On the 10th of September 2011, Stirling is cold, grey and wet. The rain comes down neither in sheets nor in thick drops, but in a swirling explosion of dampness. Too wet to take your jacket off. Yet not wet enough to spoil the dry and carefully packed umbrella in your backpack.
The next day, most of the world will be commemorating the terror attacks in New York. But for Stirling in particular, and Scotland in general, the 11th of September is the anniversary of a pivotal moment in Scotland’s confusing but unrelentingly sad history: the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
All history, one might say, is sad. In the end, someone dies, one army loses, one side forever gets branded villains, pompous promises are made that such injustice will never happen again. And then everything happens again.
Crossroads of time: Wind turbines overlook the ancient Stirling Castle perched atop Stirling, the gateway to Scotland. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.
But even after accounting for the general pathos of mankind’s tendencies, Scotland somehow seems to have drawn terrible cards—over and over again. And outlining some of this story, to a group of mostly American tourists standing outside the main gate to Stirling Castle, is Stuart, one of the castle’s historians and tour guides. The wind and rain billow around us, and Stuart starts by apologizing for the dreadful but typical weather.
“Now look around the castle,” he says, swinging his arms. Stuart speaks with a gentle, reassuring Scottish accent. The kind that British companies, even in England, like to employ in helplines and advertisements. All tourist guides in the world should adopt this accent. Everyone in the world should adopt this accent.
Stirling, a small town with a population of less than 40,000 these days, has witnessed such tremendous historical upheavals because of its unique location. To the south lie the flat Scottish lowlands, and to the north the highlands. Stirling is perched around what was historically the lowest crossing point of the river Forth. In other words, if marauding kings and invading armies wanted to march up or down through Scotland, Stirling was the narrow gateway that stood in between. Their armies had to funnel through the city and over the river. As anybody from Poland will tell you, it really sucks to get in the way.
Both Scottish and English marauded and invaded plenty.
Also See : Trip Planner| Scotland (PDF)
Stirling Castle sits on a high vantage point surrounded by cliffs. This gives it a commanding position over the city of Stirling and the river crossing. Nearby, there is another prominent rock formation locally called a “crag and tail”, or a teardrop of upturned rock shooting out of the flat surface. It was this hill, called Abbey Craig, where William Wallace planned and executed the Battle of Stirling Bridge on the 11th of September 1297.
But we get ahead of ourselves. First let us talk about the kings of Scotland who lived at Stirling Castle and the unfortunate turn of events that led to the battle, and the myth of William Wallace.
For the purpose of brevity, let us assume that all was well with the Scottish kings until the reign of Alexander III from 1249-86. As we walk through the main gates of Stirling Castle and into the innards, darting from one pocket of wind to another, Stuart tells us of how Alexander had three children: a daughter who was married off to Norway, and two boys who died young. Later, Alexander’s wife, an English princess, would also die, leaving him without male heirs.
Alexander, however, was not one to spend life besotted by the memory of his dead wife. Oh no. Quite the contrary. The Chronicle of Lanercost, a record of the period, describes him thus: “For he (Alexander) used never to forbear on account of season or storm, nor for perils of flood or rocky cliffs, but would visit, not too creditably, (both) matrons and nuns, virgins and widows, by day or by night as the fancy seized him, sometimes in disguise, often accompanied by a single follower.”
Auld lang syne: In June, Stirling Castle was reopened after two years of renovation to give it a 15th-century feel (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Poor single follower.
While the chronicle called him a well-loved king, his indiscretions, it seemed to indicate, cost him dearly. One night, drunk and on horseback, Alexander rushed to meet his new French bride. The next morning he was found dead. Nobody really knew how.
His granddaughter in Norway became heir, but she died of illness on the way to assume the throne (“must have been the weather,” Stuart tells us). Suddenly, Scotland had no successor. With too many interested parties, the Scottish nobles followed up two instances of bad luck with one of bad judgement: They asked the English king to intervene and sort out the succession.
Bad card. Bad card. Bad play.
What followed were the wars of Scottish independence that raged for the next three decades. Starring such legendary characters as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, King Edward Longshanks, and Mel Gibson, the wars were really a relentless series of battles and skirmishes for control.
Stuart tries hard to talk us through the wars without confusing us. But except for one astoundingly well-informed American tourist who is a spitting image of the coroner on CSI: Las Vegas, eyes begin to glaze over. There were six kings called James, for God’s sake.
Back in the days when Stirling was the capital of Scotland—not Edinburgh or Glasgow, mind you—the kings lived in the castle. This was the centre of Scottish power. Yet it is really rather small. The hills and landscape dwarf it. And it is austere. Part of the reason was the austerity of the nation itself, which only really became prosperous under the Stewart kings in the late 14th century. And by then the kings rarely stayed in the castle at all.
So there is a sense of long-lost glory in Stirling Castle. Despite extensive restorations of the inside room and outside walls, one is left with the feeling that the castle’s majesty, brief as it was, will never be restored.
The Stirling Bridge, the site of many a battle (London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
After the tour, I hustle my tourist guide to a corner. So, I ask him, do you think Scotland will vote for devolution? You think enough people want it to be an independent country?
(Which is when I notice his full name: James Stuart Campbell. The only way to make that any more Scottish would be to add the name of a whisky or two: James Laphroaig Stuart Glenlivet Campbell.)
