The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom.

A statue of the victor of Bannockburn outside Stirling Castle. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert

No one knows where exactly the Battle of Bannockburn was fought. Historians and archaeologists disagree. Some say the killing was done on the low flatland, or “carse”, where the Bannockburn flows into the River Forth; others say the higher ground, now covered in housing schemes, is more likely. We do know where Robert the Bruce planted his standard and set up his command post. It’s a few raised acres from where he would have been able to see everyone’s comings and goings. It was much more wooded 700 years ago, and Bruce and his men had spent months in the woods, training and preparing for the day the English appeared.

The site is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It’s a national monument with a visitor centre and a clutter of memorials. I went there for the first time last September, at the invitation of the NTS. Finding the place was tricky; I had to cycle through housing schemes with speed bumps and corner shops. The site of the critical moment in Scotland’s history, when it secured its independence and confirmed its national identity, is hidden in plain view, sharing a driveway with a budget hotel. It’s not so much a place as an idea, of course. An attitude. I can’t recall how small I was when I first heard the name “Bannockburn”.

Seven or eight poets had been invited to this meeting, which was almost the last to be held at the visitor centre. It is now being demolished to make way for a new one. The new centre – we were shown the plans – will feature vernacular Scottish architecture, with snecked rubble walls, and will be constructed from local materials.

Inside, loud and interactive displays with moving figures will give visitors some small sense of the realities of medieval warfare. There will be plenty of “interpretation” and visitors will be reminded of Bannockburn’s crucial place in Scottish history. Public information will amplify the site’s resonances: freedom, resistance, triumph against the odds. Then, ears ringing and passions raised, visitors will go outside into the quiet, fresh air and make their way up the incline to the place where Robert the Bruce set his standard, and where stands a statue of him in battledress, mounted on a magnificent war - horse, staring defiantly south.

The area is laid out as parkland, with aven - ues of trees, and it is used as such by local people. Casual paths lead to the nearby housing estates; dogs are walked around the monuments. Aside from the statue, which stands a few yards off, there is another construction, which we learned to call “the rotunda”. It was this rotunda that concerned us poets.

It is a circle defined by a wall ten feet high, which encloses the very ground where the Bruce raised his flag. There are two wide gaps in the wall, orientated to frame vistas north and south. To frame vistas and concentrate the mind. North, the gap frames Stirling Castle on its rock, four miles away. This was Edward II’s objective. Had Stirling Castle been taken, Scotland would have fallen. That said, the road north was also Robert’s escape route. Apparently he didn’t know until the last moment whether he would engage or not and he had his getaway planned. The other gap looks south, over lower land, whence Edward’s army came with a wagon train 20 miles long.

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men. The Bannock - burn itself looks a small thing, but it’s a tributary of the Forth, and tidal. Across two days in June 1314, it filled with English dead. The historian Fiona Watson gave us a talk. “It was a disaster for the English,” she said. “Everyone in England would have known someone killed at Bannockburn.”

It was raining lightly as we made our way up to the rotunda. The land is not high – nothing compared to the splendid Ochil Hills a few miles north-east, but high enough to give a sense of landscape, of weather. From this point you can survey the same land as the Bruce did, if you can imagine away the traffic hum and houses. Surmounting the rotunda is an oak beam, which continues over the gaps to form an unbroken circle.

It was this beam that concerned us poets. The rotunda was built 50 years ago and the intention then was to carve an inscription on its inner face, but no inscription was ever made. However, with the anniversary and refurbishment of the monuments, the NTS was taking the opportunity.

Each poet was invited to submit an inscription; these would be made available on the NTS website so the public could voice an opinion. Then a panel of literary and NTS people would meet to choose one to be engraved on the monument.

We huddled in the rain, seeking shelter from the wind under the wall of the rotunda, and began to think about Bannockburn. It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect. What sort of gesture to make, what to say? In what language? In what tone? It needn’t mention the battle; it’s long over, and besides, the visitor centre will take care of all that. In my opinion, it needed something forgiven and forgiving, modern, aspirational, welcoming, mature, gracious – and Scottish, and all in a few short lines. The restored rotunda will be unveiled in 2014, which may or may not be another defining year in Scotland’s history.

