Robert Bruce’s Bones: reputations, politics and identities in nineteenth-century Scotland
Penman, Michael A.
International Review of Scottish Studies, 34 (2009)
In a recent survey of public opinion in Scotland, the figure of Robert Bruce, king of Scots (1306-29), was ranked third, with 12% of the vote, in a list of ‘most important Scots.’ Bruce thus posted, arguably quite predictably, behind, first, with 36%, William Wallace (c.1270-1305), the ‘people’s Champion’ of the Wars of Independence, and second, with 16%, bard and radical icon Robert Burns (1759-96). At first glance, these results chime in neatly with some of the political and media reaction to such surveys, often from Conservative quarters, which laments the apparent preference of the Scottish national character for romantic failures and lads o’ pairts with a democratic tinge (and preferably a dramatic early death) over and above any successful, authoritarian or upper-class role models of perhaps questionable political integrity.
Such a collective reticence about Bruce or his type seems, too, to be echoed backwards in time: for example, in the public’s reluctance to subscribe to various campaigns in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to fund physical memorials to Bruce, efforts discussed in detail below. In the same period, the prose and verse fiction, drama and visual art which revisited the Wars of Independence almost always cast Bruce in the shadow of Wallace, often strikingly as a waverer (who as earl of Carrick in fact changed sides on at least five occasions during the Wars of Independence) and who had to be persuaded to the true patriotic cause by the words, deeds and sacrifice of the lesser hero knight.
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