I could not let this pass without comment.
A common criticism of historical fiction, particularly historical cinema, is its focus on the Great Men and Women of history: the kings and queens, princes and princesses, lords and ladies, emperors and empresses. Stories about the common people seemed – rightly or wrongly – to be rarer than sagas about royal dynasties, mighty conquerors, and cruel tyrants. I’ve seen more than a few criticisms of Outlaw King which lament a question they never found the answer to: what were the common people fighting for?
That such a question is even asked shows the importance of cultural representation of this period in Scottish history.
Wheesht, wheesht, my foolish hert,
For weel ye ken
I widna ha’e ye stert
Auld ploys again.
It’s guid to see her lie
Sae snod an’ cool,
A’lust o’ lovin’ by –
Wheesht, wheesht, ye fule!
– Hugh MacDiarmid
Valentine’s Day has a bad rap. Too often, it’s an excuse to engage in cynical commercialism – and even if not, the celebration of love is too often the genteel, shallow, milequetoast sentiment that’s barely worth the tree that died to make ten thousand greeting cards. The original story of St. Valentine was full of defiant relationships, clandestine passions, and daring commitments, with the bittersweet tragedy and triumph of any Shakespeare romance. Love can so strongly be associated with other strong emotions – fear, anger, hate, sorrow, joy – that you wonder how it became so diluted and saccharine in the public consciousness.
A bit like Scotland, really.
Jings, it’s been a year, hasn’t it?
It’s been a quiet year in the Wilderness, but there were still some fond memories and popular enough posts. I aim to do better next year, as always. For now, I’ll take a look back on the most popular blog posts of each month from the year that was.
Do you think Paris is still standing?
– Anna, being particularly timely despite being filmed years ago
I feel like Anna and the Apocalypse personally set out to antagonise me. It’s an apocalyptic film that assaults the eyes & ears with Glee-esque musical numbers; it’s a film shot in Scotland (several places in my home area of Inverclyde, even!) with posh English folk and a Yank in the lead roles; all the characters I actually liked die before the final act while the ones I actively disliked survived to the end; it’s set largely in a school. I’m certain this is actually part of the film’s appeal, as well as its strength – to blend genres (the Intolerably Twee High School Full of Melodramatic Desperados Musical with the Interminable Zombie Apocalypse That Will Never Die Just Like The Titular Monsters Movie along with the Permanently Hamstrung By The Nature of Western Calenders Christmas Film) which are seemingly completely at odds with one another, and shine a light up to them all.
I’m not great at self-promotion. Every time I try, I curl up in a ball of bashfulness like a Mimosa plant. So instead, I’ll promote IScot, a quality magazine for all those interested in Scotland – full of great articles on Scottish culture, history, heritage, language, politics, media, wildlife, science, you name it. It’s a real success story of modern media in Scotland, and it deserves it richly.
This has nothing to do with the fact I just had my first article published there – an overview of depictions of Robert the Bruce in cinema – and that I’m bouncing off the walls seeing a magazine I contributed to being published on TV.
Anyhow. Go have a look.
This was on TV. In Scotland. Where I live. And I wrote something in it.
He was the King of Scots who led the nation to its most famous victory on the battlefield and sent “proud Edward” and his army home to think again.
But although Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314, it seems the historic triumph masked a hidden irony.
A new book by an eminent academic makes an astonishing claim: that Bruce was born in England.
One thing about historians is that you’ll never find two that agree on everything, or even most things. History is as coloured by the interpretations of the historian as they are by the written sources, and I do not think considering it more of an art than a science diminishes it whatsoever. So, much like the notion that Mary, Queen of Scots spoke with a French accent, I feel my inner history nerd steepling his fingers and arching his eyebrows at the notion that Robert the Bruce was definitely, absolutely, positively, certainly born in Essex.
The academic said: “The truth may be unpalatable for some, for a chronicler from Southern England states categorically that Robert belonged to ‘the English nation’ and, more specifically, that he came into this world surrounded by the pleasant meadows, vineyards, grass and grain of Essex.
“There was a strong tradition in the South that Bruce was born in Essex, while there is no direct evidence he was born in Turnberry. In modern times it has been presumed Bruce would have been born at Turnberry, but the evidence points to Writtle.”
