WHEN Catherine Carswell published her iconoclastic biography of Robert Burns, thereby enraging his devotees, she famously received a silver bullet in the post, along with a note recommending she use it on herself. While writing this bombshell, she reflected in a letter to a friend, “how furious they will be to have R.B. brought out of the mist they have loved to keep about him!”

Dr Fiona Watson, whose new biography of Robert the Bruce claims that he was born not in Ayrshire, as so long believed, but in the village of Writtle in Essex, might not be expecting the same level of vituperation as Carswell rightly anticipated, but there’s no doubt that she will have upset some of Bruce’s fans. For the Braveheart brigade, for whom provenance carries an almost holy significance, this will be a blow. It’s like discovering Margaret Thatcher hailed from Tobermory, or Theresa May from Montrose.

Despite offering a new perspective on the founding father of modern Scotland, Dr Watson is keen to point out that as a child Bruce was fostered out to a family either in the West Highlands or in Ireland. This was normal for aristocratic children at the time, as was being sent as a youth to learn the knightly arts among the English nobility. In this period, records suggest Bruce spent time at the court of King Edward I. If true, then even if his mother had given birth to him at Turnberry castle, as once believed, he nevertheless spent formative years, from the age of around 12 to 18, in the company of the English aristocracy and the royal family against whom he would one day spectacularly turn.

Watson’s revelation is based on a 14th-century chronicler, which describes Bruce as “of the nation of England”, born near Chelmsford. Given that his father, Robert de Bruce, 6th Lord of Annandale, owned land in Essex – not to mention in County Durham, County Antrim, Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire – it is possible that his mother Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, could have been in the south when she gave birth. If correct, this adds a touch more colour to the decidedly sketchy picture of Bruce’s childhood. It might even be seen to reinforce rather than diminish his patriotic credentials, since of all parts of that tumultuous medieval kingdom, few were more opposed to the English crown than the Irish or the Gaels.

Yet to speak of patriotism and of Scotland as we understand it today, is anachronistic. The brutal Wars of Independence in which Bruce finally prevailed were the start of our vision of ourselves as a freestanding, self-determining nation, but for decades and even centuries to come, the idea of Scotland as a unified country under the control of a single ruler was far from universally accepted.

The bigger question, of course, is what determines a person’s nationality? If it is the postcode in which you first draw breath, regardless of parentage, then many of the country’s most famous sons and daughters technically are not Scots. And what about those who moved to Scotland as adults, and made it theirs? When my mother – from Essex, like Robert the Bruce – crossed the border to marry my father, she felt immediately at home, an identity that deepened over the years. By contrast, my East Londoner grandfather, who retired to North Berwick, never conceded an iota of his Englishness. Why would he?

Dr Watson softens the news by saying that “Robert’s first love was for not only Scotland, but the Highlands and the Celtic world. That’s where his heart is.” Well, that organ supposedly lies in Melrose Abbey, but whether it was an all-Scottish heart, one with divided loyalties, or simply a house of many chambers, one thing is clear: in his pursuit of a country free from the dominion of a southern king, a country that could take control of its own affairs and would brook no interference, Bruce was single-minded, passionate, and ruthless. Maybe, in fact, it was his peripatetic upbringing that gave him the perspective necessary to see what he must fight for, and what was in Scotland’s best interests as well as his own.

Those who hold him up as an icon of true-blue Scottishness should see his possible English birth as an added distinction, not a black mark. As we continue to debate the nature of an independent Scotland, of the kind Bruce envisaged, it is good to be reminded that we are, and must aspire to be, a mongrel nation. Should they live here, or consider moving here, a person’s DNA, their origins and accent, are irrelevant. Anyone who wants to call themselves Scottish can and should be welcomed.

Robert the Bruce could have been born on the moon, for all the difference it makes. Our attachment to him, and to the country he served, is far more complicated than what a birth certificate says. Dr Watson is to be congratulated not condemned for shining a torch into the mist. In so doing she has enriched the stories and myths we tell ourselves, bringing them a little closer to fact than fiction.