An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 21, 2016

Morton: William Wallace: a National Tale

Graeme Morton, William Wallace: A National Tale. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 2nd Edition.
Reviewed by Laura Harrison (

In William Wallace: A National Tale, Graeme Morton revisits the central figure of his 2001 (second edition, 2004) book William Wallace: Man and Myth. As Morton reveals in the preface, the original book was an attempt to sort through the post-Braveheart ‘tumult’ surrounding Wallace. This 2014 re-examination explores how Wallace’s biography became Scotland’s national tale, “a term taken out of its literary moorings to examine how personal biography has been reforged and presented as the nation’s biography…” (13).  Morton posits Wallace has contributed to Scottish nationalism since long before it was identified as such, due to the dearth of reliable sources for his life. Morton is certainly not the first to make this claim, but the depth to which he examines the various uses of Wallace’s biography makes this book a useful and welcome addition to scholars of both medieval and modern Scotland.

Morton is currently Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee.  He was previously the inaugural Scottish Studies Foundation Chair at the University of Guelph, and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.  Morton has published widely on the Scottish diaspora, national identity, modern politics, meteorological history, and economic and social history, all with a focus on Scotland, Britain, and the diaspora.  As mentioned above, this book is an update to his previous flirtation with medievalism in William Wallace: Man and Myth. Other notable publications include The Scottish Diaspora (2013) with T. Bueltmann and A. Hinson, and Unionist Nationalism: Governing Urban Scotland, 1830-1860 (1999).

In this book, Morton is arguing the Wallace story has provided a strong foundation upon which Scottish national identity has been built for hundreds of years. To illustrate this, he traces receptions of the Wallace story across time, from text and images to film and digital reproductions. The twelve chapters are largely chronological, beginning from chapters three and four. These outline the major chronicle sources available for Wallace, including the Lanercost Chronicle, Fordun, Bower, Wyntoun, Mair, and Blind Hary, which is the central focus for chapter four.  Like most scholars, Morton questions the authenticity of Hary, but recognizes, “Hary provided enough certitude, alongside even greater fabrication and romantic embellishment, to sustain a verse that spread into the modern period…” (60). Chapter four also shows Hary’s prevalence in the club books produced during the nineteenth-century Wallaciana.  Reflecting the popularity of the Wallace ‘cult’ in the period, the nineteenth century continues to be the focal point for the next several chapters.  Chapter five reflects on stories, songs, and poems produced during this century, while chapter nine highlights the monuments, souvenirs, and material culture associated with the life of Wallace. Chapters six and seven are focused on author Jane Porter and her extraordinarily popular historical romance The Scottish Chiefs.  Chapters ten and eleven move into the twentieth century with a discussion of why the life of Wallace was appropriated much more regularly than that of Robert the Bruce, despite the two men being contemporaries during the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Chapter ten also looks at Wallace and religion, politics, and nationalism in twentieth-century Scotland.  The book ends with a discussion of the film Braveheart, and twenty-first century uses of Wallace, in the age of the internet.

There are several recurring themes and topics in Morton’s book. He begins by discussing Janusian history, referring to the ancient Greek god known as a “signifier of a future forged from the past in communication with the present” (1). He continues to refer to a biography acting as a 'Janusian conduit' throughout the text, for example he refers to Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs as “Janusian nationalism in the making, piecing together past events in order to construct a suitable historical future” (28).  Porter, and her historical romance based on the lives of Wallace and Bruce, are another common topic in the book.  Morton argues the novel has contributed more to the Wallace biography than any other modern source.  He also discusses her relationship with Sir Walter Scott (chapters two and six), whether the novel can be considered a historical novel (chapter two), her personal life and how it contributed to her legacy (chapters six and seven), and the positive reception of the novel throughout the diaspora (chapter seven).  Morton gives a lot of attention to Porter, assumingly because that is how many people from the early nineteenth-century on have first encountered Wallace.  A further issue is the significance of the lack of contemporary sources for Wallace’s life.  This allows his biography to be adaptable to a variety of motivations, which is crucial to its enduring popularity and use. 

Morton’s book is perhaps most notable for his discussion of feminine nationalism, which he explores in chapter eight.  He argues that Scotland had a feminised identity due to its relationship within the United Kingdom, “it was the product of a peripheral nation in partnership with a core nation, a union envisioned, if not in actuality, as one of equality” (130).  Morton also maintains the malleability of Wallace owes a lot to Porter’s feminisation of his masculine biography, “Feminising the most masculine of Scottish heroes ensured the greatest impact…This caught the popular construction of Scottish nationalism like no other in the decades before political nationalism of the twentieth century” (132).  As Morton himself says, the role of gender in discussions on nationalism in Scotland has not been given adequate attention, and its inclusion in this book seems to be a call to arms from the author. 

Morton is also largely focused on the history of national identity in Scotland.  This is not entirely surprising, given Morton’s research interests and also the role of Wallace in discussions of national identity.  National identity is nearly synonymous with Scottish history, but the history of that identity is not always examined.  Wallace provides a useful microcosm from which to study Scottish national identity since the early modern period, and particularly since the nineteenth century.  In chapter four Morton uses the publishing history of Blind Hary’s The Wallace to show early modern trends in popularity.  For the nineteenth century, Morton emphasises how the anti-English aspects of Wallace’s biography were downplayed, in order to present a Wallace who would have been supportive of the Union.  Morton also points out how, in the twentieth century, Wallace was used by most of the political parties, not just the Scottish National Party, though they are often criticised for their appropriation of Scottish history.  He then outlines the decline in the appeal of Wallace in the twentieth century, until the release of Braveheart in 1995.  In the twenty-first century, Morton argues Wallace has become a part of national identity through a self-fulfilling prophecy, “Wallace is Scotland’s national tale because he is our national tale” (208).  Thanks to the internet, Scottish identity has recently been globalised, with many people having a stake in Wallace’s story, as well as Scotland, despite living abroad.

There are many strengths in Morton’s work.  The discussion of feminine nationalism adds an interesting and entirely necessary perspective to the study of Scottish national identity.  The long timeline of the book allows the reader to see larger trends in commemoration and identity formation in Scotland.  It is also a very readable text, and could certainly be read for interest as much as for its contributions to the field.  The greatest strength of Morton’s book is his approach to the topic of national identity, or the 'national tale'.  By using Wallace as a lens he is able to cover hundreds of years and a variety of topics in a relatively short book.  This strength, however, also leads to the greatest weakness of the book.  Due to the focus on one individual, the role of Wallace in the history of Scottish identity can sometimes seem overinflated.  I was left wondering when Bruce would enter the picture, particularly during the discussions of The Scottish Chiefs in which he is a central character – though admittedly not as central as Wallace.  Morton uses Bruce as the antithesis to Wallace, to show how Wallace suited nineteenth-century mentalities better.  While no doubt true, it seemed that part of the story was missing.

Overall, this book is an excellent contribution to the fields of medievalism, Scottish history, diaspora studies, and national identity.  Morton covers a variety of topics and time periods through the use of Wallace as the connecting link, and draws a clear conclusion as to how he has influenced the national tale.  It would be of use to medieval and modern historians of Scotland and the Scottish diaspora alike, as well as anyone with an interest in the appropriation of Wallace. 

Laura Harrison
University of Edinburgh