Scotland's Bloody History
Scottish Heritage and Historical Stories


I remember once on a coach tour I was guiding, I asked if anyone knew what had happened in England in 1066 and a bright Englishman shouted, “England won the World Cup!”. I am forever indebted to the Australian sitting just behind me who shouted back, “Nah, mate, it only seems like nine hundred years ago to you poms!”

Anyway, nine years after the death of Macbeth, in 1066AD, momentous events were occurring in England. William the Conqueror had invaded with his Norman forces and King Harold Godwinson had been shot by an arrow through the eye at Battle during the battle of Hastings. For the first time England had been conquered – I never count the Romans as they only sort of occupied the place for a while. The Normans really changed everything within the country.

Eventually William arrived in Scotland, but he had probably run out of steam militarily. Nevertheless, for his meeting with King Malcolm in 1072AD he put on as big a show of force as he could muster. This sufficiently impressed Malcolm and caused him to do something the Scottish people would regret for centuries – he swore allegiance to William The Conqueror, thus giving England a claim on Scotland for the first time.Malcolm swears allegiance to William the Conqueror, but keeps Scotland's independence.

King Malcolm Canmore (meaning literally “big head” in English, although it has also been interpreted as “big chief”) was still at the helm since the murder of King Lulach and it is difficult to imagine this powerful and aggressive individual paying homage to William.

Perhaps, if there had been a BBC news team there at the time we may have spotted that Malcolm had one hand behind his back and his fingers crossed as he made his oath, for Malcolm did not seem to then behave as an underling at all.

Malcolm had married very well indeed. His wife, who went on to be canonised as St Margaret, brought the English language with her and began to reform the Scottish Kirk. Some say that if she had not done this, the sixteenth century reformation in Scotland may not have been necessary as the Scottish Kirk would be more in sympathy to the Protestant religions.

Malcolm continued breaking his oath to William, invading several more times until eventually he went too far and was killed, along with his main heir, in 1093AD. Nevertheless this thirty six year reign showed what could be achieved with tanistry pushed into the background.

I cannot forgive Malcolm for having Macbeth killed, but I must acknowledge that he was also a great, if brutal leader of Scots.

Over the next two centuries the Normanisation of Scotland continued, with Scots lairds acquiring English estates and the English bringing their fortresses and ways to Highland and Lowland estates in Scotland. The Scots were even fighting alongside the English on the continent.Scots armies fought alongside the English on the continent

Some Scots believed that the mixing of the two cultures and co-operation with the English was causing a dilution of their national identity. Inevitably this led to conflict.

The death of Alexander III of Scotland brought matters to a head. His only living relative was his three year old granddaughter Margaret, whose mother had married a Norwegian prince and moved to Scandinavia. Negotiations began, but it was not just a simple matter of sending an email or two. These negotiations to have the “Maid of Norway”, as she became known, return to inherit the crown took years.

The country remained in limbo until, after arriving in Orkney, the young Queen died of natural causes and Scotland was thrown into turmoil.

The King of England, Edward I, or Edward Longshanks, as most readers will know him, must have been watching all of this with glee. He wanted Scotland to become part of England and misfortune, coupled with the greed of the Scots’ lairds, was playing into his hands.

Unbelievably, unable to resolve who should be king themselves, the powerful Comyn and Bruce claimant families allowed Edward to select the monarch. This is like the chickens inviting the fox for dinner – Edward’s army was the most powerful in Europe at the time.

Edward chose a member of the Comyn family – John Balliol, perhaps the weakest of the bunch and definitely someone he felt he could keep under control.

However, to Balliol’s credit, he eventually began to resist Edward but resulted in him being incarcerated in the Tower of London until he agreed to abdicate in favour of the English tyrant. He was then released into the custody of the Pope and exiled in France under the protection of a Papal Nuncio.

Edward then moved on Scotland and we had lost our independence for the first time.

