By Rachel D. Brewer
Legacy, Vol. 10: Iss. 1 (2010)
Introduction: “It is regrettable but typical that Scotland should choose a loser, albeit a glorious one, as its hero. One hundred years ago, Scots admired success but now they admire failure: just look at our national football team.” This was the reaction of Michael Fry, author of Wild Scots: 400 Years of Highland History, to a 2006 poll conducted around the Edinburgh area. The poll asked readers of Scotland on Sunday, a local newspaper, to vote for their choice of “Greatest Scot Ever” from a list of ten choices, among which were Robert Bruce, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and David Livingston. After two weeks of online voting, more than a third of those 1,300 polled agreed that Sir William Wallace, “defender of Scottish freedom,” was most worthy of the title “Greatest.” Contrary to Fry’s assertion that Scots a century ago would have chosen a more admirable figure as Scotland’s champion, hero-worship of the “loser” Wallace is far from a recent development.
In the 700 years since his death at the hands of the English, the famed Scot has served as a martyr-like icon for every generation, a pillar of remembrance to the ferocity and persistence of Scotland’s seemingly eternal fight for independence. There have been four chief phases during which the Wallace legend has been most widely invoked: the early Wars of Independence (1296-1357), the Scottish Renaissance and Revolution (1600-1746), the Age of Romanticism (1780-1860), and the current Scottish freedom movement (1960-present). Though the hero has remained important to each rise in the country’s nationalism, the way in which his legend is considered and employed by the Scots has evolved with each phase.