Wars of Independence

Sir William Wallace

Highland Strathearn was known to the English especially during the late thirteenth century and the first half of fourteenth century. The stronger and much larger English army dominated play in the central region of Scotland. The area was under their complete control, and not unreasonably was contested by native-born Scots. They, after all, had rights to possession and ownership of their own country. The situation, however, was about to change, and Scots and Scotland, as we know it today, nation and geographic landmass, were formed and established. The principal character in our tale whose prowess and genius brought this about became the greatest of Scotland’s national heroes, Sir William Wallace.

It had been relatively peaceful in Scotland for the prior 100 years or so. It was true that there had been a dispute between Scotland and Norway over the Norse possessions in the Hebrides. However, the matter had been settled when the Norwegians under the command of the aged King Haakon were defeated at the battle of Largs in 1263. Relations with England on the whole were good and friendly. No one could have foreseen that this state of affairs was about to suddenly change.

Alexander III of Scotland (1249-1286) was at the height of his manhood. He had been a good and great King but his family life had been tragic: most of his own natural children had predeceased him, and his only living blood relative was his three year old granddaughter, Margaret. Margaret was known as the “Maid of Norway.” Her mother was Alexander’s daughter, Margaret, who was married to King Eric of Norway.

Alexander had remarried after the death of his first wife and was in need of some solace from his second wife, the young, vibrant and French, Yolande. He had had a bad day at the office in Edinburgh, and on the evening of the 19th March, 1286, against the advice of his council and nobles, he set off to be with her at Kinghorn. It was a wild and stormy night. He, with a small party of retainers, crossed the ferry over the River Forth arriving safely at North Queensferry. In his eager anticipation to be with his loved one, he spurred his horse, and drew away from his companions. They rode on despite the howling wind and foul weather, and subsequently, heard a cry in the distance. Riding up to the location of the sound they could find no trace of Alexander. A search party was set up and shortly thereafter his body was found at the foot of a cliff. This is the official story but it is possible that he was murdered by ambitious nobles, (did he fall or was he pushed?).

As Margaret had the right to succession to the throne she set sail for Scotland, but sadly, at age seven, died on the passage there in Orkney. This left a vacancy for the throne and caused much consternation.

The upshot of all this was that Edward, King of England, was invited to offer a solution with regard to the choice for a future King. Edward was in all probability a psychopath and not known for a lot of TLC! He was a Plantagenet, had long legs and was nicknamed “Longshanks”. There was a wide selection to choose from, as there were thirteen claimants to the Scottish throne. Three had, however, fairly strong claims. Robert Bruce who was the son of the second daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, the brother of William the Lion; John Balliol, grandson of the eldest daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, and John Hastings, grandson of the third daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon.

As Balliol was descended from the eldest daughter Edward decided that he had the strongest claim and was appointed King. He also knew that Balliol was weak and pliable. On the day following his decision, as part of the deal, John Balliol, swore homage to Edward. There were not many happy Scottish faces to be seen with this state of affairs! They immediately called him “Toom Tabard” meaning “Empty Coat” - a lackey!

Balliol was a useless King. To secure his own position he gave away both “the baby and the bathwater”. He was used by Edward in a similar fashion to a shepherd using a sheepdog! In 1294 Edward demanded that Balliol secure substantial monies through the levying of taxes so that he could continue with his festering war with France, and at the same time supply his army with troops. When Balliol put this to his council they suggested rather that they throw out every Englishman who had been foisted on them since Balliol took office, out of Scotland. The following year he reached an agreement with France along the lines that each would help the other against the English. It was the start of the Auld Alliance which continues to this day with Scotland always keeping its end of the bargain, and the French continuously offering kisses and lip service!

Edward sent in his heavy brigade of armed thugs into central and lowland Scotland and a reign of terror began. They soon dominated the area from the River Forth to the border in the south. They were a cruel and mindless lot. If any Scot got out of hand he was promptly killed, enslaved, imprisoned, branded, and his goods and chattels, wives and daughters included, were forfeit to the Crown. Pillage, on a grand scale, was the order of the day.

It was at this juncture that William Wallace came to be known. He was probably born in 1270 or 1272 during the reign of Alexander the Third in Elderslie, in Renfrewshire, and was the second son of Sir Malcolm Wallace. The Wallaces, whilst not of the nobility, nor the landed gentry, were sheriffs of Ayr. They may have been descended from a Norman-Welsh family, le Waleis, who came to Scotland during the reign of David the First in the middle of the twelfth century. There is a paucity of information about his youth and we have to be guided by the bard, Blind Harry, who wrote about him almost two hundred years after his martyrdom.

According to the tale he lived in Denny or Dunipace and was educated in Dundee. A chimney of a very ancient dwelling still stands there which, it was said, was one of his early homes. He grew up tall and straight being about six feet six or seven inches in height, and was exceptionally strong physically. This made him a giant amongst his contemporaries. He was schooled in French and Latin by two of his uncles who were priests and from them must have developed an enormous sense of moral right. It was said that his upbringing consisted of elementary schooling with emphasis probably also placed on the martial arts; in this, he displayed genius. Not much is known about his earlier life, however it is suggested that it was in Dundee that he first came in contact with English soldiers. There, when dressed up for some occasion, he was mocked by some of them. Then, as now, one does not fool around with Dundonians, and Wallace set about them. One of them drew a knife and threatened him. Wallace automatically reacted by killing him with his own dagger. It so happened that this idiot he killed was called Selby and he was the son of the English Town Marshall. Warrants were immediately issued for the arrest of Wallace. He had taken refuge with some of his relatives and they helped him to escape. Many Dundonians were arrested as a result and some were murdered by the English administration, in retribution.

