter’s romantic novel of Wallace’s life, The Scottish Chief, on his campaigns. Those heroes of the 1848 Revolutions, the Italian, Garibaldi and the Hungarian, Kossuth, both subscribed to the National Wallace Monument at Stirling in 1869[1]William Wallace – Man and Myth, Graeme Morton, p.79 (Sutton, 2001). Internationally, Wallace was up there with William Tell and Joan of Arc.

However, it was not only national democrats who subscribed to the National Wallace Monument; so too did the thoroughly unionist aristocrats, the Duke of Montrose and the Earl of Elgin. For this was the heyday of the British Empire[2]op. cit., p. 78.. The Scottish patriotic, anti-democratic and conservative unionist, Sir Walter Scott, had already pioneered a new vision of Scotland’s past. Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather and his historical novels celebrated Scotland’s glorious history. But all this was merely a prologue to the nation’s wider role, promoting the Union and Empire, alongside its partner, England. So following in this tradition, even conservative Scottish lords could claim Wallace as part of Scotland’s historical contribution to a later, heroic unionist, imperial venture.

As recently as the Second World War, the eminent English liberal historian, G.M. Trevelyan, author of the History of England, could also echo Scottish patriotic sentiments. Wallace, this unknown knight, had lit a fire which nothing since has ever put out. Here, in Scotland, contemporaneously with very similar doings in Switzerland, a new ideal and tradition of wonderful potency was brought into the world; it had no name then, but now we should call it democratic patriotism[3]A Shortened History of England, G.M. Trevelyan, p. 177 (Penguin, 1976).

Today, unionists are not so confident. The British Empire has almost gone and the future of the United Kingdom is far from certain. There were no official commemorations, either in England or Scotland, on the anniversary of Wallace’s death, earlier this year. First Minister, Jack McConnell, can don his post-modern kilt for America’s new Tartan Day. Such hokum is tolerated if it helps to promote Scottish business in the USA. But commemorating William Wallace today is a much more problematic matter in a Scotland where the latest unionist settlement – devolution – is far from being the settled will of the Scottish people.

Instead, it was left to Scottish nationalists to make their unofficial commemoration on August 23rd in St. Bartholomew, the Great Priory Church, next to Smithfield. The supporters of Wallace were attired like imagined 17th or 18th century Jacobite Highlanders. Such imagery was firmly established in the public’s mind in the opening sequences of the 1995 film, Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson. Here, Wallace was portrayed in the ‘mountains and glens’ of his Renfrewshire family home. Ironically, precisely because this year’s ‘Jacobite’ commemoration of Wallace appeared so folksy, with no wider resonance outside Scotland, it could be reported, with interested bemusement, by the BBC TV[4]Service remembers William Wallace.

Socialists and William Wallace

So, what do socialists have to say about Wallace today? Well, of course, there are plenty of socialists in Scotland, who have very little new to say. They have adopted either a Scottish-British unionist or a Scottish nationalist version of history. In the past, the ILP’s Thomas Johnston, author of a History of the Scottish Working Classes and of Scotland’s Noble Families, could invoke the commoner, Wallace, against the aristocrat, Bruce[5]Graeme Morton, op. cit., p. 98.. This was done to underscore the treacherous role of Scotland’s aristocracy throughout history. Scottish novelist and communist sympathiser, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, also supported Wallace over Bruce, for the same reason[6]Graeme Morton, op. cit., p. 111..

Today, however, the unionist Left today is largely silent when it comes to Wallace. This mirrors the attitude of New Labour. The SWP’s monthly Socialist Review let the anniversary pass without a mention. Perhaps, they feel that socialists have little reason to champion long-past, non-socialist heroes and their struggles. Such a stance ignores Engels’ sympathetic portrayal of the Anabaptists in The Peasant War in Germany, or Christopher Hill’s writings on the Levellers in England, particularly his, The World Turned Upside Down. Or perhaps, they ignore Wallace because he had no declared aim of uprooting feudalism. Meanwhile, hardly aware of their own inconsistency, many of today’s sceptics champion all sorts of current campaigns to bring reforms to capitalism.