This saw some Scots rise up against the new regime – Sir Andrew de Moray in the north and William Wallace in the south. Others, however, including Robert the Bruce played the political game, believing it was more important to be always on the winning side, whichever side that may be.

Some have called the Bruce a traitor for this, but he knew that to move too early would be a disaster. Robert needed Edward to grow older and himself to grow stronger and more influential.

Meantime, Sir Andrew de Moray and William Wallace started their popular uprising, bringing death and destruction to sheriffs appointed by Edward and English landowners in Scotland. This perfectly illustrates that one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, for the actions of de Moray and Wallace, in particular, mimicked today’s terrorists perfectly.

On one occasion, with only nineteen men, Wallace took a convoy of gold and grain heading for England from a support force of nearly two hundred cavalry. He did it by sheer wiliness and cunning, trapping the convoy in a narrow gully and massacring some fifty English soldiers. The remainder fled claiming they had been attacked by a huge force of several hundred men.

After many successes Wallace was appointed Guardian of Scotland by the Scottish lairds. This added legitimacy to his actions and brought many into his ranks who may otherwise have been feint hearts.Sir William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland, stood head and shoulders taller than the average man

Objections from some quarters that he was just a commoner were overcome when he was knighted Sir William Wallace, probably by Robert The Bruce. This gives the lie to the betrayal of Wallace by Bruce in the Hollywood movie.

In fact, many people only know of Sir William Wallace through the Hollywood movie Braveheart and so this may well be the place to dispel some of the myths.

However, there is so little fact and documentation about Wallace that he becomes one of those immortal heroes whose life in the telling grows more bloody and more fascinating by the minute! Far be it for me to change that tradition, but there are some obvious mistakes which deserve to be challenged.

In the absence of absolute fact I have chosen the stories which I believe most likely to be true. I shall contrast these with some of the fiction which won Oscars in Hollywood.

There is one certainty about Wallace. We know that he stood six feet seven inches tall[1]! That is when the average height at the time was close to five feet six inches[2]. If we scale this up to the average height in Scotland today, close to five feet eleven inches, then Wallace, if he lived among us today, would have stood over seven feet tall[3].

 He was an absolute giant of a man compared with his contemporaries, which leaves us all pondering why one of the shortest leading men in the world, Mel Gibson, considered he was the best person to play the Scottish hero!

In fact, those of you who have seen the film may remember a scene where Mel is riding up and down in front of his men and shouting, “You don’t believe I’m really William Wallace because I’m not tall enough!”.

Only an appreciation of the irony of his puny size compared with the real William Wallace could have permitted Mel Gibson to have included such a wonderful line within the script … and all credit to him, for it would have made no sense if it had been in the script.

Also in the film we see Robert the Bruce betraying Wallace and that certainly didn’t happen. This error is probably compounded by the fact that the name of the film, “Braveheart” was actually stolen from our great king Robert I. More about that later in “Braveheart - The Original” perchance!

What about the affair with the French princess? The film has the most wonderful story line that William Wallace has an affair with Isabella, who was later married to King Edward’s son, and all the subsequent kings of England were therefore descended from William Wallace. A great idea, but most certainly not true for she was less than eight years old when Sir William Wallace was executed.

She did eventually marry Edward II at the age of twelve! Even the mathematically naïve among you will have calculated that Wallace was actually dead by then! Let’s not spoil a good story with facts though.

However, extraordinarily, Sir William Wallace may have met the French princess when he went to France as an ambassador to try to organise support for the French opposition to Edward. At that time, of course, she would have been closer to four years of age.

What about the execution? Well, you can trust Hollywood to get the gory bit right! William Wallace was dragged through the streets, naked, behind a horse then pulled up by a rope around the neck.

This would not have been a hanging in the way we know it today. The intention was not to kill Wallace, but to strangle him and have him dangle on the rope, choking until he turned blue.

As blessèd unconsciousness approached, the rope would have been cut. Wallace would have crumpled to the ground breaking one or both ankles or legs.

