The Road and the fork-tongue rogues

Minoo Dinshaw fills in the gaps in an official guide to Scottish history

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On the eve of crucial (and already delayed) elections to the Scottish parliament, the current and former first ministers of Scotland belonging to the Scottish National Party resemble no one so much as two pivotal Scottish leaders from the wars of independence the SNP so delights in (mis)remembering.

The problem for the nationalist cause is that its two most prominent politicians, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, bring to mind less William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in their hours of victory over English kings, than an older Bruce and his cousin and competitor, John Balliol. This earlier divisive duo brought the kingdom to its 1290s nadir by their short-sighted, long-running melodrama of dynastic jealousy.

With their warring retinues, their determination not to let their rival lead the national cause to victory, and their equally Tweedledummish nomenclature, Bruce and Balliol’s piscine successors appear to the eye of history almost reassuringly traditional.

Like the dispiriting dossier du côté de chez Salmond, the details of the Balliol-Bruce feud are sadly unsuited to captivate the public imagination, however much they may titillate political gossips or their scattered descendants in the historical academy. At the turn of 2020/21 the SNP, in attempting further to embed the already triumphant, conventionally cinematic narrative of Scottish history, met with a then rare political rebuke.

Education Scotland, a body founded during the SNP’s first fine careless rapture of Salmondian pomp, issued as a helpful lockdown teaching aid a blandly teleological, 27-page document entitled The Road to the Scottish Parliament. It was splendidly denounced by Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most decorated historian, as “arrant propaganda”. It was then quietly — and perhaps regrettably — removed from Education Scotland’s website.

When historical knowledge, indeed genuine historical interest, is unfortunately scarce, myths can serve well enough as a starting point for fruitful conversation. Scottish history is lamentably little taught at any level on either side of the border, and the SNP is scarcely the sole myth-peddler at large. One of The Road’s less controversial assertions was that “hopes for an independent Scotland continued” following the Act of Union. “There was no mainstream movement for independence until late in the twentieth century,” the Daily Telegraph snorted in response, omitting to recall an entire body of (ironically) Tory eighteenth-century literature, countless political intrigues and three full-blown Jacobite rebellions.

Such roads, nationalist or unionist, reduce to a tractor factory conveyor belt a national epic of astonishing richness

The Road’s chosen starting point was one of weighty inevitability: 1296, the year when Edward I of England, “Longshanks”, “Hammer of the Scots”, first invaded Scotland, setting off the wars of independence that would colour the kingdom’s relationship with its larger, richer, more centralised southern neighbour ever after.

From this original sin The Road understandably enough coursed on to the resistless nationalist raj of the 2010s. This revealingly Presbyterian perspective has proved over the years simple, appealing and commercially attractive: eventual Scottish triumph by way of moral superiority. But as history it does Scotland a severe disservice. Such roads, nationalist or unionist, reduce to a tractor factory conveyor belt a national epic of astonishing richness that, whether despite or in part because it has emanated from a small, poor, rural, decentralised and peripheral country, has long shown the capacity to hold the world in thrall.

The received “patriotic” version of the crisis that led to the wars of independence makes the whole class of professional war-leaders and politicians in Scotland first behave like patsies or traitors, then, overnight, bifurcate into opposed parties, the patsies versus the freedom fighters. In reality the Scottish political actors behaved with much greater consistency than this view of the matter allows. In particular, the would-be royal families of Balliol and Bruce seem to have been motivated most constantly not by patriotism, not even by self-interest, but, above all, by aversion to one another. That great historical arbiter, Groundskeeper Willie of Springfield, might be cited with profit at this juncture: “Damn Scots! They ruined Scotland!”

The two crowns had far more to gain from mercantile peace than risky confrontation with their only threatening neighbour

Balliol and Bruce, along with 11 other even less respectable contenders, lodged their claims to the throne of Scotland in 1290 upon the death of the last indisputably rightful queen born of the old Scottish royal line, the seven-year-old Margaret of Norway. The attempted resolution of this emergency marked first the culmination, and then the death knell, of a mutually profitable Anglo-Scots friendship that had lasted for almost the entire thirteenth century.