A few on the Unionist Left, such as Jack Conrad of the Weekly Worker, retreat into pure apologetics, upholding Edward I as a revolutionary centraliser, who opposed reactionary feudal localists like Wallace[7]Jack Conrad, Unenlightened Myth in Weekly Worker, no. 265.. Such people are unable to see that there would be no real resistance to the depredations of capitalist imperialism today, if it were not for the inspiring traditions and legacies provided by past resistance to oppression and exploitation. Real human beings have not been designed to sleepwalk through a passive acceptance of slavery and serfdom, only to be awoken, under capitalism, to a real consciousness of their current plight and future role by the ‘revolutionary’ Party. Throughout the history of class society, people have always believed another world is possible. Whatever, the traumas and dislocations suffered by the infant working class, under the impact of rising capitalism, they still drew on earlier traditions of resistance for their new struggles.

There are some on the nationalist Left who see Wallace in much the same way as the image shown in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – a kilt-wearing, saltire adorned, English-hating, man of action – ‘a real Scot’. Even in Wallace’s own time, the struggles in Scotland were already intimately linked with events on a much wider canvas. However, today the exclusive adoption of sub-Jacobite (kilt) and specifically Christian (saltire) imagery can hardly contribute to the development of a multi-national Scotland, welcoming the people of many nationalities and religions who live here.

Furthermore, the ‘official’ nationalists of the SNP are increasingly making their own accommodation to the British state and the global corporations. They defend today’s Scottish regiments serving British imperialism; just as their medieval, lordly ‘ancestors’ served in Edward’s imperial army, when it was in their interests. It is hard to claim Wallace as an advocate of a ‘devolutionary road’ to independence, so he can be represented as a hothead, whom the nobles unfortunately had to marginalise, before they could attain their own ‘independent’ Scotland. The aristocratic Robert the Bruce is an altogether safer model. We ‘peasants’ today, though, can expect as little from a future SNP-run capitalist Scotland, as those peasants, who lived in Robert I’s feudal kingdom after 1314.

Thirteenth century Scotland and the ‘international’ economy

If Wallace’s struggles are to have any meaning for socialists today, this means viewing them in a wider context than feudal Scotland. In the late thirteenth century Scotland was already part of a wider ‘international’ economy which centred on Flanders. Flanders had a number of manufacturing cities, such as Ghent, Bruges and Ypres, involved in the making of woollen products[8]see Medieval Flanders, David Nicholas, (Longman, 1992). High quality wool was produced in the hill country of southern Scotland and exported through Berwick and Leith, particularly to Flanders[9]The North of England – A History from Roman Times to the Present, Frank Musgrove, p. 91(Basil Blackwell, 1990) England, too, was a major exporter of wool to Flanders, but its major production centres and ports, lay far to the south. The English border area was poor, the Scottish border area beyond the Tweed and Esk was rich – it was breathlessly up-to-date in its religious institutions, feudal organisation and military architecture[10]Frank Musgrove, op. cit., p.91.. The great Borders monasteries, particularly Jedburgh, Melrose, Kelso and Dryburgh, were to the forefront of wool production for the Flemish market. The Count of Flanders gave protection to the Cistercian Abbey at Melrose to safeguard supplies[11]Frank Musgrove, op. cit., p. 93..

The woollen industry was the ‘oil industry’ of the thirteenth century in terms of its wider economic and political impact on society. Just as crude oil producers today, unlike most other primary producers, have considerable economic clout; so could the raw wool producers in the Middle Ages. Embargoes on woollen exports from England to Flanders, imposed by Edward I in the 1270s and 1292, (and Edward III in 1336) made their impact felt[12]David Nicholas, op. cit., pp. 178, 187 and 219..

