Friday, 30 September 2016

Did the Scots beat the English at Bannockburn? Or was it a case of Normans beating Normans?

Every country, race, religion and individual views the world through a multi-faceted and often self-contradictory prism of myth and legend (and if that doesn't get me into Pseud's Corner, nothing ever will). Not all myths and legends are untrue, of course, and not all myths and legends are harmful to those whose view of reality is coloured by them - but many are both false and harmful.  I suspect many Europhiles of the Islington tendency would cite everything from Londoners battling heroically through the Blitz to the view of the British Empire as an almost unalloyed good which brought law and trade to those lucky enough to be colonised as partially responsible for British voters' "disastrous" decision to "leave Europe". In the US, left-wing historians have spent decades sneering at the myths which have made generations of Americans proud of their country.

Scotland (my mother's native land) is particularly rich in national myths and legends, many of which happen to be true: they are great fighters; their enormous contribution to running the Empire (and I don't mean the Glasgow Empire) was out of all proportion to their numbers; 18th Century Edinburgh really was the font of the British Enlightenment; their country is astonishingly beautiful; haggis toasties are delicious (no, really - they are); the Scots are - on the whole - hard-working, industrious and reliable (I speak purely from experience); Glaswegians are naturally funny (unless holding a broken bottle, of course); and midges are uniquely vicious little sods. There's plenty more good stuff, but that's enough to be getting on with.

These all strike me as helpful myths. As for the unhelpful ones - i.e. those which have been been ruthlessly and successfully exploited by the SNP - the most damaging are: (1) the Scots are naturally more caring, collective and left-wing than their neighbours, and (2) all their great battles have been against the oppressive, exploitative English (symptomatic of a tendency to view their history through a lens marked "English bastards!"). The first myth is demonstrably untrue - over 50% of Scots voted Conservative in 1955, and the country's history is riddled with flinty-eyed businessmen who believed in laissez faire economics and Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the market, and despised government interference and the concept of wealth redistribution. The Scots are not natural socialists. (As for their much-vaunted love of immigrants - and their desire to welcome even more of them - 7% of Scotland's population is made up of immigrants born overseas: let's see how super-tolerant they feel when that figure matches the 13% found south of the border.)

As for anti-English resentment, well, there's some basis in reality, of course - most recently, Mrs. Thatcher's government did drop several bollocks when dealing with Scotland. Unlike most English people, the hated Thatch doesn't seem to have harboured any marked fondness for, or understanding of, the Scots. (In this, she reminds one of Sir Alf Ramsey, who habitually referred to them as "strange little men in skirts" and who, when a reporter greeted him at Prestwick Airport with the words, "Welcome to Scotland!", replied, "You must be fucking joking!") But when it comes to all the myths and legends about the great battles with the English, it seems it often wasn't like that at all - either it was Lowland Scots fighting on the English side against other Scots (usually Highlanders), or the English fighting against the English - or, as this fascinating letter about the Battle of Bannockburn in today's Telegraph asserts, the Normans against the Normans:
SIR – Clive Morris (Letters, September 27) says that if it took the English 300 years to regain control of their country from the Normans, then the Scots defeated the Normans – not the English – at Bannockburn.
In fact, at Bannockburn, the Normans beat the Normans. Bruce and his main lieutenants, Walter the Steward (FitzAllan), Randolph and probably Sir James Douglas, were all of Anglo-Norman extraction, along with many less prominent noblemen and gentry in the Scottish army.
The nexus between those on both sides was not so much a patriotic objective as feudal duty and inter-family alliances. Moreover, although Bannockburn was, for the Scots, the high point in what is now called the Scottish War of Independence, that war had its origin partly in a contest among three Anglo-Norman-Scottish families – the Bruces, Balliols and Comyns – for the throne of Scotland on the death of the infant Maid of Norway.
The second Scottish War of Independence started when Bruce, now Robert I, in order to prevent divided feudal loyalties, confiscated the Scottish lands and titles of those Anglo-Norman Scots who refused to surrender their English interests.
The Disinherited, as they were called, enlisted help from England to recover their rights. The ensuing war went on until the English got fed up with it. The direct effects of the Norman Conquest were being felt long after Bannockburn – and not just in England.
R J C Angus
Allendale, Northumberland
(The letter can be found somewhere on this page on the Telegraph website.)

I have no idea whether R. J. C. Angus's interpretation is the correct one, but I've read a sufficient number of revisionist accounts of notable Anglo-Scottish clashes to sense a pattern. Fortunately, a majority of Scottish voters seem to realise that, while the "English bastards" meme undoubtedly engenders a gratifying sense of righteous indignation, a large number of "Scottish bastards" were only too happy to fight on the side of the hated English (or Norman) oppressor. Which is partly why, I suspect, little, yappy Nichola Sturgeon and her distinctly monotonous cohorts won't ever be able to convince a majority of her countrymen to vote in favour of sundering their links with the hated Sassenach. Not that the hated Sassenach, tired of footing Scotland's humungous welfare bill while being constantly slagged off, appears to give much of a damn any longer.

As for those storytellers - often hiding behind distinctly tartan pseudonyms like "Alexander Scott" - who have shamelessly pandered to Scotland's mythic view of itself over the years, well, they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. And I assure you that I am - I truly am.


  1. Judging by all the place names in Hong Kong and the fine city of Singapore,the Scots punched well above their weight.That most quintessential of Scottish firms Jardine Matheson generate annual revenues of USD40-50 billion,but don't tell the SNP that.
    Nice jacket covers by the way.

    1. Glasgow was known as the Second City of the Empire, and a third of colonial governors were Scots. It's often been said that there would have been no empire with Scottish businessmen, traders, engineers, troops and administrators. As for Jardine Matheson, I'm sure the SNP will be relieved that Scotland isn't profiting from vile colonial oppression and exploitation.

      I liked the covers - but I knew the books were doomed from the moment I saw them. I'd assumed they'd follow house style and stick one hairy Highlander roaring and brandishing a claymore at prospective readers against a white background - but they went all understated and arty instead. Ah well! They were my first two, so at least they helped me learn my erstwhile trade.

  2. Another legend. If you look through the list of "English" dead and captured at the battle you will come across one Marmaduke Twang so I was wondering whether he was an ancestor of Duane Eddy [Eddy made an album in 1966 called "The Biggest Twang of All"]. You take a great interest in the history of Rock music so perhaps you have the answer?