Bannockburn: Scotland’s Greatest Battle For Independence by Angus Konstam, book review
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Tuesday 13 May 2014
September’s referendum on Scotland leaving or remaining part of the United Kingdom has, for some time now, reduced political debate and much else north of the border to an all-consuming, ubiquitous, monoculture. News last week that Dad’s Army is being revived in a screen remake, prompted a discussion on BBC Scotland about how Captain Mainwaring and his Home Guard troops could be seen in the context of the referendum. Nothing escapes this reflex. If Vladimir Putin suddenly turned up in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street this weekend, he would face one question, at most, on the Ukraine, and the rest on how the Kremlin saw the referendum.
In the timely way that history sometimes works, a couple of months before September’s vote the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn is being lined up as the causa causans of Scottish nationalism. The official Bannockburn website has a countdown clock noting the days left to “Prepare for battle!”
Angus Konstam’s new populist history book on the battle that took place over two days in June 1314, trumpets how important all this is.” Debates on national identity and Scottish independence will inevitably be influenced by the events of 1314.”
For those disadvantaged by centuries of English schools propaganda and an over-focus on 1066, perhaps a spoiler alert on Bannockburn is appropriate. King Robert – the Bruce – of Scotland defeated Edward II’s English army.
Konstam’s first chapter, “Gubbing the English” - from the Scots word for mouth, but now used in the context of a serious drubbing - indicates a balanced academic analysis is unlikely to lie ahead. And it doesn’t. Scottish football legends, Kenny Dalglish and Gordon McQueen, not among Bruce’s retinue the last time I looked, make a quick guest appearance as does the 1990 Calcutta Cup and grand-slam win over England in Edinburgh, prompting the Scots’ new chant : “1314 Bannockburn, 13-7 Murrayfield”.
Konstam tries hard to appear neutral on the legacy issue, but he either gets entangled in the questionable poetic detail of suspect chronicles, such as Geoffrey le Baker’s Chronicon, or the Lanercost, or the comically-sounding Scotichronicon, or disrupts the momentum of Bruce’s efforts in over-personal, over-complex side-tracks. He’s also prone to using modern military terminology like ‘smoking gun’ , ‘blitzkrieg’, ‘lightning campaign’ and even ‘the international community’ - that just jar with the reality of medieval combat.
As a deserving side-track he can however be forgiven for mentioning the English soldier Sir Marmaduke Tweng in the battle of Stirling Bridge and elsewhere. What chance did anyone called Marmaduke stand against William Wallace?
Private Eye have long appreciated the comedy of would-be chroniclers, offering the recent:
‘Twas in the year of Two Thousand and Fourteen
That Alex Salmond’s tactics to be believed had to be seen.
Bannockburn offers us, among many others, John Barbour’s epic poem The Bruce, written in 1375. And we learn:
The Earl of Moray and his men, though they were not one in ten,
From the conflict did not flinch, but drove the English inch by inch.
Historians have to work with what’s out there, but as Konstam points out Bannockburn isn’t a battle that lacks commentary – though sadly most of it written long after the event. That however isn’t an excuse for beginning a sentence in a politically sensitive analysis with “According to my old Ladybird book…”
What Konstam’s book is good on is the pre-battle commentary. The divisions and rivalry among Scotland’s nobility; their inability to see beyond their own territories; the errors and misplaced trust by the Scots that led to the rise of Edward I and how ‘Longhanks’ actually came to believe he had the authority to rule Scotland from Westminster. This analysis, in the first half of the book, has clarity and consistency.
That vanishes somewhat in the second half where after acknowledging that “historians have disagreed with almost everything to do with Bannockburn” he nevertheless begins a monotonous step-by-step march towards Stirling Castle and the battle itself.
Bruce’s early one-on-one with Sir Henry de Bohun, where the Scots’ king apparently cleaved the English knight in two with an axe, is mentioned by Konstam “as the epitome of cool.” The National Trust for Scotland’s new graphic novel on Bannockburn also shows Bruce on his horse, his axe cutting through Sir Henry’s head and Tarrantino-style blood everywhere accompanied by, presumably, the academically verified sound of “Skludd!” Braveheart-style history - just when you need it.
Konstam also can’t resist a dramatic counter-factual opportunity. He argues that without Bannockburn, “Britain would have been created four centuries too early” and a “Plantagenet dictatorship”, a “superpower”, would have subsumed Scotland’s identity and culture. Unsubtle warning noted.
Konstam describes himself as one of “the world’s leading experts” on pirates of the Caribbean. So why Bannockburn? Why not. “Freedom! Yo ho”
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