Reading Braveheart: representing and contesting Scottish identity
By Tim Edensor
Scottish Affairs, No.21 (1997)
Introduction: This article has emerged out of my interest in the production of Stirling as a symbolic heritage centre and particularly the centrality of the figures of Wallace and Bruce in the town’s place-image, and in nationalist iconography. By focusing on tourist practices and narratives at Bannockburn Heritage Centre and the Wallace Monument, I have described elsewhere the diverse ways in which the figures have been claimed by different political projects to exemplify this or that Scottish quality (Edensor 1997). In some ways, the symbolic use of these two heroes can serve as a barometer in assessing attitudes to dominant representations of Scottishness and the tensions inherent in contestations over Scottish identity.
This symbolic importance of Wallace has been given a giant boost by the international and domestic success of the Hollywood blockbuster, Braveheart. In 1990, Marinell Ash proclaimed that the mythical power of the two figures had declined, yet presciently observed that any rise in nationalist sentiment would make it ‘surprising if the figures of Bruce and Wallace are not invoked once more’. As the success of Braveheart testifies, this is exactly what has happened. The upsurge in debate about Scottish identity, national autonomy and heritage in response to the film testifies to the power of the Wallace myth. The fifth biggest grossing movie in the UK in 1995, Scotland provided 28% of its national audience (its usual share of the British market averaging 8%). The movie played to packed houses throughout Scotland and was the subject of controversy in the national press, with a profusion of letters, articles and editorials. The heritage industry went into overdrive to capitalise on the film, university student demand to study Scottish History has increased, and the Braveheart site is at present one of the top 1000 sites on the internet.
Popular responses to Braveheart highlight many of the ambivalences and conflicts about the constitution of Scottish identity and the representation of Scotland, and these themes are far from recent. Indeed, the reactions of Scots indicate the difficulties of sustaining narratives of national identity in a globalising world. To explore the various discourses and appropriations of Braveheart, I will firstly contextualise the discussion by considering some debates about the representation of Scotland in film. Following a brief examination of the increasingly apparent relationship between films and the production of heritage, I will go on to reflect upon the ways in which Scotland has been presented by the heritage and tourist industries. Secondly, I will discuss how Braveheart has significantly heightened the profile of Scotland in the international tourist market. A sustained marketing campaign capitalising on the popularity of the film has led to an increase in visitors to Scotland, and especially Stirling, the symbolic centre of the Wallace myth. I will therefore show how the film has been used to boost the town’s place-image and tourist potential. This background – the intensifying global penetration of film images and the simultaneous commodification of heritage – provides the setting within which the meaning and value of Braveheart has been fiercely contested in Scotland. The final, central part of this paper records and assesses the responses of politicians and commentators to the film, and highlights the themes that typify the problematic manufacture of a contemporary Scottish identity in an era in which processes of globalisation threaten the construction of national and local identity.