After 1216, a year in which the Scots proved their stature as rivals to the English crown by helping French invaders to occupy London and besiege Dover, an era began that soon assumed the appearance of a permanent settlement. The kings of England and Scotland were neighbouring, allied sovereigns, related by both blood and marriage. Their positions amounted to a sort of equality. 

The Scottish dynasty was longer established, the English one richer and, especially by virtue of its (decreasing) French possessions, more exalted. Both kingdoms exercised imperial policies on their Celtic or Norse frontiers, England towards Ireland and Wales, Scotland towards the Islands (including Man) and unruly rebels in the Highlands. 

The two crowns had much in common and far more to gain from mercantile peace than risky confrontation with their only truly threatening neighbour. Not coincidentally, this mostly tranquil century saw, in 1237, what amounted to the confirmation of the modern Anglo-Scots border (leaving aside the particular, and peculiar, case of Berwick-upon-Tweed).

It is this long period of trusted, successful, amicable peace — 70 years from 1216 to 1286, the living memory of almost everybody in the two kingdoms — that explains the actions of the Norman-Scots political elite after King Alexander III died suddenly, leaving only a baby granddaughter and a collection of distant and avaricious kinsmen as his heirs. 

They turned as one to the best qualified adjudicator, the King of England. Edward I was not, to Scottish eyes, primarily identified as the remorseless predator who had subsumed Wales, because the Welsh petty kingdoms bore no valid comparison to the long-established, intact institutions of the Scots crown. 

Scots fighting alongside Edward I, as depicted in the 2018 film Outlaw King

Many cross-border Norman nobles, as well as lower-status Scottish knights and soldiers (very likely including Sir William Wallace), had actually served under Edward in the Welsh campaigns. Edward was their now deceased royal princes’ affectionate relative, a legal reformer and peacemaker of European renown, and a glorious Crusader beside whom, once again, various Norman-Anglo-Scots barons had fought (these possibly included Robert the Bruce’s father, a fact emphasised with surprising suppleness by the 2018 film Outlaw King).

When Edward I suggested the betrothal of Scotland’s infant heiress to his own heir there was no outcry or direct resistance, rather a pragmatic, legalistic oversight of what this union of crowns would mean for the smaller kingdom’s political system, landowning structure, laws and church. The resulting Treaty of Birgham of 1289 guaranteed continuity and independence in all these regards, at least on parchment. The death of the little heiress in 1290 thus thwarted a sensible solution, one genuinely accepted by most English and Scots decision-makers.

In the ensuing competition between 13 candidates for the Scots crown, three of the four likeliest candidates — Bruce “the Competitor” (grandfather of Robert the Bruce), John Hastings, Lord of Abergavenny, and the exotically continental Count Floris V of Holland —advocated the partition of the kingdom. They argued that Scotland was not the settled and indivisible realm of a people, as France and England were by now acknowledged to be, but, despite its crown, a merely feudal possession.

The only serious competitor who rejected this contention throughout, John Balliol, also held out longest before declaring himself the king of England’s feudal vassal. He had the best legal case and the most to lose. To his credit, Edward upheld Balliol’s claim, in agreement with the vast majority of the Scots auditors, including most of those appointed by the Bruce faction. Edward evidently preferred the trustworthy king of a united Scotland, similar to his predecessors if for the time being significantly more obeisant to England, to the weakness and chaos of a fragmented Scots landscape.

A seal showing King John Balliol of Scotland (1242-1296) sitting on his throne

Where Edward erred was in his drastic nostalgia for the English crown’s superiority. To him, the new Balliol king remained one of his own lords, a Norman baron in possession of both English and Scottish estates, elevated merely by Edward’s gift. To the Scottish nobles and prelates, John inherited a crown which had possessed independence, equality and dignity in relation to England for as long as anyone could remember. 

They were acting in accordance with the status quo, while King Edward attempted to impose a radical reaction. It is telling that the Scots royal counsellor who had invited the English king to adjudicate in the crisis, William Fraser, Bishop of St Andrews, was the very man chosen by his colleagues to travel to Paris and negotiate the Auld Alliance against England.

John Balliol, cutting an increasingly pathetic figure in an impossible situation, still commanded considerable loyalty, and William Wallace among others fought and died in his quixotic cause. This was partly because the obvious alternatives, the Bruces, were still more than half in Edward’s camp, and partly because the settled thirteenth century had allowed the development of the Scottish crown as an institution that could inspire pride, affection and unity. When hostilities began in earnest, the Balliol-led Scots forces’ first action was to attack Carlisle in England — held for King Edward by the Bruces.

