Robert the Bruce, historical accuracy and being Scottish

Human beings are hardly able to agree upon what is happening now, so it seems unrealistic to expect them ever to agree about what happened in the past.

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We can no longer ask what political action to undertake […] because the question takes for granted what is at stake: it assumes we are capable of acting. But isn’t that precisely the problem? Isn’t the problem first of all becoming capable of acting politically? Of producing the capacity in ourselves? We don’t act based on the mere fact that it is possible or because we have the capacity, and still less because we have the will. The problem is not knowing how to act but first of all making ourselves capable of acting.

David Lapoujade, Aberrant Movements: the philosophy of Gilles DeleuzeSemiotext(e), 2017.

The legend of Robert the Bruce is deeply embedded in the Scottish psyche. Most people, at least of my generation, understand the importance of Bruce’s heroic achievement and his contribution to Scottish history. Many can recount some version of the story.

After the capture and execution of William Wallace in 1305, Robert the Bruce refused to submit to the English Crown. Secretly he was crowned King of Scotland and went off into the mountains to think about his next move. Meanwhile, English forces occupied the towns and cities as the Crown put a bounty on the heads of Bruce and many others.

Taking refuge in a cave, he watched a spider spinning a web, throwing herself into the air on the end of a meagre thread, aiming for an anchor point on the cave wall, but falling back. Time after time he watched as the spider tried again, and again, until at last she landed successfully and extended the web.

From this encounter, Bruce learned that he should always keep on trying, that he should never give up. He swore then to persevere until the occupying armies were defeated, liberating the people and securing independence for the country. And so he returned to the fray. Gradually, by persuading the clans to work and fight together against a common foe, he mounted a guerrilla campaign on English garrisoned towns, which culminated with victory at Bannockburn in 1314.

Edward and the defeated English forces were, in the words of the song, sent “homewards to think again” while Bruce was able to establish a secure southern border, after which Scotland enjoyed a period of several centuries unprecedented prosperity, relatively untroubled by unwanted advances from the south.

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The aspirations of the Scottish nation were formalised in 1320 with the Declaration of Arbroath. This document is an open letter to the Pope in which is described in great detail the atrocities committed by the forces occupying Scotland, while underling the importance of Bruce during the liberation and the legitimacy of his position as monarch. The Declaration of Arbroath is most famous for the following often (mis)quoted snippet:

Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

The he of the first sentence is the King. This is a declaration therefore that the King’s position is entirely contingent on his not allowing his country or people again to be subject to English rule. This document is both a reaction to many years of living under the brutal oppression and obligations of feudal power, and an explicit affirmation that sovereignty of the country of Scotland resides with her people. Which means that the one who leads the Scottish people, their monarch, is one who is chosen by them rather than one who is imposed on them by an occupying power or handed down by the rights of inheritance.

The most emphatic nature of this national resolve was clearly the result of many years bitter civil war and struggle against occupation. Here also was an expression of the legendary stubborn independence of the Scottish people, their alleged determination to maintain communal custodianship against feudal overlordship. The signatories to the Declaration were certainly not stupid. They knew that power corrupts, that monarchs can become intoxicated by self importance and can act against the natural rights that are common to all. Even all those years ago, they had first hand experience of the perfidy of Albion. After all, both Wallace and Bruce had allied themselves at one point or another with the English Crown. The point was to explain to the Pope that the Scots had been forced to react against wickedness, powers that despite claims and appearance were anything but Christian. They do not therefore accept any ruler or government that subjects them or their kingdom to this English rule and they reserve the right whenever necessary, always to assert their sovereignty.

The same principle of sovereignty remains at issue; not so long ago reasserted in the Claim of Right, and despite now being recognised (informally) by the parliament at Westminster, the current condition of Scottish politics continues to be characterised by bitter divisions; power is still imposed from elsewhere, the sovereignty of the people still threatened. In the current climate it is becoming daily clearer that the Act of Union itself, the treaty upon which the current arrangement between the nations of this benighted kingdom is based, while presenting itself as an equal partnership, is simply the imposition of imperial rule. The country’s stubborn refusal to kowtow to burgeoning Westminster fascism, while looking to Brussels for guidance, presents an intriguing parallel with the motivation behind the Declaration of Arbroath.

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Scottish history is vigorously disputed territory and the stories of and Wallace and Bruce amongst its most prominently contested narratives. Their struggles to overcome English domination and their victories at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn, are the stuff of legend. The tale of the spider runs especially deep in the Scottish psyche: try, try, try, again; never give up. 

It is twenty years since the image of Wallace was captured forever in celluloid by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Apart from some nasty historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, some dodgy accents and the inevitable Hollywood cleanliness, Braveheart does depict the struggle of the Scots for autonomy against English domination with a degree of faithfulness to actual facts and events, but more crucially, does so in such a way that fires up patriotic spirit. Gibson’s Wallace’s cry of “freedom!” as he is eviscerated, despite the attending cleric’s sincere offering of peace and absolution in confession, became a symbol of Scottish pain and hope. It is perhaps no surprise that the film was released at about the same time as the Scottish parliament was preparing to reconvene after nearly three hundreds years recess. I am most emphatically not suggesting that either is causally related to the other, rather that both are examples of a rising phenomenon, a public realisation that good governance does not follow from the brute exercise of power, but arises from principle when people work together in ethical practice.

