Scotland, a desire for independence for 10 centuries

A new 'advisory' referendum on Scottish independence should be held for October 2023, as announced end of June Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. A "poker move" for the british newspapers but also the second since 2014. The subject comes up particularly in the public debate with the accession to the throne of Charles III and since the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

This question reminds us to what extent the issues of independence remain crucial, particularly in the context of Brexit which imposes on Scotland the withdrawal from the EU against their will. They also go back to a very ancient aspiration, long before the official union of the Scottish nation with England in 1707.

Birth of the Kingdom of Scotland

It is at the end of the IXe century that the Kingdom of Scotland was truly born. The lands of this kingdom, known as Alba, stretch from the north of the island (the Highlands) to the River Tweed. Its founders are Picts and Scots. Scotland already bears witness to a strong particularism with customs and a language of its own. It is dominated by different clans, who identify themselves by wearing distinct tartans. This young kingdom of Scotland managed to impose its independence vis-à-vis its Saxon neighbor unified by Alfred the Great, who himself had to deal with the Danish presence (Danelaw).

Map representing medieval Scotland
Map showing the area of ​​influence of the kingdoms of Dál Riata (around 600), Fortriú (around 800) and Alba (around 900).
Angus McLellan,/Wikimedia

In XIe century, conquest of england by William the Conqueror after the victory of Hastings (1066) will somewhat redistribute the cards in the political game. He instituted a powerful monarchy that knew how to take advantage of Saxon heritage and Norman innovations, but the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy rebelled against this new Norman king and sought support in Scotland.

This is how Edgard, one of the pretenders to the crown of England, took refuge in Scotland and gave his sister Marguerite in marriage to the powerful king of Scotland, Malcolm, the very man who had killed the famous Macbeth, to regain the throne of Scotland.

William the Conqueror and the conquest of England.

William the Conqueror then invades Scotland and takes Malcolm's son hostage. The balance of power tilts Scotland which enters the vassalage of the King of England. But William managed to negotiate with Scotland to neutralize the rebellion. It was at this time that the Anglo-Norman culture began to spread in the Scottish kingdom.

Scotland, which has its own institutions with a Parliament based in Scone, lives in a situation of relative independence vis-à-vis England. The XIIIe century is marked by the development of cities and the economy in general. But the accidental death of the King of Scotland in 1286, following an unfortunate fall from his horse, upset this fragile balance. This sudden disappearance will open one of the most serious succession crises, one of the bloodiest, that Scotland has known.

A bloody war of succession

The deceased king, without a direct heir since the death of his sons, leaves his granddaughter Marguerite as the only pretender to the throne. She is a 4 year old child, born of the union of the daughter of the former king of Scotland and the king of Norway. But as she embarks in the middle of winter to reach Scotland, Marguerite dies during the crossing.

Jean Balliol in Forman's armorial (1562). His scepter and crown are broken, and his blank coat of arms reflects his nickname "Empty Tabard"
Jean Balliol in Forman's armorial (1562). His scepter and crown are broken, and his blank coat of arms reflects his nickname "Empty Tabard".
National Library of Scotland/Wikimedia

Many pretenders jostle for the throne, and ask the English king to decide between them. But this support has a price: the submission of the future king of Scotland to England! The person concerned, John Balliol, accepts the market as well as the obligation to send Scottish contingents to serve in the ranks of the English army.

But many Scots strongly oppose it. John Balliol breaks his oath and sends a challenge to Edward of England. It was at this time that the Scottish nobles chose to approach the French king to better fight the English. This is how a treaty of military alliance was signed with Philippe le Bel: “the Auld alliance” in 1295, each one having to bring men and weapons to fight against the English armies on the lands of Scotland as on the continent.

Video on the “Auld Alliance” (Gallia channel).

However, the Scottish rebellion was quickly crushed by the English. The infantry is massacred and the Scottish nobles are almost all captured. Balliol is locked up in the Tower of London.

Hostilities resumed in 1296 with a Scottish raid on the northern border of England. The English king responds by massacring the civilian population of Berwick, Scotland's most populous town. It was on this occasion that the English King Edward Ier seizes the "Stone of Destiny", a kind of magic stone essential to the coronation ritual of Scottish kings.