Next he was laid on a stone slab and a highly skilled executioner would have taken command. His objective was to prolong the agony of life to its extreme.

He cut a neat hole in Wallace’s abdomen, taking great care not to damage the diaphragm which would have caused suffocation. Next he expanded the hole and extracted the entrails, heaping them on to a griddle and burning them in front of Wallace’s eyes.

Finally life would have been extinguished and, according to Hollywood, he still had the strength to scream “FREEEEEEEEDOM” with his dying breath. Great theatre, but probably not wholly true. Still, we can dream!

But the ultimate insult to Wallace in the film was the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

In the movie it was the Battle of Stirling, but this was only because they had run out of cash and couldn’t afford to build a medieval bridge. That meant holding the battle in a field in the film and the directors having the Scots raise their kilts and frighten the English to death.

That may have worked, but it is not what actually happened. In fact no one really knows the full detail of what happened on September 11th 1297.

To celebrate the seven hundredth anniversary of Wallace’s death in 2006, the BBC produced a documentary about the battle, but instead of bringing in military men to analyse the event, they used historians and a fourteenth century poet!

The resultant explanation of how Wallace’s three thousand foot-soldiers defeated an English army of some forty thousand men was farcical.

I prefer the following interpretation, which may be equally flawed but rings more true to Wallace’s cunning and the armies of the time.

Visualise the English army of forty thousand men arriving at Stirling Bridge – more than three thousand of them on horseback including, perhaps a thousand in full armour – yes, your genuine Ivanhoe chappies! They are on the southern side of the river close to the medieval wooden bridge spanning the river which would have been maybe 60 metres across at this point. The bridge would have been wide enough for a horse and cart to pass pedestrians comfortably, but no more.

Then there is a bog, a really marshy, wet place stretching for perhaps a quarter of a mile or more, with just a narrow stone causeway passing through it. On the northern side of the bog was Wallace with his three thousand foot soldiers.

Wallace knew two important facts. Firstly that the English commanders knew that nothing was more important to Edward than the capture of Wallace. Secondly Wallace knew that the English were well aware of how to identify him because of his great size. Wallace stood head and shoulders above all of his men and would have been clearly identifiable to the English even from some eight hundred yards (metres) away.

The fact that Wallace was well educated now becomes important, for he would have been well versed in, and had an excellent understanding of military tactics. He knew what the English would do, it was a prescribed tactical situation.

They would firstly send their foot soldiers over the bridge and allow them to fight their way along the causeway. Once they got to Wallace’s side of the bog they would spread out to form, what we call today, a beachhead.

Next the cavalry and knights in armour would cross the bridge and causeway, forming up into ranks behind the infantry at Wallace’s side of the bog. Suddenly the foot soldiers would part to allow the knights and cavalry to charge.

Knights in armour were the medieval equivalent of tanks. They rode into battle with both arms swinging. One hand held a double-edged battleaxe and the other a mace – a spiked iron ball on the end of a shaft or a length of chain. Such an attack would be devastating with skulls crushed, shoulders broken, arms and heads severed. It was an horrific form of warfare.

Wallace was well aware that if he were to have any  chance at all then he would have to stop the English using this tactic. And that is where his huge size and military brilliance combined to incredible effect.

Wallace waited until after dark and sent a substantial, but small contingent of soldiers over to the northern side of the bridge to remain completely hidden from view until an order was given by him.

Sir Andrew de Moray was asked to go down to the causeway with a contingent of Scots soldiers and they concealed themselves toward the Scots’ end of the causeway, lying in the ditches and hiding under any camouflage which came to hand.

Finally, many of the remaining soldiers were sent into the bog, a short but concealable distance from the causeway. When this was completed, Wallace waited until daylight and began his game play.

He turned to the men around him and said, “Right guys, let’s pack up camp and pretend we’re running away.” With that they started dismantling their shelters, taking their belongings and moving away up the hill towards the trees.

