Monday Books: The hero inspired by a spider

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The Independent Culture
ON THE face of it, "the" Bruce, king of Scotland from 1306 to 1329, is the archetypal Scottish hero. He is the king on the run, saved by the common people (like Charlie). His prowess with women produces numerous illegitimate offspring (like Burns). He is a brilliant guerrilla general (like Montrose). And his very special destiny is to secure Scotland's independence from England after nearly three decades of dubiety, in a battle where plebeian footsoldiers destroy the enemy's mounted chivalry.

An ideal national hero, surely? He was a magnificent warrior: the story of his victory over the English champion de Bohun in single combat in front of both armies at Bannockburn in 1314 is exorbitantly Hollywood, yet seems to be true. And, as a sagacious statesman, he secured recognition of Scotland's independence from the Papacy and the English crown.

Yet the 20th-century tendency has been to prefer William Wallace - more "Scots", though his name indicates Welsh descent; more a "man of the people", though of noble birth, an heroic failure and a tragic martyr. The democratic Scottish intellect sniffs at Bruce's Norman lineage, his estates in England, his hesitations before he launched out in support of his claim to the throne: an opportunistic, half-English toff, not One of Us.

Sadly, this biography is Caroline Bingham's last book; she died soon after completing it. She was well equipped to provide a balanced view, not least because she was English. Her scholarship here is solid but unfussy. Her prose is clear and graceful. She is coolly interested in the mythological dimensions of her subject and relates the tale of The Bruce and The Spider to arachnoid interventions in the lives of heroes as far away as Japan.

Readers anxious to bone up on Scottish history before the revived Parliament opens next year will not find a better biography of Bruce than this one. Bingham shows that he was as Scottish as the next man. At a time when French, Gaelic, Latin and the northern version of English (which developed into lowland Scots) all had currency in his kingdom, Bruce - with close Celtic family connections, crucial allies in the Church, and some "English" supporters - was able to cope with all four tongues.

The Declaration of Arbroath, sent to the Pope on Bruce's behalf in 1320 by Scottish nobles and clergy, is an astonishing, precocious manifesto of "nationalism". The signatories stand by Bruce, but say that if he lets them down, they will still go on fighting for freedom. The potent idea that kings rule only by consent of the people was taken up by the great 16th-century humanist Buchanan and echoed in the US Declaration of Independence.

So Scots were the first to clarify the idea of popular nationhood, while "Ossian" Macpherson, Burns and Scott provided models for intellectuals all over Europe in the 19th-century "springtime of nations". How, then, did it come about that Scottish nationalism was never a serious political force between 1746 and the late 1960s?

Christopher Harvie's Scotland and Nationalism first appeared as a pioneering study not long before the 1979 referendum, in which Scots voted in insufficient numbers for the assembly on offer. Revised in 1994, it now returns in a third version. The first part of the book, which deals with the expanse of time from 1707 to 1945, has been fertilised by the streams of scholarship which have gushed forth in the last 20 years.

It reads better than than ever as an introduction to modern Scottish history. Harvie is equally at ease with economics and politics, railways and poems. The satisfying roles Scots found - first as generators of their own Enlightenment in their own quasi-republic in the 18th century, then as partners in the rule of the Greatest Empire the World Had Ever Seen - are presented with admirable judgement and wit.

Harvie is a member of the SNP, as well as an able polemical journalist, and his feisty and idiosyncratic later chapters will be of less use to beginners. They might find his rapid movement between political theory and insider chatter rather hard to keep up with. And a historian writing about his own times may accord undue trust to his memory. Though the Scottish football team's debacle in the Argentina World Cup may just have affected the 1979 referendum vote, it occurred in the summer of 1978 not, as Harvie states, in the following winter.

I guess that in 10 years' time Harvie's Highland charge at his subject will be of documentary interest, to himself as well as the rest of us, once we have seen how the new Holyrood Parliament works out. Meanwhile, I note that a statuesque image of Bruce dominates this book's cover, but King Robert I is mentioned only twice. Bannockburn is of much less consequence to the mentality of present-day Scots than Archie Gemmill's wonder-goal against the Dutch in 1978 - or the great folk-song revival of the 1950s, which was the basis of later cultural nationalism.