It’s no surprise that 2014 is the year the SNP has chosen for the independence referendum. Perhaps they imagine that the anniversary of Bannockburn will arouse a claymore sentiment; that events of the 14th century will affect people’s brains. In some fantasy, they perhaps imagine the “independence” debate is akin to that gory feudal battle, which happened somewhere between a bog and a housing scheme, under the A91.

Neither is it a surprise that the NTS, in liaison with the Scottish Poetry Library, would recruit contemporary poets to the Bannockburn task; the association between poetry, song, national identity and historical and political moments is still acknowledged in Scotland. In fact, the writers and artists insist on it. It is a cherished half-truth that the success of the 1997 devolution bill was achieved partly by the work of writers and visual artists. In the years between the 1979 devolution referendum, which failed, and the one in 1997, Scotland invigorated itself, not in flag-waving but in self-interrogation and self examination. It was a vibrant time, culturally speaking. In 20 years a whole generation of Scottish novelists “wrote themselves out of despair”. It is often stated that this refreshed cultural autonomy played a part in securing political autonomy. The Scottish Parliament, suspended in 1707, reconvened in 1999. And now we are gearing up for an independence referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

It is a truth sometimes missed south of the border that many Scots distrust the Scottish National Party, including plenty who voted for it last time, and many of Scotland’s writers and artists. We know this because they say so openly. A few of the poets gathered at Bannockburn for that meeting are also represented in a new book called Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence.

The book was edited by Scott Hames of Stirling University. Hames conceived of his book because of the poverty he detected in the present “debate” about independence. He noted the politicians’ apparent lack of interest in the culture that brought them to Holyrood in the first place. In the introduction he writes: “Before the party machines and newspapers settle the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more radical, more honest and more nuanced thinking about what ‘independence’ means in and for Scottish culture.”

To do that thinking, he turned to 27 poets, novelists and playwrights. All have stated their case, vented their spleen, imagined what kind of Scotland they want and don’t want, decried the Scotland we already have. Most are old enough to have been around during the devolution campaigns of the 1990s. Some are incomers to the country, from England or Australia or elsewhere. The editor himself is Canadian.

So it was an interesting time for some of us, to compose a bit of “culture” for this great national monument, and also to contribute to a book which claims that “the political significance of these writers’ work is also at stake in the deepening of the conflation that equates Scottish identity with nationalism”.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”. Or anything else. We can boot them out. In an independent Scotland we could boot out any government that failed us. Imagine! It is not a contradiction to write an inscription for a monument that valorises Scottish resistance and identity, then vote Yes for independence but still hold the SNP in suspicion, not least because it is seeking to appropriate that Bannockburn spirit of resistance.

Several of the writers in Unstated make the same point. They will vote for an independent Scotland because they cannot see any other way to preserve the vestiges of our collectivism, and our cherished public services. We want to vote for common decency and our own maturity. An awful lot of English and Welsh people feel that way, too. We used to be able to make common cause with them through the labour and even communist movements. But not now. So, more in sorrow than in anger, many Scots will vote Yes.

In certain ways, in certain quarters, the country is behaving as if it were already in - dependent. Some people are testing out the shape of the new state, and the people’s relationship with it, even before it exists.

Take this example. In 2010, a mere two years ago, a new arts funding body came into being. Creative Scotland took the place of the old Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. It was a Holyrood invention, initiated by Labour and then embraced by the SNP when it won its majority in 2011. You’d think, with those impeccable credentials, that Scottish artists and writers, those truculent upholders of cultural autonomy, would like it – albeit grudgingly. Conversely, you’d think that the Scottish arts funding body would know that the country’s artists are a gallus crew, who had thought deeply about culture, nationhood and autonomy. But no.

While some of us were getting rained on at Bannockburn and beginning to think again about just those issues, our fellow poet Don Paterson published an essay in the Herald newspaper last September. It was his con - tribution to Unstated. He had chosen not to address “independence”, at least not directly. His essay concerned Creative Scotland, and it became the opening salvo, or rather, the first swing of the broadsword, against that corporate body.