– Dr Fiona Watson (as quoted)
Not having the privilege of reading her book (yet), I cannot comment on the evidence or sources that Dr Watson proposes. It could be she’s unearthed some hitherto undiscovered chronicle that turns everything we thought we knew upside down. In the absence of such knowledge, however, I can only surmise that the English Chronicler referred to in the article is Geoffrey the Baker of Swinbrook, who is the source usually cited whenever the alleged English origins of Robert are mentioned:
Robert Bruce also died in this year. He left behind a son David who was seven or eight years old, and the Scots made him their king. His right of succession was as follows. Alexander, king of the Scots, had three daughters but no sons. The first was married to John Balliol, the second to John Comyn and the third to Robert Bruce, an Englishman born in Essex, After the death of king Alexander, with the consent of Edward king of England the Scots had appointed as their king John Balliol, the husband of king Alexander’s eldest daughter, and Balliol on behalf of the kingdom of Scotland did homage to the king of England and swore fealty to him. But later, at the instigation of the disturbers of the peace of the kingdom of Scotland, John Balliol renounced by royal letter and by noble envoys the fealty and homage which he been forced to give and promised various other forms of subjection which he was willing to demand from king Edward.Despite this, he nevertheless kept the kingship of Scotland, but not for long. For the king of England extended a long arm from Winchester and put to flight from Scotland John Balliol king of the Scots and his son Edward.
While the two of them were journeying to France, the English king seized the castles and fortifications of the Scots, and the Scots, in an act of nothing other than witless rashness, took for their king the husband of the second daughter of king Alexander, namely Robert Bruce. For he was a soldier to his fingertips, except that, failing in his ambition of becoming king, he abandoned his loyalty without which no warrior wins praise and dared to rebel against his natural lord.
– The Chronicle of Geoffrey Le Baker of Swinbrook (David Preest translation)
Of course, if this is the “Southern English chronicler” Dr Watson refers to, then the Scotsman (and Telegraph and Times) are a bit behind the times, since Geoffrey the Baker’s account has been well-established since… well, the Middle Ages. As with dinosaurs, there’s nothing the press loves more than to present old news as some sort of bombshell new discovery.
In isolation, one could argue that this is fairly conclusive: as there is no known comparable contemporary evidence for Robert’s birth at Turnberry, the process of elimination leaves only Writtle.
The deeds of cruelty, massacre, violence, pillage, arson, imprisoning prelates, burning down monasteries, robbing and killing monks and nuns and yet other outrages without number which he committed against our people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank, no-one could describe nor fully imagine unless he had seen them with his own eyes.
But from these countless evils we have been set free, by the help of Him who though He afflicts yet heals and restores, by our most tireless prince, King and lord, the lord Robert. He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabaeus or Joshua. Him, too, divine providence, the succession to his right according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all have made our prince and king. To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by his right and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.
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.
– Declaration of Arbroath
Braveheart is a film which I believe will become important in the history of Scotland. I’m extremely… ambivalent about Mel Gibson’s work, in that I both love it and hate it for several reasons. Yes, I know, it’s “Hollywood not History,” you can’t expect complete fidelity to current understanding of historical events, there are going to be changes for the benefit of modern audiences, et cetera. It’s become something of a potent symbol of the independence cause in Scotland – but strangely, a symbol applied by its critics more often than its supporters. Usually this takes the form of patronising articles that suppose modern independence supporters cannot tell the difference between Medieval and modern politics, that they’re over-emotional softies who let their hearts rule their heads, and that they’ve fallen prey to a Hollywood fantasy version of Medieval Scotland.
For my part, I think Braveheart was about more than Scottish Independence, or about the events of that war, or Wallace himself: it was about the forging and consolidation of national identity.
The Rose of England
At morn the rosebud greets the sun
And sheds the evening dew,
Expanding ere the day is done,
In bloom of radiant hue;
And when the sun his rest hath found,
Rose-petals strow the garden round!
Thus that blest Isle that owns the Rose
From mist and darkness came,
A million glories to disclose,
And spread BRITANNIA’S name;
And ere Life’s Sun shall leave the blue,
ENGLAND shall reign the whole world thro’!
