William Wallace

(d.1305) William Wallace is undisputedly one of Scotland's national heroes, a simple knight who rose to be the most important leader (there were many), of the resistance against English rule during the early years of the wars for Scottish independence towards the end of the thirteenth century.

What we know of Wallace's life is sketchy at best and many aspects of it are hotly contested or have been hijacked to fuel modern political viewpoints within Scotland. Most of what we know of Wallace comes from a fifteenth century epic poem 'The Wallace', which has been attributed to 'Henry the Minstrel', or 'Blind Harry' and became at one time the biggest selling book in Scotland after the Bible. Although the poem gives us a lot of information it probably says more about the political and social mindset of Harry's time than it does Wallace's. The anti-English tone of the book probably has more to do with the policies of James III than the patriotic struggle which took place over a century before. Like Blind Harry's tale, most of the popular stories about Wallace have no concrete evidence to back them up, but they are evidence of his grip on the imagination of the Scottish population.

So who was William Wallace? His name 'Wallace' or 'Le Waleis', seems to mean 'Welshman', and there appears to be some evidence to suggest that the family came to Scotland in the 12th Century as vassals of the powerful Fitz-Allan family (who later became the Stewarts). The location of 'Elderslie', the place of his birth has been fiercely debated for decades, with the strongest claims coming from Elderslie in Renfrew and from Ellerslie in Ayrshire, a small and forgotten village near Kilmarnock. The rediscovery in 1999 of Wallace's seal upon a letter sent by Wallace and Sir Andrew Murray to the traders of Lubeck and Hamburg in 1297 seems to lend credence to the Ayrshire claim. On it he is described as "William, son of Alan Wallace". Alan Wallace was a crown tenant of Ayrshire who had signed his name, along with the vast majority of landed tenants in Scotland, to the 'Ragman's Roll', a humiliating submission to Edward I of England, in 1296. A reference to an 'Elderslie' near Kilmarnock supposedly appeared in the notebooks of the mapmaker Timothy Pont in the sixteenth century, describing land on either side of the River Irvine near Riccarton. The Wallace name was certainly recorded in Riccarton in 1174 and in the lands of Craigie, due south of there in 1177. Craigie Castle which still stands, although in a ruinous state, is attributed to them. To add weight to the claim, many of his earliest supporters such as the Boyds and the Craufurds also came from Ayrshire and the region was the scene of many of his bloody skirmishes with the English and their supporters.

Wallace's mother was a Craufurd (whose name appears as Jean, Joan or Margaret), and may have been Margaret de Craufuird, who was born at Arclowdon Castle, which was near Galston. He is also reputed to have had two brothers and he is often referred to as being a younger brother, which may account for his alledged education in French and Latin as second sons often trained as priests, the eldest being expected to inherit the father's titles and estates. Where his military experience and prowess came from is open to speculation but some historians have suggested that it is possible that he was with John Balliol at the Battle of Dunbar in April 1296.

Wallace's uprising began in the spring of 1297 with the slaying of William Heselrig, the sheriff of Lanark, an English official put in place by Edward I after his conquest of Scotland a year earlier. His revolt soon gathered pace and other knights of similar status along with many of their oppressed countrymen joined his fight. His guerrilla army struck out from their base in Ettrick Forest all over Southern and Central Scotland. At the same time Andrew de Moray led an even more successful campaign against the occupying English in the North East of the country, with his MacDougall allies sweeping through the North West. The two leaders met and joined forces at Stirling Bridge on 11th September where they achieved a stunning victory over an English force which massively outnumbered their own, which left over 5000 English dead, among them some of the highest ranking English Barons. Moray too was mortally wounded, leaving Wallace in total command of the Scots forces.