The development of woollen manufacturing centres in Flanders was such a precocious development, that the first possible signs of a new capitalism were already evident. One consequence of this was that Flanders was wracked by class conflicts. As well as the more typical feudal conflicts of the time, between an aspiring royal centraliser – in this case, Philip IV of France – and the local feudal superior – the Count of Flanders; there were also ferocious class struggles between the city merchants and the artisan weavers.

Feudal centralisers build royal power not nation-states

The events which occurred in Scotland after 1296 lay on the interface between a new, rising merchant capitalism, which was contested by feudal centralising dynasties, traditional feudal lords and by minor landholders, peasants and artisans. The two main royal feudal centralisers in north west Europe of the time were Edward I and Philip IV, kings of England and France respectively. However, French was the court language in both kingdoms and Latin the language of administration. Under these kings, both realms had extended their effective control over surrounding territories. Their newly incorporated peoples were quite distinct from the majority in the original core areas of the English and French states. The Welsh and many Irish were brought under the more effective control of Edward of England, whilst Philip of France attempted to do the same with the Provencals and Flemish.

In England though, despite some elite intermixing between Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon families, the majority of the population did not form part of a shared English nation with the king and aristocracy. They were legally enserfed and had few rights. In France, the mixing between Frankish conquerors and the conquered Romano-Gauls had taken place over a far longer period of time. Nevertheless, France was seen as the very pinnacle of the feudal order, with its king and aristocracy holding the lower orders in almost total contempt – so once again, there was no shared nation here. The kings of feudal realms made few appeals to ‘national’ history, apart from constructing dodgy documents making spurious historical claims, mainly to enlist papal support. The most ambitious had wider designs than to be limited to particular ‘nations’, even in the very limited sense these were understood at the time.

Edward I was particularly keen to hold on to the Duchy of Gascony because of its wine and salt production. This could be taxed to augment royal revenues. Technically Gascony was part of the kingdom of France, so Edward owed homage to Philip IV for this territory – something he tried to renege upon.

Neither English nor French ‘national’ claims could help him here – just good, old-fashioned feudal force. When Edward refused to acknowledge his fealty to the king of France for Gascony, Philip declared these lands to be forfeit. This provoked war between the two realms in 1296. It also led to a sharp turn in Scotland’s fortunes.

Much has been made of how Edward had inveigled himself into the position of arbiter, over the respective claims of two Norman-Scottish families, the Balliols and Bruces, to the throne of Scotland, after the death of Alexander III in 1286. At the time, though, all the major aristocratic families in Scotland accepted Edward’s ruling, made in 1292. Many such families held land in England as well as in Scotland (and indeed elsewhere too). They wanted to hold on to this. So, an acknowledgement of Edward’s power made sense to them.

This was particularly true of the Bruce family, who loyally served Edward, whenever it appeared to advance their interests. Once John Balliol was officially recognised as King of Scotland and had accepted his subordinate position, it made little sense, except to the most out-of-favour lord, to mount any challenge. This would lead to an automatic loss of their feudal rights and commit them to opposing not only Balliol, but Edward I.

Edward exerts his feudal power over Scotland

Faced with a war with France though, over Gascony, Edward stepped up his demands on Scotland’s king and nobles in 1295[13]William Wallace, Andrew Fisher, p. 24 (John Donald, 1986). He wanted an armed levy to serve with him in France. This placed many, including Balliol, in a quandary, since they also had land in France, which they held in feudal obligation to Philip. Many English lords were placed in a similar position when called upon to fight in France. Edward’s war was not popular.

Balliol, urged on by some Scottish nobles, decided to defy Edward. Edward, now also facing mounting internal opposition in England, was not pleased. He decided to take much more direct control of affairs in Scotland. This brought him into conflict with a number of the more traditional upholders of the Scottish feudal order – the Norman-Scottish and Gaelic aristocratic families. Others however, including Robert the Bruce, with greater feudal pretensions, saw their chance to replace these families, by showing their allegiance to Edward.

