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A poem for Bannockburn

November 29, 2012

The statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn: image from .

Scottish history often appears to revel in defeat. We seem to cherish the disasters of Flodden and Culloden, ‘nursing our wrath to keep it warm’ as Burns has it. There is one victory, however, which has taken on legendary status greater than any defeat: the Battle of Bannockburn, fought on St. John’s Day, 1314, when the Scots forces under Robert the Bruce defeated the English army of Edward II, sending him ‘homeward tae think again’.  Edward had been trying to enforce the English claim to overlordship of Scotland: Bruce and his men shook it off for good.

This has become part of the ‘creation myth’ of modern Scotland. The Wars of Independence of the end of the thirteenth century, which culminated in Bannockburn and the Declaration of Arbroath, were what shaped our self-image, our idea of ourselves as a nation. The fields where the Battle of Bannockburn was fought are regarded almost as a national sacred site.

So it should be of interest to many in the Scottish diaspora that there is a major new visitor centre being planned (yes, every historic site must have a visitor centre, or how would we know it was historic?) for the coming 700th anniversary of the battle. We are promised ‘sensitive landscaping’ which ‘will restore the dignity of the site’, and an ‘immersive, cutting edge 3D experience [which] allows visitors to experience medieval warfare like never before.’ Speaking as someone who was once a medieval historian, I can confidently state that I have no wish whatsoever to experience medieval warfare, although others seem quite excited about the prospect.

One aspect of the project which does greatly appeal to me, however, is the proposal to inscribe a poem around the central rotunda of the visitor centre. Ten eminent Scottish poets have each been asked to write a poem evoking ‘the significance of the Bannockburn landscape in ways which will touch and inspire 21st century visitors and enhance the contemplative mood of this place of commemoration.’ Only one will be chosen to be inscribed, and the choice will be influenced by public vote. Yes, you too can have a say in the future of Scotland’s past!

There are some wonderful works amongst the ten poems. If you are at all interested, I urge you to have a read of them and also to read (in a drop down section after each poem) what the poets have to say about their own contributions. For me, there is one outstanding poem, which leapt off the page and into my heart. Reading the poet’s explanation of the work only increased my preference for it, fine though all the poems be. I won’t tell you which, because I hope that you might read them yourself and vote. Do it now, though, because voting closes on St. Andrew’s Day, which is this Friday, 30th November. After that we might compare notes: I’d be interested to know which you prefer, and why.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2012 1:14 am

    I didn’t know you were a medieval historian. Interesting. The medieval period always seems so romantic at first glance but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to actual experience much of it as it really was. Could anyone from our time cope with it?

    I’ll have a look at the poems… good thought to inscribe one.

    (A bit off topic as it’s English, not Scottish… have you read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer? It’s a book I got thoroughly engrossed in some months ago.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 29, 2012 12:39 pm

      Yes, I was all set for a career in academia…and then I changed my mind. I think I just got a bit tired of the fact that most of the people I spent my time with had been dead for 600 years. 😉 However, it was a privilege to spend the best part of a decade pursuing my passion for the past.

      You are quite right, though: the more I discovered, the less I wanted to go there. Nothing romantic about bone-grindingly cold winters, or not enough to eat, or childbirth without pain relief, let alone the cheapness of most human life and the ornate cruelty of medieval executions.

      Funny you should mention Ian Mortimer’s book. I picked up a copy at Carlisle Castle last year, but haven’t got around to doing more than dipping into it yet. Such a catchy title, I couldn’t resist! My own studies were mostly in English history: I did a fair amount of research into the life of Isabella of France, wife of Edward II. A few years ago Mortimer published a biography of her, but I’m afraid I thought it was irritating tabloid tosh. The ‘Time Traveller’s Guide’ looks like good fun, however, and probably one to pass on eventually to my boys, who adore the ‘Horrible History’ books and TV programmes.

      • November 29, 2012 1:14 pm

        ” I think I just got a bit tired of the fact that most of the people I spent my time with had been dead for 600 years” Yes! I can understand that. 🙂

        Mortimer’s written another time travelling book, on Elizabethan England – but it looked much like the first. Rather a formulaic style after the first one and, personally, I’m not a fan of formulaic writing. The first is worth reading though. And yes, it’ll be something to pass on to your children. History mixed with humour.

        I often fantasize about someone from the Middle Ages suddenly appearing in our times and trying to make head or tail of us and our technology. Once past the idea of it being demonic, I think it’d take decades for the person to adjust – if they were ever to do so.

  2. November 29, 2012 9:07 am

    How interesting! (I have voted.)