It would have been around this time that he met and fell in love with, and married, Marion Braidfute of Lanark. The story suggests that she helped him escape from a house in Lanark and was cruelly and savagely put to death on the orders of the Sheriff of Lanark, Sir William Heselrig. Heselrig in turn felt the wrath of Wallace and was impaled upon his sword. It was said that his sword was at least five and a half feet in length. Then he cut up, and probably fed to the dogs! To make a finer point he did the same to Hezelrig’s son. It is this act, plus all the injustices going on around him at that time perpetrated by the English which spurred him into the pages of history. From this point he began to make his mark.

As a young man he had developed a strong sense of Scottish patriotism accepting that Baliol was the rightful king of the country. As a natural leader of men with a strong sense of morality, he was outraged at seeing the depredations perpetrated by the English on his compatriots, and his country. In time he gathered around him like minded Scots such as Andrew Moray, John Graham, William Crawford and others. They all decided to act. Initially the small group developed hit and run tactics, but as their numbers grew they formed several small armies, and laid siege to several towns in Scotland ranging from Aberdeen to Berwick. They very quickly became very troublesome for the English who took a dim view of this turn of events. Edward decided that the time had come to become the “Hammer of the Scots.” He sent in a very sizeable army to deal with the insurrection and at the same time placing a high price of the heads of Wallace and the ring leaders. He completely under estimated the capabilities of his opponents.

Others have described his adventures, and subsequent death, but it is known that he was very familiar with Strathearn. Perth, then called St. John’s Town, was the capital of Scotland, and by right, the seat of government through the King. Scone, where the ancient Kings of Scotland were crowned, lies but a few miles to the north-west. It was in Perth that for the first time there is a recording of the name of William le Waleys associated with the apparent unlawful taking of some of the possessions of someone called Cristina on the 8th August, 1296. This was the year of the taking of Berwick by the English. The Scots, nominally under Baliol, had not supported Edward’s depredations in France, lost this one, and the town was sacked. Some 10000 of its population was put to death by Edward’s soldiers! This was followed by another catastrophic loss at the Battle of Dunbar in the same year.

As they drew closer to the Scottish heartland things began to change. Wallace had put into effect a scorched earth policy laying waste and burning everything in the path of the marauding English army. Nothing had been left to the English predators. Eventually they moved their army into Stirling and encountered the Scottish army positioned on the north side of the river Forth. There was a wooden bridge connecting the banks and English pride and folly came into play. It was crowning glory for Wallace came at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September, 1297, where he annihilated the entire English army. Amongst his followers were men from Highland Strathearn.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

As a reward he was made the Guardian of Scotland which essentially placed him above all others with the exception of King John Balliol. The position was not to last for long as in the following year he again, with reluctance, fought the English at Falkirk. However, it was a serious defeat for him. Thereafter he was never supported by the Scottish nobility, lost his position as Guardian of Scotland, and nor did he hold any real sway over his soldiers.

He spent some time on the continent afterwards, even fighting for the French against the English at Guienne. The French were envious of his prowess as a soldier and a statesman and plotted to do away with hi. This prompted a return to Scotland and in 1305 he landed near Bridge of Earn, in Lower Strathearn. He stayed nearby with his cousin for a while; however the English garrison in Perth got wind of it and decided to attack him. Due to this state of affairs he moved to several locations, eventually meeting one of his truest friends, Sir John Menteith, at Robroystan outside Glasgow.

Like Robert the Bruce, Menteith had sometimes fought against Edward, but in 1302 he had crossed over to become one of Edward’s liegemen and in his favour. As a lackey, his loyalty lay with the English king. One of his servants said to be Jack Short, spied on Wallace, and a trap was set at Robroystan where he was captured. The blood money was a total of 100 Scots merks. This probably had the same value given to Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus! Wallace was shackled and humiliated on his seventeen day journey through Scotland and England to his martyrdom. At Westminster Hall in London, on the 23rd August, he was summarily tried and found guilty of numerous charges. He denied, however, being disloyal to Edward as his king, was Balliol. Regardless, he was dragged naked behind a couple of horse to a specially built scaffold. There he was slowly hung, drawn and quartered before a crowd of jeering people. His body parts were sent to Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick upon Tweed, Stirling, and Perth. His head was stuck on a pole and suspended above London Bridge. This symbolism was to instill fear in the population, and “pour encourager les autres.” It did just that north of the border. In Wallace’s deeds and acts lay the groundwork for the rise of Robert the Bruce, which led to a free and independent Scotland!

Westminster Hall

Plaque to Sir William Wallace

John Balliol died at Chateau Gaillard in 1313 just one year before the monumental Scottish victory at Bannockburn. He took with him the Scottish crown and jewels, and in his final years lived very comfortably!

Menteith, who died in 1323, was, and still is, excoriated by Scots. Tradition says that they showed their contempt for him by naming a loch in South Perthshire, near Aberfoyle, the Lake of Menteith. It was until recently the only “lake” in Scotland. Menteith was closely related to the Stewart family.

Thanks to the poet, Blind Harry (1440-1492), Wallace’s name and exploits, have been preserved down throughout the centuries.

Statue to Sir William Wallace at the Wallace Monument in Stirling

SCOTS WHA HAE - Robert Burns

'Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,

Welcome tae your gory bed,

Or tae Victorie!

'Now's the day, and now's the hour:

See the front o' battle lour,

See approach proud Edward’s power -

Chains and Slaverie!

'Wha will be a traitor knave?

Wha will fill a coward's grave?

Wha sae base as be a slave?

Let him turn and flee!

'Wha, for Scotland's king and law,

Freedom's sword will strongly draw,

Freeman stand, or Freeman fa',

Let him on wi' me!

'By Oppression's woes and pains!

By your sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free!

'Lay the proud usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty's in every blow! -

Let us do or dee!'