Edward invaded Scotland in 1296. He sacked Berwick in a three day rampage which led to a great loss of life[14]op. cit., pp. 25-6.. This was designed both to create panic and to break Scotland’s independent trade links, particularly with Flanders. Berwick, Scotland’s premier port, at the time, had to be brought under Edward’s direct control to enforce his taxes on the rich wool trade of the Tweed Valley. The population of Berwick was replaced by incomers from England. Berwick was to form the new royal administrative centre for Scotland.

The war was quickly finished after the ill-prepared feudal resistance of some Balliol-supporting, feudal lords at the Battle of Dunbar[15]op. cit., p. 26.. Edward was now free to exert his own dominion over all of Scotland, including the Highland north. This way, he could commandeer military support for his continental wars and finance them by collecting more taxes. This meant imposing his own men, especially sheriffs, upon the main towns. Although Edward remained very much part of the wider French-speaking aristocratic feudal culture, he was prepared to promote non-aristocratic Englishmen as his royal servants, partly to undermine other over-ambitious French-speaking lords. In this manner, individuals, such as the notorious sheriff, William Heselrig, took office in conquered Scotland.

The hybrid Norman-Gaelic kings of Scotland had also long been pursuing their own feudal centralising policy. This was done to break the power of local Gaelic and Norse-Gaelic chieftains, and even some of the Norman-Gaelic lords (who ‘had gone native’), particularly in the Highlands, the Western Isles and in Galloway. The kings of Scotland had been even more ‘ecumenical’ in their choice of royal officials and servants – including Norman-French and loyal aristocratic Gaelic families, the ‘native English’ of the Lothians, their Northumbrian English kin and also the Flemish. What was different about the new English officials in Scotland (with their military backing), though, were their onerous demands and their overbearing and arrogant demeanour, as they acted on behalf of Edward I.

William Wallace and the arrival of new social forces in a feudal world

Whilst most of the aristocracy in Scotland now fell over themselves to prove their loyalty to Edward I, in order to reaffirm or regain their feudal privileges, new social forces were to transform the situation. Although a small number of out-of-favour lords were still prepared to fight on, such as Andrew Moray in the north and William Douglas in the south, completely new names appeared – Alexander Pilche, a burgher from Inverness (who was of Flemish origin) and William Wallace, a small landholder from Elderslie near Paisley (most likely descended from a Welsh family brought north by their feudal superiors, the Stewarts.)

Wallace, initially with only a small following, began to challenge Edward’s officials. He emerges on the pages of history, when he killed Sheriff Heselrig of Lanark in May 1297[16]op. cit., p. 32.. Lanark was a significant centre of the wool trade. Heselrig was holding a court session, imposing penalties on those who failed to meet the new demands. Farmers would also be coming to market where they would have to pay Edward’s detested wool tax – the prest[17]Ed Archer, letter to Sunday Herald, 28.8.05.. Wallace was an astute strategist. He knew how to win popular support.

Although there were other centres of opposition, it is significant that Wallace, a social inferior by feudal rules, emerged as co-leader of the resistance to Edward’s regime, alongside the aristocratic Moray. There had to be a very powerful reason why jealously-guarded, feudal protocol was set aside to award Wallace such a position. Wallace’s theatre of operations was mainly in the most economically advanced part of Scotland, particularly its wool-producing areas. Furthermore, by drawing on support from townspeople and peasants, he was able to move beyond the more traditional, non-feudal, guerrilla tactics of the kindreds and outlaws. Wallace was prepared to challenge the previously near-invincible, elite ‘Panzer divisions’ of the feudal order – the mounted, armoured knights. This was revolutionary warfare. To do this Wallace resorted to the schiltron formation, based on pikemen foot-soldiers, drawn from the lower orders.

