Our History has been written by the victors and they are not going to loosen their grip over their narrative of our past.
When I started the history police, it was in response to obvious misrepresentations of Scotland’s history. This was mainly down to the subtle use of language such as English titles for British monarchs and the glorification of the current aristocracy.
Previously, many went along with this airbrushing but the current political climate has made more question how our union came to be and how Scotland’s heroes and legends are being explained today.
Since my visit to the Arran Heritage Museum in 2017 and the subsequent uproar at their absolute reluctance to explain the Clearances in a more non-bias fashion, the History Police movement is growing in size, with a much wider range of issues being discussed. With that, it has also become obvious that the extent of reluctance to show other narratives of our history extends far beyond the boundaries of a small museum’s curator.
In June 2019, a film about Robert the Bruce, written by and starring Scottish Actor, Angus Macfadyen, came to the cinemas. Almost immediately, there was a backlash from the press and mainstream theatres not wanting to show the movie or by making the showtimes very inconvenient for the majority of working people to see it. Now it can be said that many filmmakers have had a similar experience – not every movie is critically acclaimed or a blockbuster hit. So why is this situation suspicious, and why is a piece of historical fiction worthy of a mention in the history police?
Firstly, let us get Angus’ political viewpoints out of the way. He is a very ardent Scottish Independence supporter. He is not shy to back the concept of Scotland leaving the Union of Great Britain. This has made him quite unpopular with Unionists across the country North and South of the Border. The media is also unionist with only a handful of publications sympathetic to Scotland’s self-determination. Angus has been ridiculed in the press more than once over his stance in the past already including the fact that he resides in Panama and therefore should not have a say on the matter in their opinion.
Secondly, Angus has decided to reprise the role of arguably Scotland’s most celebrated king. Against all odds and British propaganda, Bruce remains entrenched positively in the Scottish psyche. However, if you visit any historical property around Scotland or listen to any Scottish tour guide, you will be hard-pressed not to hear or read the phrases:
“Bruce fought for the English” – This insinuates that he was a traitor to Scotland. This does not reflect that there was a lot of turmoil whilst the Scots were trying to select a monarch and many noble families switched sides many times if they did not support the rival’s claims to the Scottish throne. It also does not reflect that Scotland had been occupied by English forces in an attempt to squash the Scots and any rebellion by Edward the 1st of England who was intent on conquering the Celtic nations of Britain and also France. It would take a saint not to worry for one’s family and estates with the enemy quite literally at the gates, and its called preservation to fight with the enemy… but for how long? This side of the story is rarely discussed.
“Bruce murdered John Comyn in a church in Dumfries” – Again a subtle use of language here but many of the details of the “murder” come from English chronicles written decades later and become more and more grotesque with every new author. Little is known about that fateful day, other than the fact that Comyn died by violence in that church, but as to
how, why and even by whom is still very much down to the interpretation of the 14th-century text.
“Bruce invaded Ireland” – This is a little favourite of mine as it has caused many a heated debate with fellow Scots of Irish descent. They forget that England had invaded Ireland at that time and the method to have them removed was to elect Bruce’s brother as king. It failed and the usual divide and conquer rhetoric continued on missing very important details.
“Bruce caused the land feuds that we still see today” – It is true that Bruce gifted lands for support like any other 14th century King of the day. But this is not paired with what came before or after and the context of the feudal system across Europe. The last time I checked, Scotland was part of Europe. Well, given Brexit, forget that last point.
“Bruce was not a Scot, he was a Norman impostor” – This one tends to crack me up the most. Firstly, the Norman settlements in Scotland started 2 centuries before Bruce was even born. Not to mention, Bruce’s mother was a Gael and he had Gaelic on his lips. May I even ask, what does it mean to be a “pure Scot”?
“Bruce had leprosy” – This is something that is still being disputed today and although I do not believe that most modern observers care about this illness, it was a Taboo disease in days gone by to discredit him and his legacy. It also implies that he was an ugly and weak individual aside from his other supposed “failings” in this list.
Since the Act of Union in 1707, Scottishness has been treated in a negative light and no one has received this kind of negativity than the person who fought and secured Scottish Independence (well possibly Bonnie Prince Charlie who failed). Sir Walter Scott brought back the passion for Scotland’s so-called heroes in the 19th century but not without the wonderful British rhetoric that came with it.
The last point is that Angus had previously played the Bruce in the mid-nineties in a film called Braveheart. Although not historically accurate, it was a major Oscar award-winning blockbuster hit which rejuvenated interest in Scottish history across Scotland. Ignoring Mel Gibson’s attempt at a Scottish accent, it was one of the first times, a pro-Scottish film had been made for a global audience. It sent shock waves through the country with a push towards a devolved Scottish Parliament and the interest in the Gaelic language – I believe that people wanted to be Scottish and celebrate it. The memory of the aftermath of Braveheart made the unionists (especially the Tories in Westminster) nervous and when the TV show Outlander came out, David Cameron himself is reported to have asked Sony not to have it shown in Scotland before the referendum in 2014.
Film and TV, especially when discussing historical fiction in Scotland remains very difficult to bring to a cinematic audience. It is not surprising that in addition to our historic properties and texts which are misrepresenting our past, is that our Creative industries are reluctant to fund Scotland centric historical projects. In fact, Angus took the script to Scotland where any funding was denied…. it took over a decade to get it filmed in America with the use of foreign talent and investors. What a shame!
We need to ask ourselves why is it so difficult to get films out there about pre-union Scotland? Why is it when one makes it out, it is automatically vilified for historical inaccuracy and why is it paired with negativity about the concerning characters? For example at the same time as the other Robert the Bruce film starring Chris Pine, the press bombarded the Scottish public with “new information” that suggested Bruce was in fact born in Essex with little fact to substantiate it.
We need to challenge the lack of discussion in this area if we are to have a free and open debate. We need to stop these powerful Media conglomerates from dictating what can and what cannot be said, what can and can’t be shown if we are ever going to move forward as a country. Whether you agree with Scottish Independence or not, surely we need to stop vilifying Scotland and glorifying Britain?
Even if it’s just a matter of integrity, however, once you start to learn the truth, it is hard not to start changing your mind, which is exactly what the establishment and powers at be are afraid of!