July 11th is the birthday of King Robert I of Scotland – Robert the Bruce, famed for his leadership from 1306 against the forces of King Edward II of England that were occupying Scotland, culminating in his epic victory at Bannockburn in 1314. A truly spectacular moment for Scotland and one that rightly holds a glorious place in our national history.
Alas, since 2011 and the start of the Scottish independence debate, there has been a rush by both Unionists and Nationalists to claim parts of Scottish and British history as their own. Only a week ago Alex Salmond was found claiming that Sir Walter Scott would have voted for independence. Likewise, 2013’s Burns Night celebrations were marked by Unionists and Nationalists trying to claim Rabbie Burns was one of their own, the former citing "Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat" and the latter bringing up "Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation" as their sources.
With this in mind, can Unionists be proud of the achievements of the Bruce, and his predecessor, Sir William Wallace, since their victories so obviously secured Scottish independence?
Of course we can!
Though it may seem to be a contradiction, we can look to the 19th century, where such “Unionist-Nationalist” Scots such as Burns and Scott took great pride in Scotland’s history and culture while still supporting the Union. We have Sir Walter Scott and his organisation of King George IV’s 1822 visit to Scotland to thank for the tartan craze, the development of clan tartans, and the resurgence of the kilt as Scotland’s national dress. Twenty years later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s love of the Highlands led to the popularisation of the Highland Games. The royal children were attired in Highland dress, and even the Lowland Scots regiments of the British Army found themselves adopting the kilt to fit in.
In this atmosphere, Wallace and the Bruce were seen as heroes. In an era that stressed hard work and entrepreneurialism, William Wallace was seen by the emerging bourgeoisie as the ultimate self-made man: He was not of noble background, nor did he have royal blood, yet this man of “the middling sorts” had led an entire nation to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge and had earned the respect and loyalty of nobles and peasants alike.
The victory at Bannockburn and the preservation of Scotland’s independence for another 400 years was seen by these Unionist-Nationalists as a vital part of the constitutional development that would lead to the Union of the Parliaments: Bannockburn was seen as the victory of free men over the power of an over-mighty king, and so vital in the establishment of an elected Parliament as the highest lawmaker in the country and a defender of rights. Indeed, parliamentary opposition to Edward II after the failure of his wars in Scotland was so great that he was compelled to abdicate, a pivotal moment comparable to Cromwell and the English Civil War that laid the foundations for the establishment of parliamentary supremacy.
So, to conclude, Wallace and the Bruce are two pivotal figures in Scottish history that can belong to both Unionists and Nationalists. Unionists do not have to deny their own history if it seems unpalatable in the modern political climate. Even if we do not go down to Bannockburn or Stirling Bridge to celebrate, they are still moments Unionists can be proud of.