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Radio: Barry Didcock on Bannockburn Begins

I would say I was as well schooled in Bannockburn lore as the next man, by which I mean I have read Nigel Tranter's Bruce Trilogy and have seen Braveheart.

Louise Welsh
Louise Welsh

Oh hang on, that was a different battle wasn't it?

Anyway, my point is this: along with many Scots I do not feel there is much more to learn about the Scotland v England match of June 1314, which perhaps explains the slow take-up of tickets for this weekend's Bannockburn Live extravaganza.

Given all that, I had my "go on then, impress me" face firmly in place for Bannockburn Begins, which was presented by novelist Louise Welsh (pictured) and dropped into the Sunday Feature slot on Radio 3 (6.45pm).

A 45-minute programme always indicates something chewier than the usual half-hour entertainments, and Welsh and her producer - historian Louise Yeoman - were plainly on a mission to offer new perspectives on the battle and its outcomes. This they managed.

And so we had some discussion of Robert The Bruce's right even to call himself King of Scotland (he had, after all, murdered a man with a better claim to the throne - and in a church) and we were presented with some very unedifying stories about the many people who changed sides before (and during) the battle.

Welsh even added a psychological dimension, reminding us that to the medieval mind the right to rule came from God and that any contestant for the crown had to demonstrate he had the Big Guy on his side.

And the whole "freedom" thing, the ideal that John Barbour hails so vividly in The Brus, his influential 1375 epic poem about the Wars Of Independence?

Bruce may have made a speech using the word, but if it was freedom he sought, it was for him and his noblemen. "It might result in some trickle-down to the peasants, but it's not freedom as we know it," Welsh reminded us.

Even more thought-provoking was the way subsequent centuries have manipulated Bannockburn and the "freedom" concept to their own ends - it drove many Scots to side with Garibaldi during the battle for Italian unification, for instance, and it was invoked by Unionist politicians and boosters of Empire long before the SNP came on the scene.

"Nothing changes so much as the past and the way in which we view and use it," said Welsh.

How right she is.

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