• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Robert Crawford: Bannockburns - Scottish Independence And Literary Imagination 1314-2014 (Edinburgh University Press)

CONSIDERING Alex Salmond's career and the place he may subsequently occupy in history, Gordon Wilson - Salmond's predecessor as SNP leader - told the Today programme that the present First Minister would be remembered either as James IV or Robert The Bruce.

As every student ought to know, the former was the king who led his army to Flodden where he and thousands of his countrymen were hammered by an English B-team. In contrast, the latter is known for his persistence and his victory at Bannockburn, giving him superhero status among chauvinistic folklorists.

Last year was the 500th anniversary of Flodden; this year marks the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, hence the publication of Bannockburns, in which the poet and academic Robert Crawford, through the prism of the 14th-century battle, looks at how independence has been covered by imaginative writers from John Barbour to James Robertson, author of And The Land Lay Still.

Why, asks Crawford at the outset, does Bannockburn continue to have such resonance? "Like it or not," he writes, "old and recent conflicts, memories of carnage from Gettysburg to Baghdad, from El Alamein to Culloden, are a stubbornly insistent part of all national narratives."

In the beginning, of course, it was a cause for celebration, but that was not how things were meant to be. So sure was Edward II of defeating the Scots that he engaged a "poet-in-residence" (not, perhaps, the term he used) to accompany his troops north. His brief, says Crawford, was to write "a Latin victory celebration as soon as the battle was won".

Not for the first time, it seems, an English monarch was guilty of the unforgivable sin of hubris. "This poem," we learn, "like the conflict, would enhance Edward's prestige, making clear that the might of one of Europe's great monarchies had put paid to Scotland's tenacious but absurd claims to independence."

In the event, it was left to the triumphant Scots to ensure Bannockburn was immortalised in verse. Though it would appear that Bruce had not applied to the then arts council for a grant, he had fortuitously captured Robert Baston, Edward's poet laureate, who, in return for his release, was ordered to "compose... verses without ambiguity about what had happened".

One can well imagine the duress under which these were written. Until relatively recently, however, Baston's efforts were read by very few. But in 2004, Edwin Morgan, Scotland's inaugural Makar, marked his appointment by translating Baston's words from Latin into English.

His colourful account is obviously that of an eyewitness, replete as it is with incidental detail. For example, on the eve of the battle, Baston describes how the English drank and bragged about how they would bring down the Scots. The reality was somewhat different. Despite the sword hanging over him, the poet managed to temper Scots' hoopla with a sense of tragedy. As Crawford notes, "The intended victory song is a jeremiad of carnage."

The first Scottish poets to invoke Bannockburn came later. John Barbour was born a few years after the battle; Blind Harry in the 15th century. Both, however, have remained potent texts, not least among Nationalists. That Crawford dwells on them is understandable. Their contribution to Scottish history and literature is immense. But non-academic readers may find these pages of Bannockburns rather chewy and hasten towards discussion of writers with whom they are more familiar.

Unsurprisingly, Robert Burns (of whom Crawford has written a spirited biography) and Sir Walter Scott figure prominently. For Burns, argues Crawford, Bannockburn was a battle "emblematic of liberty", linking, as he did, the American War Of Independence with the medieval Scottish Wars Of Independence. Scott, an antiquarian as well as a bestselling author, published his first novel, Waverley, in 1814, when - as Crawford observes - 15,000 people gathered at Bannockburn to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the battle. His Tales Of A Grandfather (which Alex Salmond was given as a boy in Linlithgow by his grandfather) owed much to Barbour and Blind Harry.

"When Sir Walter goes on to deal with Bannockburn," writes Crawford, "he is accurate but relatively brief". It is Scott's Bruce that has entered the popular imagination, his eye attracted by the travails of a spider, which, incidentally, one has often thought would be a more apt national symbol than the thistle.

At this point it may be worth noting that by no means all Scottish writers feel the need to invoke Bannockburn. One such was Robert Louis Stevenson, another was Muriel Spark. There is no particular explanation for this; their imaginations simply drew them elsewhere. Certainly, they were not uninterested in Scottish history. On the contrary, both were fascinated by it. Others, however, consciously used it as a means not only of informing the present and, in so doing helped define modern Scotland, but also as a way of underlining the case for independence.

In the first half of the 20th century there is no doubt Hugh MacDiarmid was the dominant figure, volcanically erupting in the hope of dragging Scotland out of the philistine and ignorant mire into which it had apathetically sunk. Intemperately anti-English, he might have been expected to invoke Bannockburn, but he rarely did, and mentions of it are few in his work. While he reckoned the site was capable of attracting tourists, it was "a singular failure as a nationalist rallying ground". MacDiarmid was drawn more to the present and the future than the past, sickened as he was by Scots' tendency to wallow in sentiment and the second-rate.

Modern Scottish writers are more circumspect and, while more conspicuous, less willing to embrace controversy. In his concluding chapter, Voting For A Scottish Democracy, Crawford identifies books such as Douglas Dunn's St Kilda's Parliament, Edwin Morgan's Sonnets From Scotland and his own A Scottish Assembly, as well as novels by Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh as "votes for a Scottish democracy". Certainly, they contained a lot of anger and evidence of frustration.

The sole female writer to be given serious attention is Liz Lochhead, who has been for many of her gender a trailblazer. Her play, Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, says Crawford, "takes as her subject the only famous Scottish woman many people can name". Ironically, the play's success owed a debt to two Englishwomen, Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher, for while it was set in the era of the former it said much about Britain during the tenancy in No 10 of the latter.

Be that as it may, it remains arguably the most significant commentary on Scotland since Shakespeare's Macbeth. History does not appeal to Lochhead's Mary. "I dinna want to hear your history!" she tells Bothwell. For her, history is tragic, blood-soaked, enervating, disputatious and wracked by the kind of internecine struggle for power that women especially seem to find repellant. Her idea of independence begins with independence for herself, which history will not allow. Like the rest of us, a queen is a prisoner of the past, release from which cannot be granted simply by appealing for clemency.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

208172