Scotland’s greatest hero was a tall, strong, and courageous man, probably born in Paisley to Norman parents in 1270. Little is known of his life before his decisive appearance in 1297, when he ruled Scotland for a year, but this has merely fired the imaginations of spinners of myth. Most egregious of these myths is, undoubtedly, the anachronistic 1995 film Braveheart, starring the Australian actor Mel Gibson as William Wallace. However bad that film was, it has not stopped Scots from celebrating Wallace’s life, and the enormous Wallace Monument near Stirling remains an important centre for Scottish identity.
Leaving aside the myths about Wallace’s early years, he emerged in response to a rebellion against English rule in 1297. With the Scottish crown in dispute, the English King Edward I, known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, took advantage by invading in 1296. He had been claiming homage from Scotland since 1278, but his bloody invasion and theft of the Stone of Destiny (the ancient Scottish coronation stone, still kept at Westminster Abbey) inspired fierce resistance. Though Edward returned triumphantly to England in 1296, the following year rebellion broke out again, with Wallace playing a crucial role.
In May 1297, Wallace led an uprising in Lanark, and assassinated the English Sheriff of Lanark, William de Heselreig. This marked the beginning of the First War of Scottish Independence, and soon afterwards Wallace joined forces with another rebel, William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas, and was put in command of a small army. His next decisive action was to raid Scone, where the English justiciar, William de Ormesby, was outlawing those who would not take an oath of loyalty to Edward I. These actions stirred up the beleaguered Scots, who suddenly saw an end to English tyranny.
Adding to the romance of his tale, Wallace hid with his men in the Forest of Ettrick. Many of his infantrymen were trained by Wallace himself and were armed with homemade weapons. In September 1297, Wallace led his rag-tag group of rebels to the town of Stirling, having launched many other raids. There he saw a far better-equipped English army, but refused to mediate with them. The Battle of Stirling Bridge thus erupted across the narrow, eponymous river crossing, wide enough for only 3 horses at a time. As the English slowly crossed the bridge, they were slaughtered.
After Wallace’s (quite literally) finest hour defeating a much larger English army at Stirling Bridge, he was made Guardian of Scotland. Unfortunately, after Wallace raided Cumbria and Northumbria across the border, Edward I invaded Scotland again in 1298, and Wallace was forced into hiding until his capture in 1305. He was taken to the Tower of London and charged with treason and war-crimes, to which he responded: ‘I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject’. Unsurprisingly found guilty, Wallace was dragged naked through the streets by his heels, then hanged, drawn, and quartered.