Replica of the "Stone of Destiny", at the Palace of Scone in Scotland
Replica of the "Stone of Destiny", at Scone Palace in Scotland.
Wikimedia, CC BY ND

The real "Braveheart"

This formidable repression does not however break the desire for independence of Scotland. In 1297, it was a simple squire who took over the revolt: William Wallace. The film Braveheart with Mel Gibbons (1995) recounts in epic mode this emblematic episode of Scottish history. William Wallace soon becomes the hero of Scottish resistance against the English. He assassinates an English sheriff, and gather all the rebels behind him.

Trailer of Braveheart, 1995.

Wallace seizes several fortresses controlled by the English. Edward Ier gathers an imposing army in Scotland (3000 men-at-arms, 25000 English and Welsh infantry, it is said). But in Falkirk, the English and Welsh archers decimated the Scottish "schiltroms" (battalions of pikemen).

In December 1305, William Wallace was captured and tortured: dragged, hanged and quartered, his remains partly sent to Scotland as an example. But the expected terror does not bear fruit. Another Scot will rise up against the English: Robert Bruce. This one manages to be crowned on March 25, 1306, but it is to live in hiding.

King Robert I of Scotland and Isabella of Mar his wife
King Robert I of Scotland and Isabella of Mar his wife.
Illuminations created for Marie Scott/Wikimedia

As he fled to Ireland, his followers were ruthlessly hunted down and executed. His three brothers are tortured and his sister locked up in a cage in Roxburgh Castle. But the death of Edward Ier allows him to bring together French ambassadors to the Scottish parliament to officially recognize his power. The heir to England, Edward II reacted very quickly to break this momentum by sending his army to take position in the south of Scotland.

Bruce is careful to avoid any pitched battle, he leads a war of harassment against the English. In 1314, he laid siege to Stirling, a strategic place on the border. The English King Edward II in person flies to the rescue of the place. A confrontation then begins between the army of Edward and that of Robert Bruce: it is the famous Battle of Bannockburn.

The confrontation lasts two days at the end of which Edward of England is extracted in extremis from the melee. Bannockburn is thus registered as the great victory of the Scottish people and the symbol of their fight for their independence.

Scottish flag flying at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn which is now visited in Scotland
Scottish flag flying at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn which is now visited in Scotland.
Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-ND

French turn

In 1320, Scottish nobles sent a missive to the pope – then recognized as a kind of international arbiter – to inform him of the official independence of Scotland from England, it was the Abroath statement.

Robert Bruce also renews his alliance with the French (1326). In 1328, the new English king Edward III recognized the independence of Scotland (Treaty of Northampton), while dividing the Scottish nobility. In 1332, at the Battle of Duplin Moor, some of the dissident Scottish nobles joined forces with the English against their compatriots. It is the revenge of the English army which experiments with a new tactic: the knights fight this time on foot.

Robert Bruce's heir, David finds refuge in France, with Philip VI. In 1346, aided by the French, the Scots mobilized their troops against the King of England, but they were again defeated at the Battle of Neville's Cross. David is imprisoned in the Tower of London. He is freed after 11 years of captivity. He died in 1371 in disrepute, having married the widow of a minor English nobleman.

On this date, the English mobilize most of their forces in their war against France, in which the Scots will this time help the French against their common enemy. Until the middle of the XVe century, we find Scottish fighters alongside the French. The king of France will even choose a Scotsman as constable, that is to say to lead his army!

The Stone of Destiny, emblem of mistrust

Relations between England and Scotland would pacify over the centuries and Scotland would become a constituent nation of the United Kingdom (its current status), a political union with the Kingdom of England, on 1er May 1707.

Nevertheless, a form of reciprocal and historical mistrust remains, fueled by political relations between parties (unionists, independence, etc.) and fueled by crises as shown more recently by Brexit.

Not to mention a deep resentment linked to the theft of the Stone of Destiny, emblem of the Scottish monarchy, during the Hundred Years War. Indeed, despite the King of England's promise in 1328 to return the stone, it remained in Westminster for many years.

But the Scots repaired the oversight by force. In 1950, several independence students from the University of Glasgow stole it and placed it back in Scone Abbey before it was returned to the English Crown. Since 1996, this stone, true or false, now rests in Edinburgh Castle and should soon be at the heart of an exhibition in Perth, Scotland.

Valerie Toureille, Professor of History of the Middle Ages, CY Cergy Paris University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / makasana photo

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