Edward’s army, led by John Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, was smashed at Stirling Bridge in June 1297, by a combination of a wild Celtic charge and the disciplined use of pikemen, with only limited aristocratic support. The pikemen sealed off the bridge over the Forth to prevent the bulk of Edward’s army joining their separated and isolated brothers-in-arms, who had already crossed the river. Amongst their body was Hugh de Cressingham, another haughty royal official – the Treasurer of Scotland, responsible for all Edward’s hated taxes. Edward had already sacked Berwick, killing thousands of its inhabitants, to make his political point. Wallace, in turn, allegedly had Cressingham skinned, after locating his dead body on the battlefield[18]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 55.. This was probably done to strike fear into Edward’s placemen in Scotland.

As a result of this stunning victory, Wallace became a knight (who performed this ceremony is not known, since Balliol was by now living in exile in France)[19]op. cit., p. 67.. Wallace also became Guardian of Scotland, something previously reserved for earls, barons or prominent churchmen[20]op. cit., p. 19.. He must have represented new forces asserting their power for the first time. Wallace’s declared aim was to restore John Balliol as King of Scotland. This has persuaded some that he offered no real challenge to the existing feudal order. However, the problem Wallace faced was that he still needed an armoured, mounted force, to supplement his pikemen foot-soldiers. They were required to ride down enemy archers and crossbowmen. The only mounted force, existing at the time, lay amongst the nobility. The one hope he had of winning some of their numbers to his side, was by playing the legitimacy card. However, there was also another useful purpose served by this appeal. Balliol was absent and in no position to give out any orders. This left Wallace with a free hand to pursue his own strategy.

One of the few historical documents dating from this period is a letter, in the names of Wallace and Moray, dating from October 1297, appealing to the merchants in the Hanseatic port cities of Lubeck and Hamburg, to reopen trade in wool with Scotland[21]Graeme Morton, op. cit., pp. 29-30.. This letter underlines the importance of the economic motivation behind the struggle with Edward. It also points to the continued role of the merchants of Scotland in this war. Another possible reason for the appeal to Lubeck and Hamburg, was the further disruption to trade caused by Edward I’s presence in Flanders, as an ally of its Count. This development, following on the sacking of Berwick, and the difficulty of making sea journeys to Flanders past the hostile English coastline, perhaps forced the new regime in Scotland to concentrate on more northerly trade links. Later, Flemish merchants, who opposed the Count, conducted trade with Scotland in defiance of Edward[22]David Nicholas, op. cit., p. 205..

The dynasties fight back

The Count of Flanders was in a similar position to the feudal leaders in Scotland. They were defying their feudal overlord, Edward of England; he was defying his, Philip of France. And, just as Edward gave his support to the Count, Philip gave his support to those resisting Edward in Scotland. Although Edward provided more support to his ally, by leading an army into Flanders, it did not fare well against the French. This, and the major setback at Stirling Bridge, led Edward to a truce with France[23]David Nicholas, op. cit., pp. 189-190.. Both Edward and Philip now wanted a free hand to deal with the problems on their respective northern borders, without other distractions.

Wallace knew full well that his victory at Stirling Bridge would bring down the wrath of Edward. Therefore, as well as attempting to restore trade, he made military preparations. The first thing was to overawe and intimidate Edward’s fifth column of Scottish noble supporters[24]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 69.. This meant attacking their castles. Wallace tended to rely more on minor landholders, such as Alexander Scrymgeour, to hold such garrisons[25]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 67.. However, the other major task was to lay waste to the north of England. Northumberland and Cumberland were already quite poor. Edward’s army could only operate in the summer season and provisioned itself on the march. Wallace’s aim was to create maximum area of devastation possible, between Edward’s southern-raised army and the richer Scottish borderlands. He launched ferocious attacks over the winter of 1297 to achieve this aim[26]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 64-66..

When Edward’s hungry troops did reach Scotland in the summer of 1298, Wallace pursued a scorched earth policy of retreat to further weaken Edward’s army. Some of Edward’s Welsh troops even mutinied[27]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 73-77.. What changed the situation in Edward’s favour was that two of his Scottish allies, the earls, Patrick of Dunbar and Umfraville of Angus, had spies in Wallace’s camp. They betrayed the position of the Scottish army at Falkirk. A second blow was delivered on the battlefield itself, when the Scottish noble cavalry, needed to defend the schiltron formations of pikemen from archers, fled the field. Although Wallace was able to escape, Falkirk was a major defeat[28]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 77-83..

