Bloody Tales: Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – man or myth?

Ahead of National Geographic's new series, historian Fiona Watson separates fact from fiction in the Hollywood tale of Scottish independence


William Wallace wore a kilt… FALSE


It is interesting that if you want to portray Scotland in the past you have to have a Highlander, and you have to have a kilt. It’s absolute baloney. Wallace wouldn’t have worn a kilt. He would have worn leggings and a big tunic, similar to a man from a similar background in 13th-century England.

The Scots wore face paint… TRUE

They definitely painted their faces blue with woad and bared their bottoms when the English king Edward I came up to Berwick-upon-Tweed. The popular myth was that the English were supposed to have tails, so baring their bottoms was a way of the Scots saying, “We don’t have tails, you do!”

Wallace was a working-class hero… FALSE

Wallace was not this great Highland mountain man of the people. His father is listed as a crown tenant in Ayrshire and comes from good yeoman stock, so Wallace has got quite a lot of status and is certainly not a peasant. Braveheart bears very little relation to the truth. It’s a non-starter as far as history is concerned.

Wallace set off on a killing spree after his wife was murdered… FALSE

We know Wallace first went with a group of men to murder the sheriff of Lanark. There’s no contemporary evidence whatsoever that this was a crime of passion, unless that passion was for beating up and killing Englishmen, which he did in style. Wallace was an old-fashioned, violent, sword-swinging man.

Wallace had an affair with the French wife of the Prince of Wales, who gave birth to his child… FALSE

The story of Princess Isabella of France is the most laughable part of the whole film. She was only three years old at the time and she was not even in England. There was no chance Wallace fathered a future king of England.

Wallace sacked York… FALSE

He didn’t march on York – dream on! For much of 1297 Wallace was gathering and training men in Selkirk Forest in south-east Scotland, using it as a base for rebellion.

He defeated a vast English army at Stirling… HALF-TRUE

Wallace did meet and defeat an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, but there is no way he would have won Stirling without the bridge. The idea in the film that a few Scots would take on a large cavalry army on a flat plain is ridiculous. The English were forced to cross the bridge two by two. According to the laws of chivalry at the time you were expected to allow armies to line up and prepare. And of course if Wallace had allowed this he would have been defeated. The Scots took advantage of what was, essentially, an ambush.

After his capture in 1305 near Glasgow, Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered… TRUE

Wallace was taken to London for execution. His head was set on London Bridge and his body parts sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth. The laws of treason are really developing in the 13th century and if you unfurl your banner against the king you lose all rights. The message was clear: This is what happens if you go against your king.

Braveheart is more fiction than fact. It’s also helped fuel anti-English sentiment in Scotland… TRUE

That period has been a gift to Alex Salmond and the SNP. Politicians might not feel much affinity with history themselves, but they know how to make use of it. The problem with Braveheart now is xenophobia: the justification of anti-English sentiment for which there should be absolutely no tolerance in a modern Scotland. It’s not justifiable, and it has happened even after devolution. In 2006 kids were still getting beaten up for wearing an England shirt. That’s why I think Wallace is a harder hero to stomach today.

Dr Fiona Watson is an honorary research fellow in history at Dundee University.


Bloody Tales is on tonight at 8:00pm on National Geographic