Text by Ray Petersen and photos by Lena Petersen -
William Wallace was immortalised in Scotland long before the film Braveheart, starring, and directed by Mel Gibson, was released. However, since the movie was released in 1995 a certain amount of romanticism has surrounded the legend. One thing is certain, and that is that the former medieval royal market town, now the city of Stirling, and known as ‘The Gateway to the Highlands,’ has experienced a significant revival in tourism since the film, due to it being the site of both the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge, and the current William Wallace monument, which rises high above the town.
Wallace himself as the youngest son of a landowner, had no rights of inheritance, and was forced to make his own living, which he did as a mercenary soldier, and though ‘Braveheart’ offered romantic tragedy as his driving force for rebellion, Wallace was, it seems, a natural leader of men, motivated only by the injustice of England’s occupation of his homeland.
King John of Scotland ruled in the late 11th century, but the Scots were routed by King Edward of England in the Battle of Dunbar in 1296. Wallace, who had soldiering experience from his youth, established his credentials among his peers by assassinating William de Heselrig, the English High Sherriff of Lanark, and led a number of successful raiding parties from his Ettrick Forest base against the invaders.
Although the Scottish nobles settled with Edward in July 1297, Andrew of Moray, in the North, and Wallace continued their rebellion, were supported by the common people, and hundreds joined their number daily. On September 11, 10,000 English troops and 2,000 knights in armour, met the 8,000 Scots at Stirling Bridge.
The English Commander, Hugh de Warrene sent his troops across the bridge but the Scots let only half of them cross, before surrounding them, and killing, most of them. The English knights then tried to charge across the bridge on horseback, but the weight of horses and men in heavy armour was too great, and the bridge collapsed, condemning hundreds more to a watery end.
Wallace and Moray were heroes, and assumed the title of joint ‘Guardians of Scotland,’ though Moray would die of his battle wounds before the end of the year. Wallace sought to unite all of Scotland at that point, and harassed the North of England to establish their strength in England’s eyes. By now he had been knighted, and was known as Sir William Wallace of Scotland.
The nobles were obstinate though, with Wallace’s lack of aristocratic an issue. In July 1298, a bitter King Edward returned to Scotland himself with nearly 30,000 soldiers, and defeated Wallace’s greatly outnumbered army at Falkirk. Wallace then had no hope of leading Scotland, and Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scotland a short time later.
Wallace was appointed an envoy to Europe, to seek help from Germany, Norway, France, and Italy, returning only briefly. In Glasgow, in 1305, he was betrayed by John de Menteith, then transported to London, was tried, hanged, drawn and quartered. As a warning to all rebels, his limbs were displayed in all four corners of Scotland.
It would certainly not have been a pleasant end for Wallace, but one that assured him of martyrdom in his home country.
Today, the William Wallace Monument is the focal point of most tourist activity in Stirling, and to climb the 246 steps of the tower, and survey the bridge that was the scene of the battle that immortalises the Scottish hero from these windswept heights, is to appreciate him, and his achievements, which are perpetuated throughout the city, ensuring its revival as a tourist destination in its own right.
Wallace, or ‘Braveheart,’ the legend is alive and well in the ‘Gateway to the Highlands.’