THE NEW WALLACE CONNECTION

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The Independent Culture
Once they were fearsome medieval warriors; today they fight on

film for the likes of Mel Gibson or promote 'Braveheart' bread.

Now the born-again Clan Wallace are seeking a new homeland

In his headquarters, a drab, two-storey building, c1960, in the concrete shadow of Glasgow's Kingston Bridge, Seoras Wallace smiles. "Ye didnae know we were among ye till now," he intones. Then he grins: "I like that." The quote is from the fantasy film Highlander, and refers to a secret race of immortals who have lived undetected among ordinary mortals since the Middle Ages. Although Seoras might not have their longevity, as founder and self-appointed chief of the modern incarnation of the Wallace Clan he represents a tradition that the English supposedly killed off centuries ago. Now, though, the Wallace are back. And this time they've got the Americans - and Australians - on their side.

When Braveheart won five Oscars at this year's Academy Awards, it was as much a triumph for the clan as for Mel Gibson, its director and star. The film has elevated the story of the persecution of their legendary leader William Wallace by the perennial bad guys, the English, from the obscure mists of Scottish history to international mainstream culture. And the present-day clan's satisfaction is not just vicarious. They were actually in the film themselves, giving it to the English once more alongside Mel.

Hiring themselves out as stuntmen and fight arrangers to the film and television industry is only one aspect of what Seoras describes as the "great, big bandwagon" that is the modern Wallace Clan. They are willing to provide anything from ceremonial bodyguards to house clearances. Anything, in fact, to help move them closer to fulfilling their cherished objective - securing new "clanlands" to replace those taken from them almost seven centuries ago.

Historically, according to Seoras, the Wallace Clan were the guardians of the Kings of Caledonia and Strathclyde (the name Wallace originally meant guardians of the Ace, or King, he says). In the 13th century they were concentrated around Ayrshire in the west of Scotland, not far from Glasgow. It was a clan of hunters and farmers, and its poorer elements lived in primitive shelters made from bending and covering saplings with skins, known as benders (and recently revived by the encamped protesters at Greenham Common and Newbury). The wealthier clansfolk had more substantial houses; anything from thatched-roofed structures to stone forts and castles for the chiefs.

Although the Wallace were not a particularly large clan, under William Wallace other clans rallied round them when he led a Scottish army against Edward I of England at the end of the 13th century. As Braveheart recounts, Wallace lost the fight, his lands, and his life; he was tortured and executed in London in 1305. Scottish opposition to the English continued, on and off, for centuries. In 1746, the Highland army led by Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated at the Battle of Culloden. Though Scots fought on both sides, it left the Highland clans broken. After that, repressive measures were introduced to prevent them from rising again: the carrying of arms, even bagpipes and the wearing of tartans were prohibited. Seoras, however, hotly disputes that the Scottish clan system effectively died on the battlefield. "No it didnae! It just got knocked on the head. The descendants of the relations, the descendants of the survivors of Culloden - are they supposed to not exist any more? No chance! We are here, and the tables are turned, because we're in amongst you!"

The Wallace certainly suffered a lengthy setback; it was not until the 1980s that they re-emerged in their new incarnation. Brought up with a strong sense of his family's - and country's - heritage, Seoras Wallace claims to be able to trace his lineage back to the family of William Wallace, if not the man himself. He talks at length about Scottish history, although he is less forthcoming about his own. With his long hair and beard it is difficult to put an age on him. He helpfully gives it as either 41, 54, or 410, with a smile that says it doesn't really matter and is nobody else's business anyway. The son of a "trapper" (Seoras furnishes no details) from Portpatrick, he was earning a living with his father when the idea of re-forming the clan came to him.

"One day it was like, 'Where's our clan?' I just sat and I thought and I thought and I thought, 'Oh my God, I've trapped myself at last.' " Another laugh. "Commitment to something! I thought, 'I cannot sit, I cannot sit if this thing is not done!' So I did it."

The new Clan Wallace is a loose interpretation of what constitutes a clan, being a group of like-minded people not necessarily linked by blood ties. It now has a register of around 200 men and women. Of these, only about 50 are based in Scotland, and only a third are actually Wallaces. ("You can pick your friends but you can't pick your family. A lot of Wallaces are pure arseholes.") Seoras describes the modern clan as a "federation of people", where attitude is more important than blood. But they are not a community, and he is quick to correct any reference to clan "members" on the grounds that it is not a club.

