Hard facts about Scottish patriot and hero Sir William Wallace are as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster. The cult of Wallace fascinates me – and the 13th/14th century Wars of Scottish Independence between Scotland and England is a fascinating chapter in the evolution of the United Kingdom. People have been known to get terribly excited about it all, even now. So, knowing that a memorial marked the place of The Wallace’s capture in 1305, I had a mental note lodged to pay a visit when the opportunity arose. Most people would need to create that opportunity, because the spot is right on the fringes of north-east Glasgow in the suburb of Robroyston. There’s nothing wrong with Robroyston, but it is essentially a large residential estate so, unless you live there, are visiting friends, or wishing to pay your respects to William Wallace, there is absolutely no reason to go there. Robroyston was a farm owned by (depending on your source) Rau Raa, Ralph Rae, or Rab Rae – who might all have been the same person but whose property name in any event eventually morphed into Robroyston. It is unlikely – unfortunately – to have anything to do with the 18th-century folk hero, Rob Roy. The land was once oak forest owned by the Bishops of Glasgow and over the years has been mined for lime, coal, sandstone, iron ore and clay. It had been earmarked for development for decades before the housing arrived and, these days, William Wallace could buy himself a brand-new 4 or 5-bedroomed house on Wallace Fields for between £297,000 and £399,000.00. He might console himself with the thought that the luxury on offer surpasses anything his old adversary, England’s King Edward I, could have dreamt of having in one of those draughty, smelly, old castles of his. He might also think that, one day, we’ll run out of space on this small island of ours.
So, on the edge of Robroyston, with a patch of farmland hanging on to the north, we came upon the monument commemorating Wallace’s betrayal and capture. It is much bigger and more impressive than I expected – an elegant 20-foot high granite Celtic cross standing at the side of the road with a convenient lay-by built next to it. The monument has a low, stone, wall behind it and is surrounded by iron railings. The Scottish saltire flutters overhead. On the shaft of the cross is a sword and shield, some words I couldn’t make out – probably Gaelic – and, under that, the Latin:
“DICO TIBI VERUM, LIBERTAS OPTMA RERUM;
NUNQUAM SERVILI SUB NEXU VIVITO, FILI”
I tell you true, freedom is the best of things; never lie within the bonds of slavery, my son – words said to have been taught to Wallace as a boy. He is thought to have known Latin. The plaque at the base of the cross reads:
“THIS MEMORIAL ERECTED 1900 AD BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION IS TO MARK THE SITE OF THE HOUSE IN WHICH THE HERO OF SCOTLAND WAS BASELY BETRAYED AND CAPTURED ABOUT MIDNIGHT ON 5TH AUGUST 1305 WHEN ALONE WITH HIS FAITHFUL FRIEND AND CO-PATRIOT KERLIE WHO WAS SLAIN. WALLACE’S HEROIC PATRIOTISM AS CONSPICUOUS IN HIS DEATH AS IN HIS LIFE WITHIN NINE YEARS OF HIS BETRAYAL THE WORK OF HIS LIFE WAS CROWNED WITH VICTORY AND SCOTLAND’S INDEPENDENCE REGAINED ON THE FIELD OF BANNOCKBURN.”
On another side of the memorial is a plaque which says:
“WE ARE NOT HERE TO SUE FOR PEACE BUT TO FIGHT FOR THE FREEDOM OF OUR COUNTRY.” WALLACE AT STIRLING BRIDGE.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? Though possibly a bit too Mel Gibson? Stirling Bridge was scene of the famous victory of the Scots, led by Andrew Moray and William Wallace, against English forces in 1297.
The memorial was unveiled in front of a thousand-strong crowd on 4 August 1900 by Miss Emmeline McKerlie, a direct descendant of Wallace’s slain companion. Even as recently as 2005, it stood next to open countryside – as this image, copyright Chris Upson, shows.
