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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Legacy of the Battle of Bannockburn

     "Scots Wha Hae wi' Wallace Bled" is one of the most famous Scottish patriotic anthems, written by Robert Burns while galloping through a fierce thunderstorm. It refers to the famous Battle of Bannockburn of 1314 in which the forces of Robert the Bruce decisively routed the army of Edward II, and thus preserved Scottish independence from England. Indeed, unlike the Jacobite Rebellions, this can be described Anglo-Scottish War with a fair amount of accuracy in the context of warfare in the British Isles. I emphasize “fair amount”, because much of the fighting in the 14th century actually had more to do with king than country, the war mainly involved nobles of Norman ancestry, the borderlands were shifting place, and national identity had yet to be established in a verifiable way.

    But despite these facts, the courage and dedication of those who fought for Scottish independence in the 14th century did prevent the Scottish people, peasants and nobles alike, from being reduced to a subjugated people under the thumb of the English kings. Furthermore, the conflict established the seeds of national identity that would later blossom into full-fledged nationhood. “The People of the Lion” was what the soldiers of Robert de Bruce called themselves, for lack of better description of their new-found cause in the defense of their home and liberty from foreign oppression. Thanks to them, Scotland was never taken by storm. In fact, it was never “taken” at all.

    The Scottish people today have every right in the world to be proud of these glittering moments in their history, culminating the signing of the Arbroath Declaration asserting their self-determination and inspiring the basis for similar founding documents, including the American Declaration of Independence. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and a false sense of nationalism and historical revision has attempted to rehash The Scottish Wars of Independence and apply them to the present political sphere. This is not only unfair to the public, but it also makes those advocating the position, whether they be high-profile politicians or anonymous online trolls, look rather absurd.

    The history behind the mythology is that in 1707 the countries of England and Scotland were brought together through mutual consent and formed into the Kingdom of Great Britain out of mutual interest. While bribery was certainly a factor during the delegation and protests rampant in the aftermath of the decision, the belief that “a parcel of rogues” were the only movers in the deal is inaccurate. There were mixed emotions throughout Scotland and England about the merging, but many felt confident that political haggling could finally hammered out a decent solution to the relation problems that had plagued the two island nations for centuries. And it fact, it did.

    In spite of complaints about additional taxes, the Scots did exceptionally well under the Union, coming into prominent positions in the government, military, business, etc. Many of them became quite wealthy in the process, and became financial pillars of the growing British Empire. Of course there was always spits and spats between the Scots and the English - just read some of the stuff from Samuel Johnson and James Boswell! But in the end, they learned quite well how to function together, and took on a common identity: that of being British.

    Their unity saved their island from invasion during the Napoleonic wars and again during the Second World War, and it also rescued much of the civilized world from monstrous tyrants. Furthermore, in spite of the initial push to dissolve traditional identities of Englishness and Scottishness and the introduction of the terms "North British" and "South British", neither the Scots nor English were willing to abandon their distinctness in the least, making sure that unification would never take precedence over uniqueness.

    It seems as if the beginning of the distaste for the British identity among Scots began when the Empire began to crumble. Traditional patriotism became hopelessly associated with the worst kind of pompous nationalism, and many Scots decided to back-track rather than face up to their own mistakes and move on. They shifted the blame and painted themselves as part of a conquered race under the heels of British Imperialism. It served them to use “English” and “British” synonymously and to connect the dots between the Saxon Sea Wolves, Norman Feudal Lords, and modern British officials they found hard to stomach. They insisted on being purely Scots, untarnished by the British identity. They advocated the return of a Scottish Parliament through devolution, which they achieved. And now, they want complete independence from the UK.  

    Whether or not they achieve their goal of fracturing a perfectly sound political union (an event which they hope will coincide with 700th anniversary of The Battle of Bannockburn in 2014), there will always be an aspect of the Scottish people that is also British. It is cultural reality that cannot be snuffed out, and trying to pull up roots so deeply entrenched through crafty political maneuvering will inevitably cause more damage than the modern nationalists are bargaining for. If they truly wish to be at peace with the world and with themselves, both Scots and English must accept the blame for bad actions and credit for the good actions of their past, as well as embracing their own complex national heritage and working to improve it as opposed to destroying it.  As much as freedom fighting, dual identity is part of their lot.

Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots wham Bruce has often led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victory.

Now's the day and now's the hour,
See the front of battle glower,
See approach proud Edward's power,
Chains and slavery.

Wha would be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha so base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Wha for Scotland's king and law
Freedom's sword would strongly draw?
Freemen stand, and freemen fall,
Let him follow me!

By oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins
Yet they shall be free.

Lay the proud usurpers low,
Tyrants fall in every foe,
Liberty's in every blow,
Let us do or dee!

The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314


  1. I love all of the pictures you added to your posts! A great new dimension to an already great blog :-)

  2. Thanks for checking out the pics, Mary! I'm glad you like them. I got inspired to try adding them after viewing your very artsy blog!