The clan's activities are organised from the Highlander Institute, its Glasgow headquarters. From here the Wallace Clan Trust, a registered charity, busies itself with community activities, providing training for the unemployed in subjects including video production, traditional arts and crafts, music, and historical research. From here, too, are organised the clan's stunt and acting engagements. Run by volunteers and part-time staff, the centre, and the clan itself, attract people of various ages and backgrounds. Tam McDermott was 45 when he came to the clan five years ago. Unemployed after a series of well-paid jobs in management, he was studying computers at university when someone told him about the Wallace Clan Trust courses.

Tam is now a full-time volunteer, in charge of administration and training at the Institute. The fact that he is unpaid does not appear to worry him. "I had good money and good jobs, but I didn't get job satisfaction. Here it's just the opposite." He chuckles. "I've no money, but great job satisfaction. You never know what you get into next." That morning, Tam had been part of a group from the centre hired to promote a new brand of "Braveheart" bread. "The next thing I was riding a horse. Which I have not done in 20 years. So here I am, I'm 50, sitting with my balls in a twist, bloody sore, skinned knees. But enjoying it."

William - or Willy - Wallace is an engineer with British Telecom in Edinburgh. He joined the clan a year ago, after meeting them on a film location where he was an extra, and now meets up with them two or three times a month, for "work and play". Though he doesn't know if he's actually related to his famous namesake, being a Wallace has always been a source of pride to him. "Mel Gibson said to me at the premiere of Braveheart, 'Did you change your name by deed poll?' Well, no, I haven't. My father is called William Wallace, and my son is called William Wallace. I learnt a bit about William Wallace at primary school. But other than that I've been denied Scottish history. Now I've started picking up a wee bit of an education on the battles and problems the Scottish people have had for years."

True to the old tradition, the modern Wallace Clan is still basically an autocracy, headed by Seoras, its chief. It could also be seen to be very much an organisation for men, with the clanswomen doing the clannish equivalent of providing teas. But that, they say, is an external perception rather than a reflection of the attitudes within the clan itself. "It isn't a male-dominated clan at all," insists Helen Craig, who has been with the Wallace for five years. "In fact most of the people who actually run the organisation are females, so the core, the heart, is very female- oriented."

Helen heard about the clan from a friend of a friend, and took herself off to the Institute one day to see what it was about. She had studied for a degree in communication studies and worked for a PR company, neither of which she enjoyed. Now 24, she is, like Tam McDermott, a full-time volunteer. "It's basically my life. It's everything I do, and everything I want to do. We are a big family unit, working together. That's what clan life is all about, you know? You have your ups and downs, but it's just a big family."

A family the clan may be, but at present it isn't one that lives together: the Highlander Institute isn't residential. Seoras, a former karate champion, compares it to a Japanese dojo, a centre where people go for short periods to learn various skills relevant to their way of life. And, as with a dojo, some of the arts taught are martial. Seoras describes the Wallace as a "fighting clan", which seems a little difficult to reconcile with his claim that they are also pacifists. The distinction appears to be that, although weapons training is an important aspect of clan life for both sexes ("Aye, the lassies can scrap," he says, admiringly), they don't actually kill anyone any more. But the ability, if not the inclination, is still there. With a number of the Wallace, like Seoras, already trained in Far Eastern fighting techniques, it was a matter of modifying their skills to traditional Scottish weapons such as the claymore. "We picked up the Scottish weaponry and we understood it, you know? Then we basically took it out into a martial arts arena, if you like."

Seoras grins as he recounts how the clan have competed with the British Army sabre team and the French kendo champions, using broadswords and targes (round shields). "Wiped the floor with them," he says. It was this proficiency which initially led to the clan's involvement with the film industry. When Highlander was filming in Scotland in the mid-Eighties, Seoras was offered work on its security detail. But a conversation with the fight arranger led to a place on the stunt team.

Since then, the Wallace clan have been in constant demand as extras and stunt fighters for films and TV, providing everything from period weaponry and clothes to a traditional ceilidh band. The clan arrive on location already in the plaids (never call them "kilts" - the sanitised, Victorian version) that they will wear for filming, and generally remain in them for the duration of the shoot. Off-camera, they practise vigorously, hacking away at each other with various weapons. The aggression may be choreographed, but it's convincing enough for it to come as a surprise (and a relief) to find they're quite affable when approached.