The collapse of the Scottish aristocratic resistance to Edward

Scottish historians are divided on the role of the Scottish nobles at Falkirk. Past Scottish chroniclers, such as Fordun and Blind Harry, have been scathing about the role of Bruce and Comyn, and put it down to aristocratic jealousy, directed against Wallace. More recently, historians of a conservative bent have tried to defend Bruce in particular[29]see Geoffrey Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, (Edinburgh University Press, 1976). Yet they provide no positive evidence of his role at Falkirk. The strength of feeling, directed against the Scottish aristocracy, expressed in several chronicles and ballads, comes down the ages, despite all attempts at marginalisation and suppression.

What this suggests is that a powerful feudal reaction was building up against everything Wallace represented. Wallace was forced to resign from his position of Guardian of Scotland, to be replaced by the duo of Bruce and Comyn[30]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 77-83.. What was the threat that forced these two implacable enemies to join forces? The claims of new social forces, whether merchants, minor landholders and possibly peasants too, would not be welcomed by these nobles. The forging of a new military force, the schiltron, which could break the power of the heavily-armoured, mounted cavalry, could also threaten the nobles’ power[31]see Geoffrey Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, (Edinburgh University Press, 1976).

After the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, it was only five years before the even more remarkable victory of the Flemish weavers (with limited aristocratic support, as well) over Philip of France’s feudal cavalry at Courtrai, in July 1302. The weavers’ leader, Pieter de Coninck, also used closely-packed pikemen to break the French armoured charge[32]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 90-91.. In response to this development, Philip sought the active aid of his old adversary, Edward[33]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 80.. New challenges from below, led to previously undreamt of alliances, the better to defend dynastic and aristocratic power.

Reaction was now growing apace. Wallace, after resigning as Guardian, had been given a diplomatic role on the continent[34]David Nicholas, op. cit., pp. 192-194.. This flies in the face of his portrayal both by Edward I – who saw him as a common criminal, and Mel Gibson – who played him as a couthy man of action. What appears fairly certain, though, is that Wallace found such a role unsatisfactory. Perhaps, his encounters with Philip of France in 1299, in pursuit of a renewed Franco-Scottish alliance, undermined any lingering belief in the reliability of high-born allies. When Wallace returned to Scotland, it was as a guerrilla leader, operating from his old base in Ettrick Forest[35]Dating A Hero, in Wallace, 700 Years of a Scottish Legend, p. 7 (Sunday Herald supplement, 21.8.05).

Wallace’s legacy overcomes the attempted historical obliteration

The treaty between Philip and Edward, allowed both to pursue their aim of crushing all opposition. The new Count of Flanders capitulated to Philip in 1304[36]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 93-98.. In the same year, Comyn, as Guardian, submitted to Edward[37]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 107.. Bruce had already signed up for Edward in 1302, and had his lands attacked by Wallace as a consequence[38]David Nicholas, op. cit., p. 195.. Wallace no longer had any noble support. He was actively hunted down by them, using Edward’s royal warrant. After a number of successful escapes from capture, Sir John Mentieth’s forces finally arrested Wallace at Robroyston, near Glasgow, and quickly handed him over to Edward, for his final trial and execution[39]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 108-110..

When Edward I’s successor proved to be weak, a new opposition arose to the King of England. This time it was noble-led from the start. The war fought by Robert the Bruce was a dynastic war. To increase his support he offered lands confiscated from his enemies and new feudal privileges to his noble allies. Certainly, none of the Scottish aristocratic leaders contemplated any extension of rights to classes beneath them. When John Barbour later penned his eulogy, The Bruce, Wallace was not even mentioned.