Robert the Bruce, for reasons partly dictated by his own ruthless opportunism, came to his bloodily disputed crown in 1307 with no choice but uncompromising and desperate war against England. As a soldier and a diplomat he was both brilliant and fortunate, and his legacy as a patriot is enshrined in the euphonious defiance of the Declaration of Arbroath, written to the Pope in 1320. 

On the face of it this missive, much more soul-stirring than its spiritual English equivalent, the Magna Carta, appears to cast Bruce in the creditable, Hollywood- and Holyrood-friendly role of a democratic citizen king. The letter, notionally written from the entire Scots laity from the Earl of Fife down to “all the common people”, chooses Robert as king “inasmuch as he saved our people, and for upholding our freedom”, but specifically disowns him should he ever admit English overlordship.

But several important pieces of context about the Declaration are generally forgotten. One is its purpose, gamely responding to the unfortunate fact of King Robert’s continuing excommunication, owing both to a sacrilegious murder he had committed in church and to his stubborn refusal to agree to a truce with England in the interests of wider peace in Christendom. 

The other is its less well-fated precursor, a letter from certain Irish chieftains to the Pope in 1317 lobbying the same pontiff, John XXII, to support Robert’s brother Edward as High King of Ireland. Though this letter claimed to be “unanimous”, such a consensus would seem to be contradicted by Annals of Ulster, which obituarised Edward Bruce after his death in battle the following year as “the destroyer of Ireland in general”. The Bruce family had form on self-serving, high-sounding propaganda, loudly supported by their often-narrow factional base.

Robert the Bruce’s son, David II, after a chastening defeat at English hands, overturned his father’s uncompromising patriotism in favour of the older strategy of southern-facing negotiation. David II’s Stewart successors perfected this careful policy of ambivalence, in part owing to genuine family dissension and a remarkable series of dramatic royal deaths and consequent minorities. The most typical Stewart, or Stuart, was not the self-appointed martyr Mary I — though she, too, showed signal ideological flexibility during the most successful, if scarcely prolonged, portion of her personal rule — but her son James VI, who survived a truly nightmarish upbringing, reconciled the Scots Crown to popular Protestantism, and subtly corresponded his way onto the English throne.

The restoration of a nominally native monarchy brought yet more woe to the kirk and no benefit to the resuscitated kingdom

In the mid-seventeenth century, with its already absentee crown brought crashing to earth, the Scottish kingdom seemed at last to have become completely unsustainable. Irreconcilable political currents inflicted civil war on the country from 1637, four years before even troubled Ireland took up arms against itself. From 1651-60 the country resigned itself to military rule and full union with England — the fullest since Edward I’s straightforward occupation — under Oliver Cromwell. This was a situation to which former royalists adapted much more cheerfully than did the Presbyterian kirk, its palate still tingling with the taste of theocracy.

The restoration of a nominally native monarchy brought yet more woe to the kirk and no benefit to the resuscitated kingdom. It is an astonishing tribute to an institution and an instinct — the Scots crown, and the Auld Alliance with France — that despite the Stuarts’ neglect of their homeland in their days of power, so many Scots contemplated resisting Union in the Jacobite cause for so much of the eighteenth century.

It is, perhaps, as hoary a Unionist axiom as the wickedness of Edward Longshanks is a nationalist one, that while a minority of Scots craved for the return of an exiled James or Charlie, the majority reinvented “the Western mind” and made their fortunes amassing and administering the British Empire.

It is now, besides, an unfashionable defence of 1707’s arrangements, and one that should be airbrushed neither by nationalists preferring to limn the Scots as an oppressed subject people, nor unionists avoiding difficult questions and unpleasant responsibilities. 

The Bruce’s mightiest peer among Scottish Roberts, Rabbie Burns, not unreasonably opined that the Act of Union was achieved largely because the English government had bribed “a parcel of rogues in a nation”. Union or no Union, Scotland remained undeniably a nation still: at its best one capable of glorying in its most fork-tongued rogues and Rabbies, Bruce and Burns among them; and one mature enough to appreciate its own deeply rewarding ambiguities.

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