by Colin McArthur

Bleeding Wallace

October 28, 2009 | by Colin McArthur

IN THE ARMY in the 1950s there was one Scot, call him Hayward, who made the rest of us cringe with embarrassment. Jostled in the cookhouse queue, he rounded on the hapless Cockney offender with “Watch it, pal, it’s a Scotsman you’re dealing with now.” Imagining what became of Hayward in the ensuing half-century, I suspect that he might have grown a beard, joined the SNP, bought Andy Stewart’s ‘The Scottish Soldier’, become an enthusiast of the Scottish folk revival supported threatened Scottish regiments, married in a kilt and similarly attired his progeny, attempted to learn Gaelic and, above all, become a moist-eyed devotee of Braveheart.

Now, many fine people fit part or all of this profile and who among us has not experienced what Tom Nairn has called “the tartan snake uncoiling in the stomach”. But of one thing I am certain. If there is still breath in Hayward`s body, he will have been out there, tartan flapping and chest inflated, commemorating what the publisher of two of the books here reviewed describes as “the 700th anniversary of the betrayal and execution of the Scottish national hero.” Doubtless the events making up the Wallace commemoration will have attracted people for diverse reasons, some serious, some barely this side of sanity, but my hunch is that the Haywards of this world will have been out in profusion.

In 1994, shortly before the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, I wrote a piece entitled ‘Culloden: a Pre-emptive Strike’ which, warning of a likely orgy of lachrymose breast-beating round that event, reflected on the nature of memo-rialisation and suggested that acts of commemoration are primarily interventions in the present. Deconstruction of the Wallace commemoration has been admirably accomplished by Chris Brown’s William Wal-lace: the True Story of Braveheart who, deploying historical sources impeccably, puts paid to the popular view of Wallace as “man of the common people.”

However, Brown then goes on to lay out the intellectual provenance out of which he writes rather than unpack the shaping discourses of the popular Wallace biographies he rightly traduces. The discursive construction of Wallace has already been ably explored by Graeme Morton in his book William Wal-lace: Man and Myth. The dominant discourse of the Wallace commemoration is a somewhat reductive left nationalism within which the categories of ‘class’ and ‘nation’ are not, as in the work of responsible historians such as Morton, Brown and their mentors, tools of historical analysis, but moral imperatives which elevate the acts and utterances of ‘the Scottish people’ to holy writ.

It is in this context that the historical Wal-lace is an empty vessel filled, in the commemoration, primarily by the discourse of reductive left nationalism. That Wallace is such an empty vessel that can be filled from diverse standpoints is demonstrated by his appropriation, within their own pernicious discourses, by regressive formations furth of Scotland: the Ku Klux Klan and the League of the South in the United States; the Northern League in Italy; and certain neo-fascist elements in Germany. This is, of course, par for the course, much as Joan of Arc has been appropriated by the National Front in France, or the discursive struggle over the meaning of Abe Lincoln in American culture. There is an essay entitled ‘The Meaning of Lindbergh`s Flight’ which spells out how the aviator had been assigned mutually incompatible identities, mid-western farm boy and apogee of urban modernity.

The dominant discourse of the Wallace commemoration is simple-minded and not given to introspection, its categories self-evidently valid and necessary. Not for it Brecht`s observation in Galileo, “Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” Now, there is a real debate to be had about heroes, as advanced by figures such as Eric Hobsbawm and Neal Ascherson in the mid-1990s when it seemed that the Tories had an iron grip not only on the iconography of Britishness but on definitions of British history and its `heroes`. Some on the left were prepared to grit their teeth and accept that heroes are politically necessary and that popular figures such as Nelson had to be reclaimed from the Tories (not to mention the National Front).

No such hesitation over the category of the hero informs the overall project of The Wal-lace Muse. Producing the anthology is an endorsement of the category of the hero, although several of the individual contributions (mostly poems) take a more nuanced view both of the hero in general and of Wal-lace himself. The project is immensely worthwhile and will provide a valuable resource for those interested in the historical development of both verbal and visual discourse about Wallace. It contains, to be sure, its fair share of doggerel but the more nuanced perceptions of Wallace invariably occur in the most aesthetically satisfying poems. This ambivalence is perhaps best reflected in Edwin Morgan`s poem, ‘Lines for Wallace‘, specially written for the collection. It begins hesitantly with a question “Is it not better to forget?” but follows immediately with the firm answer, “It is better not to forget” before retrieving Wallace from the battle re-enactors and Braveheart cultists:

For Burns was right to see
It was not only in the field
That Scots would follow this man With blades and war-horns Sharp and shrill
But with brains and books Where the idea of liberty
Is impregnated and impregnates.