Barbour received a gift and a pension from King Robert II for his efforts[40]Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 107-108.. However, Wallace’s memory, now safely consigned to the past, was rehabilitated by other Stewart monarchs, in their continuous battles with the kings of England. This Wallace was romanticised and celebrated primarily for his zealous, ‘anti-English’ activities; rather than his struggle against Edward’s feudal imperial regime, his Scottish lordly allies and his English officials. In this particular struggle many of the English living in the Lothians (conquered by the King of Scotland in the tenth century) would have been Wallace’s allies.

Nevertheless, despite the aristocratic attempt to write Wallace out of history, he was remembered, particularly by the commons of Scotland. The official ‘Wars of Scottish Independence’ can hardly be claimed as a battle between the English and Scottish nations. It was essentially an intra-feudal war between mainly French aristocratic families. It also drew in Anglo-Norman, English, Welsh, Irish and Gascon troops on one side; and Scots (mainly from the Gaelic heartland of Alba), English (mainly from Lothian) and Gallwegians on the other. Both sides faced desertions.

However, into this ‘official’ war, another war intruded itself for a brief period. This war brought new forces – small landholders and city burgesses, perhaps even peasants – on to the historical stage in Scotland. And, as in Flanders, these forces went down to defeat. Wallace was the most important figure in this other war in Scotland. As a result of his undoubted heroic role, Wallace later became an international symbol of resistance against oppression, like Spartacus before and Wat Tyler after. William Wallace, as part of Scotland’s anti-aristocratic, popular tradition, is somebody who can be claimed by socialists today.



1 William Wallace – Man and Myth, Graeme Morton, p.79 (Sutton, 2001)
2 op. cit., p. 78.
3 A Shortened History of England, G.M. Trevelyan, p. 177 (Penguin, 1976)
4 Service remembers William Wallace
5 Graeme Morton, op. cit., p. 98.
6 Graeme Morton, op. cit., p. 111.
7 Jack Conrad, Unenlightened Myth in Weekly Worker, no. 265.
8 see Medieval Flanders, David Nicholas, (Longman, 1992)
9 The North of England – A History from Roman Times to the Present, Frank Musgrove, p. 91(Basil Blackwell, 1990)
10 Frank Musgrove, op. cit., p.91.
11 Frank Musgrove, op. cit., p. 93.
12 David Nicholas, op. cit., pp. 178, 187 and 219.
13 William Wallace, Andrew Fisher, p. 24 (John Donald, 1986)
14 op. cit., pp. 25-6.
15 op. cit., p. 26.
16 op. cit., p. 32.
17 Ed Archer, letter to Sunday Herald, 28.8.05.
18 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 55.
19 op. cit., p. 67.
20 op. cit., p. 19.
21 Graeme Morton, op. cit., pp. 29-30.
22 David Nicholas, op. cit., p. 205.
23 David Nicholas, op. cit., pp. 189-190.
24 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 69.
25 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 67.
26 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 64-66.
27 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 73-77.
28, 30 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 77-83.
29, 31 see Geoffrey Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, (Edinburgh University Press, 1976)
32 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 90-91.
33 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 80.
34 David Nicholas, op. cit., pp. 192-194.
35 Dating A Hero, in Wallace, 700 Years of a Scottish Legend, p. 7 (Sunday Herald supplement, 21.8.05)
36 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 93-98.
37 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., p. 107.
38 David Nicholas, op. cit., p. 195.
39 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 108-110.
40 Andrew Fisher, op. cit., pp. 107-108.


  • From Mary Brooksbank – Nae Sae Land Syne – A Tale of This City (Dundee Printers Ltd, undated)

    My father died on 19th April, 1953, aged 86. Wallace was his hero. He fought the English and routed them in places you wouldn’t find on the map. Bruce – ‘He and his spider! Bruce was just a bloody traitor.’

    Mary Brooksbank’s father was Alexander Soutar. He fought for union recognition. He became influenced by James Connolly. Clearly he was articulating the long established Scottish subterranean folk tradition of the ‘lower orders’ with regard to the relative roles of Bruce and Wallace.

    Allan Armstrong