Twenty years on, two films have appeared that pick up the story again after the death of Wallace to depict the life of Bruce. They are very different from each other, but it is again no surprise that the events they recall resonate with the times. The new Scottish Parliament is well established and dominated now by political parties that would prefer to operate independently, no longer subservient to Westminster. Meanwhile, the sovereignty of the Scottish people remains incomprehensible to the British state, its apologists and lackeys. The Scottish people seem increasingly to be realising that they were fooled into voting five years ago to remain a part of the so called United Kingdom, more and more they are becoming aware of the absolute perfidy of Albion, more and more turning towards independence as an actual political option, no longer seeing it only as a vague aspiration. 

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The first Bruce film to be released was Outlaw King. This version of the tale is very much in keeping with the spirit of Braveheart, concentrating on battles against English treachery and culminating with victory at Bannockburn. The second is Robert the Bruce, which, although produced and directed by the same actor who played Bruce in Gibson’s Braveheart and is intended immediately to pick up the story, the film has more in common with dark Scandinavian filmic tableaux than with Hollywood action. It is a close observation of what happens when a price is put on people’s heads, when accusations of collaboration with the enemies of the state are used to settle scores and gain advantage, when people turn against each other, are forced into hiding or exile and live under conditions of mutual suspicion, continuous threat and shifting allegiance.

Both films begin with an element of the story that is not commonly recalled in legend – the murder of John Comyn at Greyfriar’s Church in Dumfries. Comyn was one of the most powerful of the Clan Chiefs and a major pretender to the Scottish throne, which had been unoccupied since Alexander fell off his horse on the way home (and then down a cliff) and after his only heir – a young Norwegian princess – died in Orkney on the way to claim the throne. Comyn had thrown in his lot with the occupying forces of King Edward and had always had a frosty relationship with Bruce, who also had a claim on the throne.

There is no record of what happened within the walls of the church, but only Robert the Bruce emerged. Comyn lay dead inside.

Outlaw King maintains the mystery of the usual legend. Bruce meets Comyn to persuade him to join forces against the English. Comyn refuses. Bruce kills him and heads for the hills to be inspired by a spider and drum up an army. The rest of the film is a succession of betrayals and battles leading to the victory at Bannockburn. More grist to the populist mill.

Robert the Bruce on the other hand, dares to speculate more deeply into events in Greyfriar’s church and depicts an altogether more subtle and nuanced encounter between the two men. Probably, the rest of the film will disappoint those who like battles, as much as those who demand historical accuracy. Rather than attempt to chart the course of events, it portrays the complex psychology of the times with dialogue and close examination of the relationships between historical and fictional characters. It is intense and engaging, and uses acting not action to tell the story, which concerns only that bit of the legend immediately after the spider and before the start of the campaign against the English, while Bruce is struggling with injuries and demons and, like the rest of the characters, dealing with issues of betrayal, resentment and loss in the aftermath of the humiliation of Wallace, still impoverished and bitterly divided, always unable completely to trust anybody, under constant scrutiny and surveillance from occupying armies.

Robert the Bruce is already despised and has been written off by opponents of Scottish independence as seditious propaganda, criticised for alleged historical inaccuracy and sentimentality. The director and star of the film is after all a prominent supporter of Scottish independence and felt that his film would help the cause. How dare anybody make a film about something they believe in with passion? How dare anybody portray this story in this way?

Viewed with an open mind, it is however a fascinating depiction of how actual people in an actual situation might behave and relate to each other. The acting is reasonable, although one or two accents do not quite make the grade, and there is some mumbling. The children’s roles are very impressive though and some very good camera work brings the horses deep inside the drama. If you have not seen it, it is worth watching. Outlaw King, on the other hand, falls into the same category as Braveheart; although both may recount events with a degree of faithfulness to the historical record, neither has much historical girth, they are just stories designed to put bums on seats in cinemas. What happens in the past, the messy details of the course of events as it was experienced people long ago, is of only secondary interest.

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In principle at least, it makes no difference to what is happening now that what we believe to have happened in the past is true, good, right or whatever. Knowing what happened makes no difference to what happened. Likewise, believing that events took place in a particular way rather than another, does not actually change what happened. Historical knowledge is no more than a catalogue of stories, narratives and legends, refined by educated guesswork, reinforced by careful extrapolation. Human beings are hardly able to agree upon what is happening now, so it seems unrealistic to expect them ever to agree about what happened in the past. 

Whether or not Bruce killed Comyn in cold blood or during a fight does not really matter. Whether either or both did or did not act in good faith before entering the church, whether or not either concealed a weapon, and whether or not either had an armed retinue posted outside, are open questions in support of which there is no evidence either way, nor is there any now ever likely to come to light. So there is no point in discussing the matter.

We will always be able to make up stories about our historical ignorance and speculate. With these stories we create our lives in the present – our history – and if we are wise we learn from the mistakes of the past; the notion of historical accuracy now intersects with a sense of authenticity to become less about knowing what really happened, and more about encountering and expressing familiar themes, principles and aspirations, which resonate throughout the course of events, whether these take place here and now, or in times gone by. 

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Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith.

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