Everyone who’s seen the film has done it at some point. Put a fist in the air, screwed up their face and shouted in a bad Scottish accent: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.” Braveheart is quality stuff, even if you’re English like me and have to watch your countrymen be portrayed as either old and evil, or impossibly camp. For Aussies the film must have a special resonance as a compatriot gets to dress up in funny clothing, paint his nose with blue paint and whip the Poms on their own territory. Just like cricket, really.
Unsurprisingly, the film was a big hit, but it did have its critics. The sight of Mel Gibson poncing about in a skirt and blue face paint was too much for some, who declaimed the film as an unrealistic Hollywood folklore pastiche and over-emotional claptrap. Which it sort-of is. But then the life of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace was only recorded many years after his death and reconstructed from convoluted oral histories, so all stories about his life are often exaggerated and the truth is hard to find.
August 23 marked 700 years since Wallace was betrayed and executed and almost 10 years since the release of the Hollywood biopic of his life, but his legacy is still very much in evidence in the Scottish city of Stirling.
First stop on any Wallace tour has to be the monument. Funded entirely by public donation and built in 1861, it stands on a hill above Stirling and its gothic tower can be seen from all over the city. Since the film, visitor numbers have soared and over 140,000 climb the steep hill to the monument every year to visit the museum inside and to see the fantastic views from the top.
A visit to the museum shattered the illusions I’d built up from a decade of sobbing over Gibson’s beautiful face as the talking projection of Wallace bore an unfortunate resemblance to David Blunkett. I also learned that Hollywood licence had been taken with costuming, staging and casting in the film – clan tartans were a Victorian invention and would not have been worn, the battle with the famous speech was fought on a bridge not in a field, the speech itself was a total invention and Wallace was actually 6’7”. Definitely not Gibson then.
At the monument I meet Jock Ferguson, a professional Wallace impersonator who set up his own heritage acting company, Heritage Events, after the success of Braveheart. Nowadays I meet people from Japan, China, Russia – Braveheart has been dubbed into all these languages and they come here because of the movie. You’ll get the occasional churlish Scot who’ll come up and say ‘It’s nae to do wi’ history’ but it is a little to do with history, although it’s more to do with Hollywood. But if the film has generated an interest in Wallace and in Scottish history, then that cannot be a bad thing.”
Even if a visit to the monument does reveal some inaccuracies in the film, it also shows what a remarkable man Wallace was and how much affection there is for him in Scotland, and worldwide. The museum has pictures of dozens of Wallace statues including one that stands in Ballarat, Australia (modelled on famous Scottish sportsman Donald Durnay in 1905). It also has Wallace’s sword, which shows what a huge man he must have been, as it is 5’4” long. The sword was recently lent to an exhibition in New York. “When the sword left Scotland, I got really upset,” says 31-year-old Stirling resident Tony Browning. “It’s a very important symbol of Scotland.”
Around the city there are constant reminders of Wallace’s greatness. Statues in the town centre, an exhibition at the local Smith Museum and Gallery, the modern bridge and causeway which replace those on which the famous battle were fought, and best of all, the local bridge of Allen Brewery which has released a beer to celebrate his 700-year anniversary which you can sample on your visit.
It’s quite the place to wallow in history as the city also has an old royal castle and a 12th century jail – known as The Tolbooth – which has been converted into an arts centre. For those who are really into their history, it’s only a short drive to Bannockburn where famous Scottish king Robert the Bruce finally vanquished the English and created the first independent Scottish state.
However, as my local guide Mike Furlong reminds me, without Wallace there would have been no Bruce, as Wallace laid the foundations for independence in Scotland and elsewhere. His efforts at the battle of Stirling, and afterwards, eventually led to the declaration of Arbroath in 1420 which talked of: “Freedom – that alone which no honest man gives up but for life itself.” Eventually this declaration was used as the blueprint for another famous declaration: the American Declaration of Independence.
At the local museum I meet another Wallace fanatic, Elspeth King, who tells me that she thinks he should have been sainted: “I firmly believe that if Scotland had been like France then Wallace might, like Joan or Arc, have become a saint. Although he was left out of written history, the ordinary people always remembered him.”
So despite the Hollywood glitter that was sprinkled over the legend of Sir William Wallace, what is not exaggerated is the love and respect that the Scots hold for him, even now. After a day’s sightseeing and an evening’s drinking I join my new Scottish friends in raising a glass to Mr Wallace. And the toast, yes, you’ve guessed it: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our William Wallace special edition ale.””