Debunking Braveheart in Stirling

It’s fun to tie recreational viewing to your travels. Here in Scotland, I’ve been watching everything from Highlander to Outlander. In Stirling, I re-watched Braveheart for the first time in two decades. And do you know something? It’s terrible. Mel Gibson’s much-assailed Scottish accent may very well be the most authentic thing about the film.

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The town of Stirling has strong ties to the real William Wallace. From Stirling Castle, you can see Abbey Craig, the knob of land where Wallace and his troops surveyed the battlefield the night before they clashed with the English. Today it’s capped with a Romantic-era monument celebrating Wallace, filled with insightful exhibits that tell the real (non-Braveheart) version of events.

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Looking out from the Wallace Monument, you can see the almost 360-degree bend in the River Forth, including a newer stone version of the original, wooden Stirling Bridge. In the Battle of Stirling Bridge, William Wallace and his ragtag Highlander forces hid out in the forest overlooking the bottleneck bridge until the perfect moment to ambush. Thanks to the tight quarters and the element of surprise, the Highlanders won an unlikely victory.

Watching Braveheart, you get an entirely different version of events: armies lining up across an open field, with blue-faced, kilted, berserker Highlanders charging at top speed toward heavily armored English troops. The filmmakers left out the bridge entirely, calling it simply “The Battle of Stirling.” Oh, and the blue facepaint? Never happened. A millennium before William Wallace, the ancient Romans did encounter fierce fighters in Caledonia (today’s Scotland) who painted their faces (the Picts). But painting faces in 1297 would be a bit like WWII soldiers suiting up in chain mail.

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Braveheart takes many other liberties with history. William Wallace did not vengefully kill Andrew de Moray for deserting him at Falkirk (Moray fought valiantly by Wallace’s side at Stirling, and died from battle wounds). Robert the Bruce did not betray Wallace to the English. And William Wallace most certainly did not impregnate King Edward II’s French bride…who was 10 years old, not yet married to Edward, and still living in France at the time of Wallace’s death. (Entire websites are dedicated to outlining the many other inaccuracies in the film.)

Also, the modern notion of national “Freee-dooooom!” was essentially unknown during the divine-right Middle Ages. Wallace wasn’t fighting for “democracy” or “liberty”; he simply wanted to trade one authoritarian, aristocratic ruler (from London) for another authoritarian, aristocratic ruler (from Scotland).

Even the film’s title is a falsehood: No Scottish person ever referred to Wallace as “Braveheart,” which was actually the nickname of one of the film’s villains, Robert the Bruce. After his death, Robert’s heart was taken (in a small casket) on a crusade to the Holy Land by his friend Sir James Douglas. During one battle, Douglas threw the heart into an oncoming army and shouted, “Lead on, brave heart, I will follow thee!” Apparently, Mel Gibson must have heard this story and appropriated it. It’s a bit like if Stephen Spielberg, when making the film Lincoln, said, “I know that nobody actually called Abraham Lincoln ‘Old Hickory.’ But it sure has a nice ring to it…”

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“They can take our land, but they will never take…my Oscars!”

The Scottish people I talked to have mixed feelings about Braveheart. They appreciate the boost it gave to their underdog nation’s profile on the world stage — and to its tourist industry — juuuust enough that they’re willing to look the other way when it comes to the liberties the film takes.

I’m not saying to skip Braveheart, or other fact-based fictional movies. I’m just saying don’t assume that you really understand the history just because you’ve watched Mel Gibson’s Hollywood version of it. For an armchair historian, one of the joys of travel is going to places like Stirling and getting the real story.

14 Replies to “Debunking Braveheart in Stirling”

  1. Thanks for another interesting post and for debunking the ‘Hollywood’ historicity’ of ‘Braveheart’. What a ‘Turkey!’ Good to know the facts from you!

  2. Try mentioning the title of that movie at the Battle of Bannockburn Centre. It’s hilarious. Most of the employees call it “The Film Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken”. Those that were there that day call it fiction of the worst kind.

  3. Thanks for setting some facts straight. As a movie-goer, I know that even the most carefully-told tales must relinquish perfection in fact for storytelling constraints. But I must admit, some of these untruths are a little bewildering.

    Still, it was a stirring story with beautiful visuals (hopefully actually from Scotland. Sheesh, now I wonder!).

    Knowing so little about Wallace and Scotland, I think it’s a positive that it generated enough interest that people want to know some more, about a hero they maybe wouldn’t have known anything about otherwise.

  4. So, enough about Braveheart. What did you think of Outlander? It’s apparently really increased the interest in seeing Scotland.

    1. Good question, Susan. I love Outlander. I think it’s very well-researched and does a wonderful job of incorporating actual history and Highland culture into a fantastical tale. I watched much of it while on this trip in Scotland and it definitely enhanced my experience. It’s sort of the anti-Braveheart. Check out my post on the “real” Castle Leoch. (Unfortunately, they don’t do a great job of tying the castle to the TV series…yet.) And in the new Rick Steves Scotland book, we will include an entire sidebar with Outlander locations.

  5. Did anyone think this 750-year old story was based on accurate accounts? They do not exist. The face paint argument is exceptionally weak. Warriors of all cultures do it still today.

  6. I never saw Braveheart- have a hard time with that much violence, but I had heard this before. And as far as there being no records as someone else said, that’s a bunch of manure!They may not be completely accurate- history is written by the victors they say- but if enough research is done you can get a fairly good picture even that far back. Obviously, the townspeople there know! When I visited Abernethy. Scotland they had so much history in their little museum, back to the founding in the 12th century. And the Outlander books are very well researched. Yes, it’s fiction, but that doesn’t mean a good writer won’t take pains to make the make the history as accurate as possible.

  7. I’d like to “debunk” you Rick Steves and company. Who cares if it was not true. It was a great story based on an actual person. Most of our really good movies are based on same premise. Brave yet flawed people who do the best they can for their fellow man. And, Mel Gibson did such a phenomenal job all around. Why didn’t you say that somewhere in your article???

  8. Thanks for setting the record straight since Robert the Bruce, the real Braveheart, was my husband’s 20th great grandfather and he was not a villain.

  9. Wallace wasn’t fighting for “democracy” or “liberty” – that is not true, you need to further your research in that regard.

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