– H.P. Lovecraft, The Scot, No. 14 (October 1916), 7. (Yes, seriously, that HPL writing about the Rose of England in a magazine called The Scot)
Among my many offline projects, one subject I’ve been researching is Scottish Pulp. Scotland has its own rich history with pulp fiction, and the Americas’ ancestral links to the hame country mean there are plenty of stories of Scotland and Scots to be found in the pages of Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, Argosy, Adventure, and beyond.
One recurrent theme: American authors tend to like the Scots and Scotland a lot more than most Scottish authors. Even some of our greatest pulp authors seemed incapable of completely shaking the Cringe, or the more insidious and pathological “Caledonian Antisyzygy.” There are obviously cultural and historic considerations surrounding the age of pulps (two World Wars in particular), but the inferioritists who belittle Scotland and the Scots in fiction do not restrict their disdain to the Scots themselves. Just look at how a film about Scottish history that won 5 Academy Awards, 5 ACCAs, 3 BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, & a Writer’s Guide of America Award (among many others) is viewed by so many (though not, clearly, everyone): the Braveheart effect long predated that film.
Scotland does not have its own distinctive film industry or its own broadcasters, and our theatrical, musical, & literary institutions are heavily dominated by supposed “British” sensibilities to this day. The advent of radio and television broadcasting meant that this “British” culture – one as alien to the vast majority of English people as it was to the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish – could be projected into every household with a transceiver with an immediacy and power impossible with print. Thus, in the 20th Century, we often looked to those creators who are outwith that particular sphere of influence to present an outsider’s interpretation of Scotland and the Scots, be they members of the grand diaspora or not – from Talbot Mundy’s Scottish adventurers and Harold Lamb’s Nial O’Gordon to Diana Gabaldon’s 1990s’ novel (now turned television sensation in the 21st Century) Outlander.
On the other hand, sometimes you get folk like Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
It’s received wisdom that Mary Queen of Scots must’ve had a French accent:
It will almost certainly have considerable appeal as a rattling good yarn but its relationship with history will almost certainly be purely accidental. It is no coincidence that the producers have the young Mary speaking in English received pronunciation; the real Mary spoke French with a pronounced French accent to her death.
– Professor Tom Devine, about Reign
Marie’s Scottish subjects greeted her with some suspicion. She had been raised in France and spoke French as her main language, speaking English only with a heavy French accent.
– A Historian Goes to the Movies, about Reign
French architectural styles at home, the desirability of French education for Scots abroad, military and economic ties, all combined to produce the feeling that even if a French upbringing for their monarch was only to be countenanced because of the extreme dangers created by the Rough Wooing, it was not unnatural in the way that an English upbringing would have been. A French accent in Scotland was a good deal less unacceptable than a Scottish one in England.
– Jenny Wormald, Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure
Why would you want to have this Scottish warrior queen who loves her country? She fled Scotland so how much did she really love it? She was French, she felt really French. I have only come across letters from Mary in French. It feels like there is this strange nationalistic feeling behind this film, with a Scottish warrior being bullied by an English queen. That is not what happened.
– Dr. Estelle Paranque, about the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots
No one is trying to deny that Ronan’s Scottish accent is good. She’s great. But… Mary Stuart was raised in France. She was more French than Scottish when she arrived there as an adult to rule. But she would have arrived having a French accent. In most movies featuring Mary Stuart, she is portrayed as having a Scottish accent for the sake of not confusing the audience.
– The Lazy Historian, about the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots
Mary was 5 years old when she left Scotland for France. She spent the following 13 years at the French court where she eventually married the Dauphin and was briefly Queen Consort of France. French was her language of choice all her life — most of her personal letters are in French, and the poetry she wrote is in French. Yes, of course, she spoke and read English fluently and also spoke and read Scots fluently (this is not just the dialect, but a language variety spoken in the lowland area of Scotland, distinct from the Gaelic language spoken in the highland areas). But it’s pretty damn likely Mary would have spoken English or Scots with a French accent. Not the other way around!
– Frock Flicks, about the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots
It seems logical. Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, was French, and Mary herself spent the years 5 to 18 in France where she ended up betrothed to the Dauphin, so obviously she had a French accent.