The powerful Scottish barons now realised Wallace's potential - he was knighted (possibly by Robert the Bruce) and made Guardian of Scotland, a startling achievement for a man of his standing. He now held power over men born far higher than himself and guided Scottish policy both at home and abroad, enabling him to appeal for Scotland's independence (unsuccessfully) to the Pope himself. At the same time he pursued his bloody and brilliant military campaign against the English, taking it into England itself, raiding the North and attacking Newcastle. Had his success in battle with the English continued it may even have forced the disgruntled English nobles into conflict against their own King, as they saw their resources dwindling after years of warfare against France, Wales and Scotland. However, on April 1, 1298, the wheels of the Scottish uprising were brought to an abrupt stop at the Battle of Falkirk. The Scots were not used to fighting pitched battles against their enemy, the most professional army in Europe. Although the circular Scottish spear formations (schiltrons), managed to stop the devastating charge of the English heavy cavalry, they were sitting ducks for the archers whose arrows cut them to pieces. Wallace escaped but with his pride and reputation battered, he resigned the Guardianship of Scotland. He continued his resistance to English rule, and is alleged even to have spent time in France lobbying for support. On his return he found out that the fire of resistance to Edward I had been dowsed and most of his former supporters were suing for peace. One of the conditions of Edwards's peace was that he wanted William Wallace handed over; Wallace was betrayed and captured by former allies. He was shipped in chains to London where he was paraded through the streets and given a trial without defence. Wallace only denied one charge; that of treason, stating he could not have committed treason as he had never recognised Edward I as ruler of Scotland. He was then dragged through London to Smithfield, hung, cut down while still alive, disembowelled and castrated. His internal organs were burnt and he was decapitated, his head to be displayed on London Bridge. His limbs were displayed throughout Scotland as a warning. Its message had the opposite effect of what was intended as a few years later Scotland rose again in an ultimately successful rebellion led by Robert the Bruce.

The South West of Scotland has many associations with the bloody events from these early days of the Wars of Independence. In 1297 Wallace and his men, after mustering at Mauchline Moor, launched a successful ambush on the baggage train of Edward I at Loudoun Hill near Darvel (a feat which was to be repeated by Robert the Bruce a few years later). Also the Boyd family who at that time held lands in North Ayrshire were fierce supporters of Wallace, and Robert Boyd, according to Blind Harry, often acted as commander of Wallace's troops in his absence. After Wallace's execution, Robert Boyd was one of the commanders of the Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn where his experience proved invaluable; he was rewarded with the lands of Kilmarnock and West Kilbride.

In 1298, Wallace attacked and slaughtered the garrison at Ayr, by burning down the grain barns they were using as sleeping quarters. Any Englishmen who fought through the flames and escaped the barns allegedly ran onto the swords of Wallace and his men. This apparently took place as a result of the hanging of one of Wallace's family members; Sir Reginald Craufurd of Crosbie. Several versions say that the English officers were murdered the same night by the monks of the Black Friars Monastery in Ayr, where they were lodged.

There are also numerous stories of Wallace's local exploits that have no primary sources and are probably more fiction than fact, which over the years have taken Wallace into an almost mythical realm. One such story starts when he was involved in the siege of Irvine in 1297. In it he single-handedly attacks English soldiers in a skirmish known as the 'Puddle-deidle' or deadly fight. Sometimes this same story takes place when he was much younger and the fight begins over an argument with some soldiers over his catch of fish. This same story is also told in Kilmarnock, but the setting changes to Riccarton and the fight's name changes from 'Puddle-deidle' to the 'Bickering Bush'.

Another famous local legend concerns Wallace's attack on the castle at Ardrossan, which was garrisoned by English troops. Here he sets fire to a nearby house and when the soldiers come to investigate, he springs his trap and slaughters them. The bodies were thrown into the cellar of the castle, which became known as Wallace's larder. During excavation work in 1829, a ring was discovered at the site, engraved with the letter 'W' and is said to have belonged to Wallace.

Back in Ayr Wallace is supposed also to have accepted a challenge from a renowned English knight, winning the fight and killing the knight before escaping. Wallace escapes by the skin of his teeth in most of these stories and by some ingenious methods, some even have him disguised as an old woman. This seems hard to believe if the description of Wallace given in the 14th Century 'Scotichronicon' is in any way close: "He was a tall man with the body of a giant, cheerful in appearance with agreeable features, broad-shouldered and big-boned, with a belly in proportion and lengthy flanks, pleasing in appearance but with a wild look, broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs, a most spirited fighting man, with all his limbs very strong and firm."

Blackcraig Castle at New Cumnock is another site linked with Wallace; he and his men were said to have wintered there in 1297, and the Friars of Fail Monastery too are said to have offered him shelter.

Lockhart's Tower in Galston (now named Barr Castle) is at the centre of two local legends. The first has Wallace escaping (again) from English soldiers by jumping from a window into the branches of a tree and the other involves a handball game against the tower walls, which Wallace used to keep his men fit. This game was still played by the people of Galston until recently.

Whether these stories have any basis in fact at all will probably never be known, but what they do show is the transformation of a brilliant thirteenth century military leader into an almost 'Robin Hood' style, fictional character. This transformation is surely proof of the effect that Wallace has had and still has in the minds of the Scottish people. No matter how much he became demonised by English chroniclers his name is still able to inspire passionate feelings of national identity in the hearts of the Scottish nation over 700 years after his death.

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