Mel Gibson's kilts-and-claymores epic Braveheart is probably still the most iconic representation of Scotland on film, and 20 years after its original release it has lost none of its appeal. The film's portrayal of thirteenth-century Highlanders has become a definitive cinematic portrait of Scottish people, customs, history and heritage.
Most people know now that historical liberties were taken in making the film, as indeed they had to be - historic reality is rarely as interesting or as neat as cinema audiences demand! - so here is a rough guide to the rights and wrongs of this modern classic.
For a start, the moniker 'Brave Heart' originally belonged to Robert the Bruce, whose portrayal in the film is also regularly called into question. Bruce, in reality, was a powerful and heroic king, coming to the throne in 1306, the year after Wallace's death. Bruce led the Scottish armies at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, winning a spectacular victory over the English, and was king at the time of the Declaration of Arbroath, formally enshrining the Scots independence from England:
"... as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."
After his death in 1329, Bruce's body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey in Fife, whilst his heart was embalmed and carried into battle and on crusades as a symbol of Scots power, before being buried at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders. This was the 'brave heart' of Scottish legend.
Screenwriter Randall Wallace (no relation...) was obliged to use artistic licence in writing the backstory to Wallace's history, as no formal historical records exist of William Wallace before the 1290s.
The reality is that the real Wallace is only known from the time when he began leading the rebellion against English force - as an historical figure only the last seven or eight years of his life are a matter of record. It is possible that his father was a minor nobleman in the Scots court, and that Wallace may have been knighted before the infamous victory in the battle of Stirling Bridge, rather than after it, as shown in the film. The truth is, historians just don't know!
It is also highly unlikely that Wallace ever met - or conceived a child with - Princess Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, as she would have been just around five years old at the time the film is set, and didn't arrive in England until years after Wallace's death.... She did become Queen Consort for England in 1308, at the age of just 12, after marrying Edward II against the will of his father, Edward Longshanks.
The accuracy of the battles in Braveheart is worth noting. Wallace's armies did beat the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge - the precise geography of the battleground isn't shown (and the tactically important bridge is missing entirely) but the defeated English army was several times the number of the Scots'.
The battle of Falkirk is a different story, however. Wallace and his men did lose here, but not because of any betrayal by Bruce, or through any specific 'dirty tricks' by the English - it's likely that the skill of the Welsh (not Irish) longbowmen (archers) was simply too great for the Scots to fight effectively. The sacking of the city of York, as shown in the film, is pure fantasy on the part of the filmmakers.
Various other inaccuracies are widely discussed, including the wearing of tartan kilts by the Scots, which would not have been commonplace until several centuries later, and the imposed law of 'primae noctis', which sets up Wallace's initial rage towards the English rulers, was never used by Edward Longshanks, or any other ruler in Britain.
Wallace was hanged, drawn (having his stomach cut open and intestines removed, whilst he was alive) and quartered (his body cut into pieces and distributed across the country) as shown in the film. If anything, his death would have been more brutal and savage than shown - it is unlikely he would have had any such strength as that required to make his final cry of 'Freedom!' before the executioner's axe fell.
Regardless of all its flaws and inaccuracies, the film stands as a powerful and entertaining epic.
Visitors to Edinburgh can find statues of both Wallace and Bruce at the gates of Edinburgh Castle, installed here in 1929. It is said that it was from discovering this statue of his namesake whilst visiting Scotland in the 1980s that writer Randall Wallace was inspired to research William Wallace's life, which later led to the screenplay of Braveheart. (Similar statues also grace the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street.)
It is worth noting that in life, neither Wallace nor Bruce is ever believed to have visited Edinburgh Castle itself....
Explore more of the Edinburgh's real history with a private walking tour!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21