So, Wallace was reported to have been taken in the dead of night, whilst sleeping in a cottage (some sources say it was a barn, some that it was owned by Rab Rae). The cottage apparently survived until 1826 and, maybe, if archaeologists had a dig around, they’d find evidence of it. A chair for Sir Walter Scott is said to have been made using some of the roof timbers, and can be seen in Scott’s house, Abbotsford. Next to the cross is a replica of a two-seater chair said to have once been owned by William Wallace; I could show you a photo; but it’s just a large chair.
Wallace was captured by Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish nobleman who at the time was keeper of Dumbarton Castle, where Wallace was held before being taken to London. Stories of Wallace’s arrest portray Menteith as unworthy, ‘false Menteith’ some call him, in cahoots with the Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence. This is part of the Wallace mythology and ignores the politics of the period. There was nothing particularly surprising about de Menteith’s actions. Scottish leaders – including Robert de Bruis, King of Scotland from 1306 and victor of Bannockburn in 1314 – squabbled and changed allegiances as frequently as I change my shirt. The only exception seems to have been William Wallace himself who, unlike Bruce, was constant and no traitor. I suspect most nobles at the time – including the King of the English – would have found concepts like ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ a little strange; essentially, these men were motivated by naked self-interest and had far more in common with each another than those that they governed. Again, an exception appears to have been Wallace, many of whose supporters were humble people. By 1304, most Scottish nobles had given up and bent the knee (as they might say in ‘Game of Thrones’), to Edward I of England. De Menteith was just one of those that Edward rewarded at the time. Wallace, though, was declared an outlaw and was therefore fair game for anyone who stood to benefit from his capture. Someone, of course, must have let on where he could be found that night in Robroyston – possibly the betrayer was Rab Rae – but the facts of the drama, like much else, are uncertain and lost to us. We do know that, later, de Menteith threw in his lot with Robert the Bruce and, in 1320, was one of the fifty-one Scottish magnates who put their seal to the Declaration of Arbroath, the famous affirmation of Scottish independence.
You can’t help wondering what went through Wallace’s mind as he was taken on the long journey south from Dumbarton to face trial in Westminster – and a subsequent hideous judicial murder in front of a baying crowd at Smithfield – where there is another memorial to the man.
Five minutes along the road from Wallace’s monument in Robroyston is a spring known as Wallace’s Well. It is said that Wallace drank from it when staying at Rab Rae’s Toun and it is easy to imagine that he did just that. A granite lintel announces that it is ‘Wallace’s Well’ – which could be useful, because he would be unlikely to recognise it now. The well – or spring – is substantially altered from its natural state, set into a neatly curved stone wall with an access path running along a verdant turf bank and the Gadburn bubbling happily along beneath. It is a pleasant spot, with farmland on one side and newbuild land on the other. Mother’s Day had not long gone when I visited and someone had placed their flowers there, which added a splash of colour to the scene. A nice touch; I imagine parents telling their kids some of the stories as they laid the bouquet down. Someone else had donated an empty Irn-Bru bottle and a crushed fag-packet. Someone else – or maybe it was the same person whose brain cell was having a particularly taxing day – had thoughtfully relocated one of the handrails erected to help prevent visitors from toppling into the stream, into the stream itself. A hub-cap had been carefully placed next to it. Nearby, on a patch of ground between the road and the housing, a native sub-species had been indulging in that ubiquitous, unfathomable, pastime of random refuse scattering. In this case, a commendable attempt had been made to utilise a wide range of wrappers of different colours and materials, thus creating a varied, if unpleasant, patchwork in the grass; a proportion of the plastic bottles and tin cans had even been helpfully crushed before being abandoned, so that they wouldn’t stray too far. To be fair, I have seen far worse displays. This kind of thing is an increasing blight and embarrassment in many places in Britain, though I must say that Glaswegians appear to be particularly good at it, for it is one of the dirtiest towns I have ever been to. Mind you, I haven’t visited Blackpool for awhile. “Something should be done!” goes the cry. “What is the local authority thinking of?” The current tag-line of Glasgow City Council is ‘People Make Glasgow’: trite, but true.