April 30, 2003
Apologies for the delay in trip reports. It’s been quite hectic around here. I returned from Scotland only to turn around and head back out to Harper’s Ferry for the Washington Romance Writer’s annual retreat.
I am happily back home for a bit, and over the coming weeks will post a series of columns on my travels. There is so much to share that I hardly knew where to begin…with legends? history? landscapes?
Scotland seduced me like a mysterious man, by turns blustery and kind, charming and prickly, sweetly seductve and shockingly violent.
And in that vein, let us begin with a man. THE man.
William Wallaces sword lives in a glass case at the Wallace Monument, which is a towering structure built atop a high hill overlooking Stirling Bridge and castle. You only haVe to glimpse its location to understand what he meant, how beloved he is. There is a terrible statue of Wallace as Mel Gibson/Braveheart at the foot of the hill, but even so, it is a special place.
Wallace is everywhere–Paul Bunyan and George Washington and the entire Boston Tea rolled into one giant legend of a man.
But here, in that case, in the tower on the hill, is his sword. His hands held it.
I will confess that I knew nothing at all of Wallace until the movie Braveheart. I’d never even heard his name. The history of a small nation, one seen as a satellite to the English empire, was barely noted in those overview World History classes (which, as I recall, mainly hit the major shifts of power) we all took in high school. And as I studied medieval and Georgian history for my novels, it was largely from the English side. All I knew of Scottish history is where it touched English history. I knew, vaguely, of the Jacobites and Culloden, and other such highlights. Very little else. Certainly nothing of William Wallace.
His sword comes late in my travels.
First is a spot beside the River Ayr, where I walk with my friend and a cheerful dog the morning after our arrival. It is a bright, pleasant Saturday and there are lots of walkers out with lots of dogs on the paths. Houses have crept down to the edge of a grassy pasture where I see a shaggy Highland cow for the first time. He’s red and furry and slow-mvoing, and I think of my own dog, Jack, who has that same big, friendly-looking head.
Our feet carry closer to the river bank, under a thick canopy of greeny, moist shadows, and my friend pauses beside a set of steps leading to the very muddy bank. “Go look,” he says. It’s quiet here, only the birds singing and the water rushing. I go down the stairs to discover a tiny spring surrounded with moss and mud, bubbling out of an indentation in the bank. A plaque above it reads simply, “Wallace’s Heel.”
“It’s where,” my friend says, “Wallace left his footprint when he leapt the River Ayr, running away from the English.” (“The English” is always said like “brussel sprouts.”)
Ah. “Paul Bunyan in tartan.”
In town, there is a Wallace tower. And through the countryside, I will see it repeated, again and again. A little note, a plaque, a hill or a sign or a building, where Wallace once was. Robert the Bruce is memorialized, too, along with other warriors and poets, but it’s clear Wallace stands, like his monument, above the rest.
It’s sunny again as we climb the hill to the monument (a most vigorous, steep climb, in case you ever go), then enter the tower itself and climb some more.
And there is his sword, in its case. Ordinary and gigantic. I have lifted broadswords in the past–sought out the experience so I would know what it was like when I wrote of medieval knights. They are heavy. Heavy. I am a strong woman–a devoted gardner who can dig all day–but it took both hands for me to lift the broadsword I once had the chance to handle. I could lift it, but I could not have swung it. It would have taken me with it.
Wallace’s sword is not just a sword. Plain, sturdy, deadly–and huge, the biggest sword I have ever seen. The bottom of the case is at about my knee, and the hilt is well over my head. A shiver creeps down my arms, and Wallace the man arrives in my imagination.
He had to have been a giant and powerful man to lift that sword, and swing it; to use it, as he undoubtedly did, to kill unknown numbers of the English. With a peculiar mix of horror and awe, I thought of the men who’d met their fate with the blade. I thought of the mess sword battles must have been. Splatters and grunts and cries, and a level of adrenaline I can’t even imagine. I thought of Wallace the man, made of bone and muscle and brain, of heart and soul and fierce will, and thought of his arms. How much power must it have taken to not only lift and swing that monstrous sword, but to slice or thrust it past skin and muscle and bone…
Wallace’s sword. That once knew Wallace’s hands. Wallace’s fight. Standing there, I wish I knew what he really looked like. There are statues, but I wish there had been photography then.
I have fallen in love with him. How could I not? And because I have, because his fight was so fierce (and don’t tell me he was a bit of a crook, because that will only make me love him more), I am moved nearly to tears thinking of his gruesome death.
For this is where is story veers from the Bunyan and Washington and Boston Tea Party heroics–Wallace was tortured to death for his troubles. It’s not a tale of triumph, but of terrible sacrifice.
So it goes with Scottish history.
Because I traveled with a knowledgable native guide, I received a crash course in this small country’s history. I ached for Robert the Bruce and the price he had to pay for the victory at Bannockburn (but I am secretly glad Wallace’s tower is so much more dramatic than anything erected to Bruce. After all, Bruce tasted victory, became king, and got to live) and for a poet whose story comes later, and for Bonnie Prince Charlie and for the mounds of bones at Culloden.
Over and over, at the monuments and battlefields, the extremely violent nature of Scottish history rises up. It’s a history of struggle and bands of the fanatically devoted willing to do battle to the death for their cause, always against the English.
But there is brutality, too, in the history of the Highlanders. Horrifying clashes, like the Battle of the Shirts. A small plaque marks the spot at the top of Loch Lochy. A band of 1400 clansmen in two bands, 600 in one, 800 in the other, faced off in a brutal battle on a day so hot they had to shed their tartans and fight in their shirts. At the end, only 4 of one clan, and 8 of the other were still alive.
What I thought, standing there reading the plaque in a gilded day with the loch shining and the hills softly gauzed with green around me, was “their women had to have been so furious!” What a terrible waste! (I have sought more information about this battle since coming home, and haven’t found much. If you know of a source, please email me or post to the bulletin board.)
It is not a history of triumph or glad tidings. It’s one of terrible sacrifices, made over and over again. Short periods of gain, followed by more bloodshed and yet another crushing defeat.
The worst for me was not a battle at all. It was discovering that Scotland did not, finally lose its autonomy in a crushing battle. There was no blood spilled, no lives lost, no widows or orphans.
Instead, in 1707, the Scottish Parliament simple voted itself out of existence.
Wallace and The Bruce must have turned over in their graves. Voted themselves out of existence.
And yet, here it is, three hundred years later, and there is again, a Scottish Parliament. The Stone of Destiny has been returned. There is a Scottish Nationalist Party. I saw their signs in towns all over the country.
Who knows how history will flow in the future? Who even knows how it should? I am glad to follow events with a sense of history in place, and a grounding in the fierce past.
Check back soon for a landscape, a poet, an ordinary town….