Campbell says: “Aye. I think it could go either way. Personally, I am not for it. But there are many Scottish people who would vote for independence in a referendum.”
After the 2011 election to the Scottish parliament, the Scottish National Party won with a majority. Party leader and first minister Alex Salmond has since announced that a referendum on independence will take place in 2014 or 2015.
“I think Salmond is being very smart,” says the bus driver who ferries me back to the city centre. “There is no hurry. I think he is going to wait for a couple of years, wait for the Tories down in London to screw up completely, and then conduct the referendum.”
“I think we should become a free country,” he says vigorously. “We’ve suffered far too long under the English. We can be a better nation than we are right now.”
Dinner that night is at something called an EatingInn pub, a mass-produced highway restaurant that has a single menu across all their outlets in the UK. The waitress, a young Scottish girl with bubbling enthusiasm and chipped nail polish, gets every single element of my order wrong. She brings me a gin and tonic without the gin, a burger with the wrong sauce, and forgets the dessert completely. But she blunders her way through the evening with the eagerness of an Olympic floor gymnast. Also, EatingInn provides a small flat-screen TV for each table.
Surely this country is ready for freedom.
The next morning, I wake up half expecting to see a fantastic Battle of Stirling Bridge parade of some kind, complete with bagpipes and whisky and dancing. But in fact there is nothing of the kind. The 11th of September looks just as cold and wet as the 10th of September did. My plan is to take a taxi, then a bus and finally trek up to The National Wallace Monument, via the current Stirling Bridge. The monument website promises a lively re-enactment of history by some local actors. And then, if time permits, I’ll take a bus to Bannockburn, the site of a definitive Scottish victory.
A statue of the legendary King Robert the Bruce(Thinkstock).
“Too late for devolution now,” says my taxi driver. “We should have thought about it when we found oil. Now when the oil is running out, what is the point?”
In the 1960s, several companies struck oil in the North Sea off Aberdeen. The resultant income energized Scotland. Today, Scotland is the European Union’s largest producer of oil, and the sector provides around 6% of total employment. However, the general impression is that the North Sea reserves are past their peak output, and this income will eventually decline.
“Without oil…who knows? We could end up becoming like Ireland or Greece…”
The National Wallace Monument is one of the weirdest monuments, or indeed building of any kind, that I’ve ever seen. It is an intensely Gothic finger of masonry that points up from the peak of Abbey Craig hill. Fine. There is no point denying the obvious. It is embarrassingly phallic. At first glance, it looks like a castle that has tumbled down, leaving only one remaining tower.
Not only is it odd to look at, it is also somewhat cumbersome to climb. This fierce finger of stone has a spiral staircase in one corner, which I climb up to pass through a series of halls stacked one above another. The best stops are the hall on William Wallace’s life, and the very roof itself. The view of the Stirling landscape is breathtaking. Even if you’re slightly vertiginous, the effort to climb the 246 steps to the top is worth it.
I huff my way back down again just in time to witness the next “enactment”. A short man dressed in the garb of a 13th century Scottish foot soldier gathers us around and tells us that the “English are coming”. Freedom fighter William Wallace was somewhere in the surrounding forest, and he would know how to push them back. “Come with me…and look sharp!” he screams.
We follow. Suddenly, from the wet foliage, from inside the hollow of a dead tree, a man in a cloak leaps forth. He has a knife at the foot soldier’s throat. At least one of the women screams a little.
William Wallace! The outlaw! Brave-heart! Mel Gibson!
On this day in 1297, an army of some 12,000 troops loyal to King Edward, the once-mediator-now-usurper, rode up to Stirling Bridge. They came from the south and faced, on the other side of the river, a small, hitherto unorganized group of some 3,000 Scots. A rout was on the cards. But Wallace had a plan. He waited for a few thousand English to cross before swooping.
The English were destroyed. It was a great, if indecisive, Scottish victory. And one made immortal in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (except that there is no bridge in the movie. Really).
Wallace would eventually lose to the English at Falkirk and then be betrayed. After which he was hung, drawn and quartered. The enactment at the monument is a quick recap of the victory, the betrayal and the trial, with the foot soldier taking turns to play King Edward and the executioner. Between two acts I ask him what he thinks of Scottish devolution. “Oh aye! We must get freedom,” he says, before adding, “but first we kill some English…”
With the rain beginning to pick up, both actors quickly wrap up the show.
Ironically, Lars Cook, who plays William Wallace, is Welsh. And a local history professor. “I am more a historian who can act than vice versa,” says Cook. He thinks there is a steady increase in interest about Scottish history. “More people, especially young people, are beginning to care for the history. Movies like Braveheart help, but museums and monuments are also getting their act together.”
Cook, who says he doesn’t really have a stake in it because he is Welsh, thinks that devolution is a good thing. “It will make young people take greater ownership of their country. And it is not like they will run it any worse than they already do. Things could possibly get better.”
But most of all, he adds, “Scotland will get a chance to stop blaming other people for its problems.”
As Cook walks back into an office to towel himself down and prepare for the next performance, I take the courtesy bus down the hill to the car park, and then walk south across the river. The weather is just beginning to clear up. But, most of all, I am happy that no one is waiting to ambush me on the other side.
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