The chief executive of Creative Scotland was Andrew Dixon, who came from the NewcastleGates head Initiative and, before that, the Arts Council of England. Its director of creative development was Venu Dhupa, late of the British Council. They answered to Fiona Hyslop, the minister for culture. Paterson called their organisation a “dysfunctional ant-heap”, among other things. Among artists, dismay and alarm had been shared anecdotally for about a year, but soon things started moving. Within three weeks of Paterson’s essay, an open letter had been drafted and sent to Sir Sandy Crombie, the chair of Creative Scotland. The letter was signed by 100 artists (which figure soon rose to 400 once it went online). The signatories included Booker and Turner prizewinners, theatre directors, the Master of the Queen’s Music, poets, novelists, sculptors. Creative Scotland got a fright, as did Hyslop.

The letter deplored the body’s “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture”. It took exception to its impenetrable marketingspeak and noted that funding decisions were seemingly being taken by people with no knowledge of the art form in question. What it did not say, overtly, was that Scottish artists resent being treated as a business proposition. We are not a “cultural industries sector” that requires “investment” in accordance with a quango’s corporate strategy.

Behind Creative Scotland lies the Scottish government, led by the people Scott Hames calls “the electoral beneficiaries of a cultural mobilisation”. That cultural mobilisation was conducted by many of the same artists and writers now weighing in against the new Creative Scotland. Mass meetings of artists were held and committees were convened to discuss writers and artists’ objections. The most recent part of the campaign was the publication of a beautiful postcard. Printed on it was a “constitution”. A constitution on a postcard! Though unsigned, it was written by Don Paterson and the first lines are these:

We, the Scottish people, undertake
To find within our culture the true measure
Of the mind’s vitality and spirit’s health;
To see that what is best in us is treasured . . .

Both Dixon and Dhupa resigned after the artists’ backlash.

This is where it gets curious. You don’t bring down a quango with a constitution. But one looks through the quango to the political attitudes behind it. In this case, the artists were reaching beyond their inchoate funding body to the Scottish government itself and saying to Holyrood: listen, we writers and artists did not maintain cultural autonomy for 30 or 300 years, and achieve a devolved government, only to have that government treat us as a “sector” in its tour - ism promotions and business ventures.

Hitherto, Creative Scotland has demanded endless “celebration” from artists. Its Panglos - sian “Year of Creative Scotland” is over now, but has only been replaced by another government initiative: the Year of Natural Scotland, which requires artists again to “promote and celebrate”. The SNP’s website declares it is “committed to putting culture at the heart of our plans to develop Scotland’s overall prosperity”. Scottish Labour notes the nation’s creative talent and wants to “capitalise on this potential to become world leaders in the creative industries”. Alas for them, the country’s artists are not so keen to be national cheerleaders, or to be treated as means to economic ends.

The idea with the postcard was that you signed the back, maybe appended a message, and sent it to Fiona Hyslop. Hyslop is an SNP minister. Whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, there still will be a Bannockburn spirit in Scotland – a truculent bloody-mindedness. Her party may regret invoking it, when it starts arriving by the sackload on its doormat.

When I was writing my poem-inscription, I went back to Bannockburn alone, just to get a feel for the place and its relationship to the surrounding landscape. It’s not a spectacular site, just a flattened knoll, but the land seems to wheel around it and Bruce and his men would have been able to see what was coming. I went early in the morning while no one else was there other than a woman talking on her mobile as her dogs gambolled under the statue.

At the foot of the slope, cranes and workmen had arrived to begin the demolition of the old visitor centre and the building of the new. It will be ready, and the monuments polished up, in time for a grand reopening in 2014. There will be a re-enactment, God help us, which I presume the Scots will win, but no one will be killed.

As for the Union, that may or may not survive the referendum later next year. I won’t be laying any bets, but even if the vote is No my hunch is that the issue will return. The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent poetry collection is “The Overhaul” (Picador, £9.99)