Now imagine the English commander being told by one of his men, “Sire, Wallace is running away!”.

Remember that the commander of the English forces knew which man was Wallace and he knew Edward wanted the rebel more than anything else in the world.

“Quick, quick!” he would have shouted to his commanders. “Wallace  is making a run for it. No time to send the infantry, cavalry and knights, follow me now. Over the bridge, CHARGE!”

With this the horsemen would have started over the bridge. Just imagine the scene. Thousands of cavalry and knights, not just trotting or walking over the bridge but cantering or galloping along that causeway to get to Wallace before he could disappear into the cover provided by the trees and an easy escape.

It is hard to visualise the scene of these horsemen charging along that stone causeway, but when they reached the end, still moving at full speed, Sir Andrew de Moray and his men leapt up out of the ditches with axes and hacked the horses legs from under them.

The carnage and cacophony must have been dreadful with forty or fifty dying horses and, of course, none of the following horsemen could see what had happened. All they knew was that the causeway was suddenly blocked solid.One interpretation of the real battle of Stirling Bridge

There was nowhere to go. The horses piled out into the bog, forced off the causeway by the sheer weight of numbers coming from behind. Once in the bog the cavalry had to dismount and when they were on foot they had completely the wrong weapons to be able to fight. Their weapons were specially chosen to use from horseback.

The knights in armour were in even worse condition. They were physically unable to mount or dismount without help and when their horses stumbled into the bog they were either thrown or fell from their mounts.

If they landed face down, unable to move or turn over they would have drowned where they lay. If they fell face up they would have lain in the bog, helpless, screaming “help me, help me” until a kindly Scots soldier came along and helped them … to heaven or hell!With all of the wrong weapons for fighting on foot, the English cavalry were massacred in the bog

By now William Wallace and his men were back with Sir Andrew de Moray and making their way closer and closer to the bridge, slitting the throats of the English cavalry.

As soon as the cavalry had finished crossing the bridge Wallace had given the signal for the Scots force to take the bridge and hold it. Edward’s infantry, horrified by what was happening made a late attempt to cross the bridge in support, but by now the Scots had taken the bridge and were allowing no one to cross.

With the cavalry almost destroyed, the English force withdrew in disarray.

Wallace’s tiny army had defeated the pride of Edward’s fighting force.

There is a line in the famous song “Flower of Scotland” sung at Scottish soccer and rugby football games against the English, which sums up the result of the Battle Of Stirling Bridge:

And stood against him

Proud Edward’s army

and sent him homeward

To think again!

On my guided tour I have often recounted this story, particularly when I have had English people among my passengers, and it is an interesting fact that the English are more upset by the death of the fifty or so horses, than by the death of the thousands of English soldiers. We are a strange lot, aren’t we?

It was after the battle of Stirling Bridge that William Wallace was proposed as the Guardian of Scotland, but the Comyns in the north objected to a commoner being appointed as Guardian.

According to the historian Nigel Tranter, Robert the Bruce marched across the room, told Wallace to kneel before him and knighted him Sir William Wallace there and then.

Wallace later became the ambassador for Scotland in Paris and even assisted Philip II of France to expel Edward from Aquitaine.

Eventually he returned from France to face betrayal.

Haliburton, one of the stalwart Scots who had held out against Edward at Stirling Castle, had been taken to the Tower of London when Stirling eventually fell to the English. Edward offered Haliburton his freedom if he  betrayed William Wallace. Haliburton informed Mentieth where Wallace was hiding and he was captured during a surprise raid in the dead of night.

Mentieth then handed him to the English. All of this led to the dreadful hanging, drawing and quartering in London. His quartered body was displayed in Berwick, Newcastle, Perth and Stirling. His head was stuck on a pike on London Bridge.

It was long after the death of Wallace, however, when the real Braveheart came to the fore!

[1] About 1.98 metres.

[2] About 1.67 metres.

[3] About 2.13 metres.

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