A Monument on a Hill

If you stand on the ramparts at Stirling Castle and look north-ish, you’ll see a spire jutting off the top of a craggy outcropping. This, my friends, is the Wallace Monument.

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Fact: William Wallace was a real person. Fact: He is a national hero of Scotland. Fiction: Pretty much everything you saw in Braveheart.

 

Contrary to Mel Gibson’s ill-fated movie (Americans seem to like it, but the Scottish harbor extreme dislike for its inaccuracies and to the people of Ireland, where it was filmed, it’s a joke), there is very little known about William Wallace prior to his rather dramatic burst onto the Scottish military/political scene around 1297. Once there, he dominated it, becoming a bastion of the Scottish War of Independence until he was captured and hung, drawn, and quartered by the English king in 1305.

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Mel Gibson as William Wallace, very inaccurately wearing a kilt and Pictish blue face paint, but looking oh-so-good while doing it. 

 

 

Let’s back up. Scotland and England used to be great neighbors, believe it or not. Their kings were brothers-in-law, and neither seemed inclined to antagonize their neighbors on the other side of the border. That all changed, however, when Margaret of England died. She had been married to Alexander III, king of Scotland, and was sister to Edward I, king of England. Shortly after she died, all of her children followed. Alexander III also died before he could have any more children with his second wife. One night, after a bit too much to drink with the boys, Alexander decided to travel to see his second wife, who was staying across the Firth of Forth in Fife. It was late and a storm had swept in, as they do, off the North Sea, making travel very dangerous and, in this case, deadly. In the extremely inclement weather, Alexander’s companions lost sight of him, only to find him the next morning at the bottom of a ravine with a broken neck.

All his children having died, and not having produced an heir with his new wife, Alexander’s successor to the throne of Scotland was his granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway. Unfortunately for the Scots, she was too young to take the throne when her grandpa died, and she stayed in Norway with her father until she was four years old and deemed old enough to travel. That estimation was wrong, and the poor little thing caught sick and died on the journey from Norway to Scotland.

Now, Scotland was truly up a crick, as there was no clear heir to the throne. Enter Edward I of England.

Edward was invited up to Scotland by the nobles, thirteen of whom had made claims to the Scottish throne, to choose the next king of Scotland. He chose John Balliol, who he thought would be easy to manipulate and would act as a puppet on the throne to the north. As it turns out, Balliol had more backbone than Edward gave him credit for, and refused to send any troops when Edward called up an army to make war with France. And that just pissed Edward off so much that he marched right up to Scotland and kidnapped Balliol (who may or may not have been thankful for his imprisonment out of reach of the temperamental Scots noblemen, but that’s for another time).

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the River Forth

Now we have Scotland being ruled by an occupying English force. One thing led to another – namely, taxes, as is so often the case with territories controlled by the English – and pretty soon, Edward I has an all-out Scottish rebellion on his hands.

Enter William Wallace, a second son educated for a life in the Church (yes, really – he was sent away from home to be educated by priests). As we’ve seen, very little is known about Wallace before he starts making military forays during the English occupation, but once he was on stage, everyone knew it. Not only was he a masterful military leader, impossible to sway from his cause, he was also domineering in the extreme and just a bit on the ruthless side. One of his first major escapades was the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Stirling Bridge was an important strategic point for anyone who wanted to control Scotland. In order to get to the highlands, a person would have to cross at Stirling Bridge. In fact, this point was so important that a castle was built in Stirling in order to defend the position. On the 11th of September 1297, Wallace, his right-hand-man Andrew Murray, and their soldiers camped out on the north side of Stirling Bridge, near Abbey Crag. The English forces on the south side of the river farted around all morning. I don’t use that terminology lightly. Some sources say that the English forces crossed the bridge to the north side of the river twice, only to be called back to the south side for some reason or another. One reason, the sources agree, was that the commander, John de Warenne, had overslept, and disliked that his troops had been marshalled without him.

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the battleground at Stirling

The really important thing in this battle was that the bridge was only wide enough for two mounted soldiers to walk abreast. That means that it took forever to cross the bridge with any number of men. That also means that, if the English really did cross and re-cross the bridge twice over, it would have taken the better part of the day, and the English soldiers would have been doing a whole bunch of hurry-up-and-wait in full armor.

Through all this, Wallace, Murray, and their men were patient, and waited for a good part of the English force to cross the river. When the Englishmen were just about ready to rally, the Scots rushed down off the crag and attacked with a ferocity that the English were just plain not ready for. The English were really stuck between a rock and a hard place – or, rather, a Scottish army and an un-crossable river. The bridge was too narrow to accommodate an effective retreat, and the water was too deep to ford, especially for heavily armored soldiers. At some point during the battle, the bridge was destroyed, perhaps by the Englishmen on the south side of the river in order to keep the Scots from coming across.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was a bloodbath and a definite victory for the Scottish cause. After that, the resistance movement in Scotland gained momentum, and what had started as a rebellion became an all-out war.

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William Wallace’s sword

All of this came to an abrupt end for Wallace, though, when Edward I decided to fight the war by playing the politics game: He bought off Scottish noblemen with promises of land. A supposed ally of Wallace then turned him over to Edward, who assigned him one of the most brutal deaths a person can get: He was hung, drawn, and quartered. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it means he was hanged until he was just about dead, cut down, disemboweled while he was still alive, and then cut into pieces. Through all of that, it’s said that Wallace never once uttered an apology or asked pardon for his actions during the war, although he did point out that he couldn’t technically be tried for treason, as treason is an act committed against one’s own country, and England wasn’t his country. It’s doubtful that Edward was appreciative of Wallace’s reasoning skills.

Regardless of his gruesome demise, Wallace lived on in the hearts of the Scottish people. When, in the 19th century, the Scottish people decided to build a monument to Wallace, they chose the site of one of Wallace’s most decisive victories: Abbey Crag, where he and his men lay in wait for the English troops to cross Stirling Bridge. The monument itself was built between 1861 and 1869, and is one of 20 Wallace monuments around the country.

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the monument and visitors’ center

 

Visiting the monument:

Visitors can get to the monument by bus (most leave from right outside the train station in Stirling, and run right by the Wallace Monument visitors’ center) or on foot (about 5km outside of Stirling).

Tickets to climb the monument cost £9.99 for adults, or £7.20 for students.

From the visitors’ center, it’s about a ten-minute walk up the hill, or there’s a complimentary shuttle that’ll take you up there.

Access to the top of the Wallace Monument is gained by a narrow spiral staircase, and the same one is used for people going both up and down. Ye be warned.

Check out the monument website here.

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