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 29, 2012 12:23 pm


  3. November 29, 2012 10:41 am

    So have I. A very interesting and worthwhile collection of poems, but just one spoke directly to me. I won’t say which at the moment.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 29, 2012 12:23 pm

      Ooh, so one stood out for you too. I look forward to comparing notes!

  4. hmunro permalink
    November 29, 2012 11:59 am

    I, too can have a say in the future of Scotland’s past? Neat! I’ve never time-traveled before! 🙂 Seriously, thank you for a very fitting St. Andrew’s Day activity, DB. I will peruse the poems, probably swoon a bit, and then cast my vote.

    And thank you, too, for your wry and smile-inducing observation that to “experience medieval warfare like never before” may not actually be a good thing. (Although I’ll admit it does rouse my curiosity. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be flung from a trebuchet …)

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 29, 2012 12:22 pm

      Hah! Only you, Heather, would wonder what it would be like to be flung from a trebuchet! Thank you for my morning laughter therapy. 😀

      • hmunro permalink
        November 29, 2012 8:48 pm

        Anything to bring you a laugh, dear DB! 🙂

  5. November 29, 2012 4:50 pm

    Thanks for linking to the contest. Family came from Scotland originally – my dad would have loved a chance to help select a poem.
    You have a delightful way with words – love the observations about the medieval age.
    Probably will check out the Mortimer TIme Travel book – good time of year to curl up and read.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 30, 2012 11:12 am

      Thanks, Philosopher Mouse. Glad to have provided you with ideas (and thanks to Val too!).

  6. November 30, 2012 8:11 am

    Two stood out for me, on the basis of being the least contrived and the least bending to the very peculiar mental straitjacket the current Scottish administration is seeking to impose on us. I was horrified at the countdown clock on the webpage. Sigh – much manufactured hysteria to still to come as we lurch towards The Anniversary and the election, to say nothing of the happy national coincidence of the Commonwealth Games.

    On a less jaundiced note, my daughter is thoroughly enjoying her first semester of medieval history at a Scottish university you’re rather familiar with.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      November 30, 2012 11:10 am

      It’s hard not to feel jaundiced, even for an anti-cynic like me. You just know that the whole shebang is going to be furiously politicised. I find the manipulation of history for political gain absolutely repellent, but I suppose politicians wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t do that. It’s a bit wearying to see some of todays ‘makars’ (not specifically Liz Lochead) buying into the whole thing too. Ho hum.

      Anyway, I’m really pleased to hear that your daughter is enjoying herself. Hurray! I took my God-daughter there for an open day last month – she is considering med.hist. too – and felt very nostalgic.

  7. Diana permalink
    November 30, 2012 7:13 pm

    one favorite here as well. But didn’t vote in the end, as not to clutter the shaping of such an historical, Scottish site with Dutch background noise ;)). Still loved reading through the poems, and I am curious to see what all your favorites are….

    • Diana permalink
      November 30, 2012 7:25 pm

      P.S. ..It was the last line that won me over entirely for my favorite poem…

      • dancingbeastie permalink*
        December 2, 2012 7:47 pm

        Fascinating! Time we shared our choices…

  8. November 30, 2012 7:14 pm

    Very exciting for a member of the diaspora to participate in the vote! Thanks for letting us know.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      December 2, 2012 7:47 pm

      Very glad to be of service. 🙂

  9. December 2, 2012 7:51 am

    Oh curses, late as usual.

    Thank you, Dancing Beastie, for another lovely and informative post. On the eve of (closure) of the competition we were having a high old time – 3 small (Scots-born) boys, one available Daddy – other one doing Something Very Impressive in London, 2 Mummies muffled to the gills…sausage and spud supper (saus from local butcher, spud from local farmer, drawing a polite veil over the salad, which came A Polytunnel Elswewhere…)

    “Kale? anyone….now, no tears…it is Not Toxic…ReAlly..oh all right then, frozen peas it is…or (darkly and soto voce)… Scurvy!….you…(darling – really) INgrates…”

    and a box of fireworks. Bliss…. 🙂

    Looking forward to the results of the competition. 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      December 2, 2012 7:50 pm

      What a lovely scene you have set there, Alison! Glad you had a good time. Must admit, kale is not top of my list of favourites either, try though I might to remember how healthy it is. (I guess it comes above tumshie/neeps on my list, but only just.)

  10. dancingbeastie permalink*
    December 2, 2012 9:40 pm

    Alison, I think tumshie must be a west coast word, because everyone hereabouts looks blank when I say it! It’s just another word for neeps.


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