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  • Commemoration by Committee: The National Wallace Monument
  • Ann Rigney (bio)

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Fig. 1.

National Wallace Monument, Abbey Craig, Stirling.

From Charles Rogers, The Book of Wallace, vol. 1 (1889).

The national Wallace Monument, Stirling, is visible from miles around. Built between 1861 and 1867, it takes the form of a medieval tower with an extruded stair turret and a crown spire (fig. 1). Standing on a rocky outcrop called the Abbey Craig, it overlooks the Forth River and the site where the English army was defeated in 1297 by Scottish forces led by William Wallace.1 The imposing building, built in a rather elegant version of the Scottish Baronial style, is itself a further sixty-seven metres high. It has been a popular tourist destination since 1867, and visitors (at least, those not wearing crinolines) have been able to climb the 246 steps to enjoy three superimposed rooms—in the original design, they are the Hall of Arms, the Hall of Heroes, and the Royal Chamber with Wallace’s sword on display—before stepping out onto the viewing platform at the top (MacInnes 36). The panorama that [End Page 1] meets the eye is stunning and confirms the logic of doing battle at such a strategic site on the threshold to the Highlands. Visitors nowadays can still enjoy the view, although presumably their knowledge, if any, of William Wallace has been shaped more by the film Braveheart (1995), starring Mel Gibson, than by Blind Harry’s poem “The Wallace” (c. 1488), Jane Porter’s novel The Scottish Chiefs (1810), or Robert Burns’s lyrics for the song “Scots Wha Hae” (1793), key points of reference for the nineteenth-century public (Crawford 42, 107–21).

In its sheer size and ostensible dedication to a single national hero, the Wallace Monument seems to confirm the traditional understanding of nineteenth-century monumentality. Whether it is understood in Friedrich Nietzsche’s sense as the celebration of unquestioned truths and triumphs or in Andreas Huyssen’s sense of “monumental seduction” (Huyssen 30–48), monumentalism has usually been associated with a totalizing attempt to stabilize and unify memory: literally, to petrify it into a reduced form that permanently defines national histories and aspirations in a monolithic way, leaving nothing for the citizen to do but to stand in awe. On closer inspection, however, the National Wallace Monument challenges this standard view of monumentalism and offers a keyhole perspective on public cultures of commemoration. From this perspective, such cultures appear much more dynamic and fluctuating in practice than their colossal material relics now suggest and are much more subject to negotiation and the active participation of enthusiastic citizens on whose mobilization their erection depended. There are layers to this monument not immediately visible to the naked eye.

To begin with, the absence of figuration on the monument is telling. While the architectural style clearly signals “Scottishness,” the building has no narrative or figurative elements except for the Wallace coat of arms above the entrance door and a single niche containing a statue of Wallace brandishing a sword (although part of John Thomas Rochead’s original design, this statue was only added in 1887 and, at four metres high, appears small relative to the building as a whole). Invisible to the eye but virtually present because knowable from other sources is an alternative design for the national tribute to Wallace: the monument that might have been built but was not. This was the design produced by J. Noël Paton in1859, consisting of a rampant Scottish lion standing triumphantly over the monster it was in the process of slaying. Although this more belligerent composition had been the initial winner of the architectural competition for the planned Wallace monument, it was subsequently rejected as being overtly anti-English rather than simply “national” (Coleman 55–56) and was replaced by the tower we see today.

The monument’s location might also have been different. Unlike most national monuments in the nineteenth century, the Wallace Tower has a rural rather than an urban setting. The choice for Stirling was the outcome of a compromise. To be sure, the proximity to the battle site as...


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