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Social Text 18.4 (2000) 83-107
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Wallace's Monument and the Resumption of Scotland
Scotland is once again a blip on the radar screen of the "international community." Its fledgling parliament is regularly cited as a regional symptom of new global order, good or bad, depending on the speaker's viewpoint. There is even a major media spectacle to furnish these opinions with strong visuals--the Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart, which brought the feats of William Wallace, patriot hero of the medieval Wars of Independence, to a worldwide audience. Indeed, casual consumers of the buzz surrounding the film could hardly be faulted for believing that the country's nationalist revival has had something to do with the rediscovery of an ancient warrior tradition.
Understandably, this perception will be most whimsical to those who grew up with William Wallace in our backyard--in the form of the massive monument to his memory that dominates the lower Forth Valley. Since I was weaned in the shadow of the Wallace Monument before the resurgence of Scottish nationalism toward the end of the 1960s, I can recall a time when the famous memorial was more a fact of nature--a stark feature of the landscape--than a resonant political symbol. Built in the 1860s in the Scottish baronial style to evoke a medieval tower castle, and topped by a representation of the Crown Royal of Scotland, it juts high over the Forth Valley like some jumbo joystick, jammed forever in gear and encrusted with the light rime of ages. Its thirty thousand tons of stone are quarried from its volcanic seat, the Abbey Craig, whose dramatic shape had been sculpted by the retreat of a glacial ice sheet. As a result, the monument resembles an outcropping of the craig itself, rising to a height of 220 feet, and towering 530 feet above the carselands, once a vast peat moss known as the Sea of Scotland and, more recently, the home of the great coalfields of the nation's central, industrial belt.
As a child, I was understandably impressed by the monument's custody of William Wallace's mighty sixty-six-inch broadsword, a relic with all the incantatory power of Excalibur itself. But what caught my fancy more was the knowledge that the valley where I lived had once been an ocean floor and that the bones of a great whale measuring seventy feet had been found on the northern slopes of the Abbey Craig in the early nineteenth century. Geologic history took precedence over human history.
In retrospect, this is a peculiar confession, since I lived in a landscape [End Page 83] [Begin Page 85] peppered with some of the more climactic events in regional history. From the monument's height, you can look across at Dumyat, an Iron Age dun-fort of the Maeatae Picts, on the ramparts of the defiant Ochil Hills, the most southerly of the geological dividers of the Highlands from the Lowlands. Directly below is Airthrey Park, site of the 843 a.d. battle in which Kenneth McAlpin defeated the Picts and formed a united Scotland for the first time. In an oxbow of the Forth at the foot of the craig are the twelfth-century ruins of Cambuskenneth Abbey, where Robert the Bruce convened his first parliament, and where James III and his queen are buried. And on a dandy southerly bluff sits Stirling Castle, the favorite fifteenth- and sixteenth-century residence of the Stuart kings, and the so-called cockpit of Scotland, on account of its command over the most easterly point at which the river could be forded. You can see also the ruins of Stirling's old jail, in front of which Andrew Hardie and John Baird, Radical leaders of a republican uprising in 1820, were executed by dragoons who drew taunts of "Murder!" from the semimutinous crowd in attendance. Directly below and on the horizon are the sites of the three primary battles of the Wars of Independence: Stirling Bridge (1297), Falkirk (1298), and Bannockburn (1314), and, over in the Ochils, the...