No such nuances of thought or feeling muddy Lin Anderson’s book which is an unqualified endorsement of Braveheart and its ideological effects. The breathless, born-again quality of Anderson`s response is conveyed in the biographical details about the author: “Lin Anderson saw Braveheart for the first time in a cinema in Edinburgh in 1995. As the credits rolled, the audience remained in their seats in silence, as happened at Braveheart showings in cinemas throughout the world. One elderly matron rose to her feet. ‘Yesssssss!!!!’ she proclaimed, punching the air in a veryunmatronly way. The entire audience joined her in giving the movie a five-minute standing ovation. Lin knew she was witnessing something unique. What she didn`t know, was her experience that night would set her off on a journey of discovery from Scotland to Hollywood and back again . . .”

The structural features of this passage are close to those of the characteristic Hollywood (perhaps all popular) narrative: the dramatic reversal of the silence followed by the applause; the cheerleading by the unlikely figure of the matron; and the epiphany of the event, that sudden life-changing moment which is so remote from the way most of us experience reality.

Anderson seems to live within the tropes of popular narrative (apparently she is a successful crime novelist). A key element of this world is, of course, the sharpest of contrasts between heroes and villains. Here I should declare an interest since I am one of the darkest villains in this book, part of “a small group of media and history academics slating Braveheart in the language of these disciplines.” Not only are we elitist, purse-lipped and joyless, but we may even be engaged in an actual conspiracy against the Scottish people by posing questions about the film when the devolution debate was ongoing. In support of this point, Anderson quotes Michael Donnelly: “Historians like T.C. Smout, Tom Devine and Michael Lynch have as much hope of confining Wallace to a footnote on ‘Scottish Trade and the Burghs’ as Dr Andrew Noble and his motley crew have of suppressing popular delight in this most enduring of legends.” And here’s me thinking that we were trying to approach the complex issues of art and historiography in a nuanced way!

This again is par for the course: anti-intellectualism is the Siamese twin of populism. Anderson accuses me of asserting that “people who went to see Braveheart…were crazed Anglophobes, xenophobes, vulgar and interested in the pornography of torture.” I did indeed raise questions in which some of those terms figured, but they related to the text of Braveheart and not to its producers or its audiences, a distinction Anderson seems incapable of making. Yet again, the issue of Braveheart’s historical distortions is raised in the crudest possible terms, as in Anderson’s commending of screenwriter Ranald Wal-lace’s statement, “a journalist from Lon-don…called me with great anger in his voice and said, ‘Mr Wallace, what do you consider your responsibilities as a historian?’ and I said ‘None. I am a dramatist.’”

Now some historians have been guilty of their own form of crudity by discussing Brave-heart as though it were an academic text rather than a popular movie, but filmmakers should not be let off the hook on the question of historical accuracy. Historian/filmmaker Robert Rosenstone has fashioned a useful distinction: false invention versus true invention, the former contradicted by the evidence of available historical sources, the latter deemed plausible by them. The kind of question Anderson`s book has no room for is what is there in the Hollywood production situation that privileges false invention? In Braveheart the most obvious example is the invention of the romance between Wallace and the French princess, it being structurally de rigueur (in this as in virtually all Hollywood narrative) to retain heterosexual romance after the demise of Murron. Anderson’s book has no interest in interrogating the Wallace cult, simply in facilitating it. It quotes approvingly the BBC`s coverage of the new Scottish parliament having been accompanied by James Horner`s music from Braveheart and the parliamentary mace-bearer wearing “the Braveheart Warrior tartan.” One might think that both of these ought to pose questions about the interpenetration of ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ elements in and around an important national ceremony.

The book bears all the marks of having been produced in a hurry. Quotations carry footnote numbers, but there is no list of footnotes; names are misspelled (`McGougan` for `McGoohan` and `Pendleigh` for `Pen-dreigh`); and about half of the book is made up of quotations from MacBraveHeart.com, the web site set up by Anderson and her husband in the first flush of their 1995 epiphany. Two dominant themes in these quotations are the film`s capacity to elicit tears (is there a connection here with the Princess Diana syndrome and the flight from rationality more generally?) and the pride (some) correspondents feel in being Scottish. I have always felt it peculiar to claim pride in something one has expended no effort in achieving and rather prefer Rab C. Nesbitt`s take on national identity:

Your country`s like your own fizzer, intit? It might be a pock-marked,
drink-ridden eyesore, but you`re stuck with it. So you may as well try
and love it.

Hayward, wherever he is, would love this book and the wider Wallace commemoration. I`m still cringing with embarrassment.


WILLIAM WALLACE: THE TRUE STORY OF BRAVE HEART;
by Chris Brown
Tempus Publishing £17.99
pp.320 ISBN 0752434322

THE WALLACE MUSE;
Lesley Duncan and Elspeth King (eds)
Luath Press £7.99
ISBN 1905222297

BRAVEHEART: FROM HOLLYWOOD TO HOLYROOD;
by Lin Anderson
Luath Press £7.99
pp.160 ISBN 1842820664

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