Despite Mel’s best propagandist efforts, then, you may think it sad if there remained a few poor deprived souls in some remote places – Birmingham, for example – who are ignorant of Wallace and do not realise that he was a real person, and a Scottish idol. William Wallace has an almost mystical quality to many Scots. The reality is that Wallace bravely and briefly frustrated Edward’s plans 700 years ago to unify Britain under one crown (Edward's), but ultimately failed, was unjustly tried for treason and then met a cruel and barbaric death. We don’t know much about his life – go to the Wallace Memorial, Smithfield, for a brief summary. In the end, Edward’s ambitions were thwarted by his own demise 2 years after Wallace’s execution, the Scots under Robert the Bruce dealt the English a blow at the Battle of Bannockburn 7 years later and it took a Scots king, James VI, to unify the crowns about 300 years after that.
So what’s all this about a National Wallace Monument? Wallace, though undoubtedly a good Scotch egg, actually achieved nothing tangible for his country. Maybe there’s a theme here; if you look up ‘Scottish heroes’ on the Internet, up comes the official Scotland website which lists, amongst others, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scots and Greyfriars’ Bobby - two more failures and a wee pooch. Derision of course misses a point - a sense of pride in the underdog who refuses to be beaten coupled with the tremendous power of myths. Heroes and national emblems don’t necessarily rely on the inconvenience of facts in order to inspire – look at the enduring legend of King Arthur and, more recently, the English football team. It was in similar spirit, and perhaps in the context of maintaining Scotland’s unique identity in the wake of Sir Walter Scott discovering the ‘Honours of Scotland’ (see Edinburgh Castle), that a National Wallace Monument was proposed in the 1830s. It was decided to site the monument in Stirling – a fair compromise between auld rivals Edinburgh and Glasgow – and on the Abbey Craig, a 300’ (91 metre) high hill where once an Iron Age fort stood, and from which Wallace is said to have watched Edward’s troops arrive before the Scots’ victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Funds were raised by public subscription; the cost of construction was in excess of £10,000 according to Stirling Council and as much as £18,000 according to Wikipedia. It is said that amongst the foreign contributors was Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (which just about takes the biscuit).
The National Wallace Monument was 8 years in the building and completed in time for the 572nd anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge on 11th September 1869. It is an amazing structure, 220’ (67 metres) high in Victorian Gothic/Scottish Baronial style. The walls are at least 5’ (1.5 metres) - in places 16’ (5 metres) thick – and there are 246 steps, mostly in a fairly narrow spiral, to the top, a spectacular stone crown affair reminiscent of St Giles’ cathedral in Edinburgh. The views are impressive, though the battle site of Stirling Bridge in front of the castle now appears to be built over.
Beneath the crown are three chambers. The first is largely dedicated to Wallace and contains a 5’8” (1.7 metres) long medieval broadsword, or claymore, which is reputed to have belonged to Wallace and used by him at Stirling, as well as the defeat at the Battle of Falkirk the following year. The sword weighs 6lbs (2.7kg). Imagine swinging that! Whoever used it must have been big, and immensely strong. Attributing the sword to Wallace though, is uncertain; but it is apparently Scottish - and old. Wallace is alleged to have made a sword belt from the skin of Hugh de Cressingham, one of the English commanders at Stirling Bridge.
The third chamber houses an exhibition that tells the story of building the monument.
If you’re in the Stirling area, or passing by it, you can hardly fail to spot the National Wallace Memorial. High on Abbey Craig to the north west of the city, it is an undeniably proud sight. You should pop in. Park near the reception centre beneath the Abbey Craig and either take a courtesy bus, or walk up to the monument’s entrance along a pleasant, wooded path. Just bear in mind that the hill is 300 feet high, then you have the 220 foot monument to scale. There is, inevitably, a gift shop which unexpectedly specialises in Scottish things. Even more surprisingly, there is a selection of books about Sir William Wallace and the Scottish Wars of Independence. It might even be possible to buy a DVD of Braveheart. Have a cup of tea and slice of haggis in the coffee shop; it’s called ‘Legends’.
By the way, Mel – it’s about time someone made a movie about Hereward the Wake or Caractacus. Or - even better - Alfred the Great. Hey - go for all three; I’d be glad to help. “Freedom!”
There are memorials to Wallace all over Scotland, as well as in London, Australia, Canada and the United States.
Visit the National Wallace Monument website.
Or buy "Braveheart" - bad history, good movie.
Or buy "Braveheart" - bad history, good movie.