It may seem an anachronism for an entity that claims to trace its roots to 300 AD to have found a niche in such a 20th-century industry. But it's a happy symbiosis; the clan get paid for doing what they do anyway, and from a production company's point of view the Wallace are ideal - why bother with a stuntman who needs false hair and beard, when you can hire the authentic article?

"They're incredibly professional. Probably the best stunt fighters and fight arrangers around," says Jez Freeston, art director for Cromwell Films, producers of one of the clan's recent projects, The Bruce, which is currently on release in Scotland. "The Wallace always work from the heart, which other stuntmen don't. There's not that same commitment to mad Scottishness. They're like armoured wombles."

The clan have an impressive list of film and TV credits, including last year's other Scottish epic, Rob Roy. But the high point for them so far is obviously Braveheart (written by American writer Randall Wallace, now an honorary clan member). They came away from the film with a "truckload of kit" given to them by Mel Gibson (Seoras now uses the leather armour he wore), and any comments about an Australian playing the Scottish lead are swiftly pre-empted by the information that Gibson's ancestors were the Buchanans, who fought with William Wallace against the English. By delivering the story of the Wallace to an international audience (albeit in an over-simplified, Hollywood version), the film goes some way to righting what they see as injustices done to both the clans and to Scotland: not just in having their ancestors slaughtered, and their lands seized in the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, but in having their history and heritage distorted ever since. "What does history mean to us? What it means to us is that we were nearly wiped out, you know?" says Seoras. "My history, of my people, has been suppressed, hidden, and manipulated to make us look foolish. I'm not anti-English. But they don't really care about Scotland. Why should they?"

It isn't only the right to reassert their own view of Scottish history that the Wallace want to reclaim. A more tangible objective is the search for a new home for the clan; land that they can call their own. Originally, their lands were located at various points along the west coast, but they will settle for land they like, rather than the former clanlands themselves.

Their aim is to build a 13th-century village and fort, occupied by clanspeople on a permanent basis. The clan would rear livestock such as sheep, goats, chickens and horses, and practise traditional crafts such as charcoal- burning, so that the project would be virtually self-supporting. Not that it would be simply a pastoral retreat. The settlement would also be a centre for "interactive tourism", with the clan offering re-enactment and film-fight arranging to go with the slice of Scottish history.

A glance at a map of Scotland would suggest there is no shortage of possible sites; there are vast regions of empty land, untouched even by roads, let alone population centres; but most belong to private landowners. However, the clan are hopeful that negotiations for a site in the Stirling area are approaching completion. But even though they want to lease the land, not be given it, the wheels of bureaucracy are grindingly slow. It's an exasperating business. "We're trying to convince thick bastards there's only so much paperwork and financial projections and feasibility studies you can make," says Seoras, less than diplomatically. "We're trying to tell them that through a field you've got a farming community; through a castle you've basically got a factory waiting to open."

The scheme would seem to have obvious potential as a tourist attraction. But not everyone shares the clan's enthusiam for what could, cynically, be seen as a Highland theme park. Seoras, however, is unfazed by accusations that he has a Brigadoon mentality. If the alternative is to slave away for 60 hours a week in a polluted atmosphere, he says, so what? He is similarly unimpressed by arguments that the entire clan system is a thing of the past. "You usually find the people who say that are salaried people, for some queer reason. What have they got to fear?"

The lack of support from other quarters is less easy to shrug off. Film work notwithstanding, funding for the clan is always a problem, and it receives no financial help of any kind. "All these cultural grants, we see them going to folk, and it makes you sick, you know? When we tried to get funding for martial arts, the Sports Council says, 'Oh, nobody's interested.' So we say, 'What about our music?' 'Ah well, you're not professional enough.' The answers are so small-minded you really don't want to continue with it. So OK, then, we'll go and earn it ourselves."

At present, there is no shortage of film and TV offers. But, says Seoras, they would be prepared to take on almost any work to bring the money in. Even busking is not scorned. The clan see themselves as working towards their freedom; or at least the freedom to live their life the way they want to. And as such, the wheel's turned full circle.

"William Wallace wasnae fighting for personal glory," Seoras Wallace says. "He was fighting for freedom, and we really understand what that means. But there's ways and means to achieve your freedom. We don't need to kill folk nowadays. So that's a blessing." He laughs. "For the folk that we would do it to. So to speak." !

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