National Heroes in a Four Nations World

National Heroes in a Four Nations World

This week, PhD student Laura Harrison (University of Edinburgh) considers the commemoration of Scottish national heroes in a four nations context.

On the 11th of April this year, a new exhibit opened at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, which showcases work being done on digitally recreating the lost tomb of Robert the Bruce. My PhD thesis focuses on the appropriation of the Scottish Wars of Independence in nineteenth-century Scotland, so this exhibit is essentially the physical manifestation of my thesis. The question that immediately struck me is, why is the home of a nineteenth-century writer considered to be the best place for the digitally reconstructed tomb of a fourteenth-century king?

There is a connection between these two men. In 1815 Scott released a poem entitled The Lord of the Isles, in which Bruce is a secondary character. Therefore, as the press release for the exhibit states, it is celebrating the bicentenary of this relatively little known poem.[i]At the entrance to the exhibit is a sign that says, ‘In 2014 Scotland marked the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, King Robert I’s great victory over the English king, Edward II, on 24 June 1314. Sir Walter Scott chronicled these events in his narrative poem The Lord of the Isles, published in 1815. To celebrate this bicentenary, discover how painstaking research has brought the lost tomb of Robert the Bruce to life.’[ii]

The exhibit led me to consider how we build and maintain connections between famous figures in the past- in this case the Scottish past. Bruce and Scott are only tangentially connected; Scott was not terribly concerned with Bruce in his writings, and these men lived very different lives in their respective time periods. Yet all of the media and public attention given to this exhibit has taken for granted that these two were interconnected. This comes back what I am somewhat brazenly going to call the ‘cult of the Scottish National Hero.’ The use of the term ‘national hero’ was inspired by the press release for the exhibit which states, ‘Robert the Bruce, the famed warrior King of Scotland from 1306, led Scotland to victory in the Scottish Wars of Independence and is considered a national hero.’[iii]

There are a number of factors that could be considered ‘criteria’ for being a Scottish national hero: being male, Scottish, and dead certainly all seem to help. Inevitably, however, the most crucial criteria centres on commemoration and remembrance. Commemoration is public, and therefore to become a national hero the public needs to feel (whether they are conscious of this or not) that you are too important to only be remembered in an archive or by the academy. Instead, it is critical that you be remembered amongst the ‘people’. Here I think you could use the phrase ‘Community of the Realm’- to invoke a term from Bruce’s time. In addition, the public needs to view you not only as worthy of commemoration, but they also must be willing to produce multiple ways of doing so. For example, if we think about Scott, there is the Scott monument in Edinburgh, the train station bearing the name of his most famous novel, his house-turned museum, various other museum exhibits, streets and towns around the world named after him and his writings, and many others.

The question is, what can examining this trope of the Scottish national hero tell us? It is a slightly different way to approach the subject of cultural memory, by which I am referring to the ways in which commemoration and remembrance of people and events from the past are communicated and shared within a community. Scottish national heroes have become synonymous with the Scottish past, and therefore they become somewhat timeless. They belong to the somewhat hazy ‘past’, which is a time that isn’t now. The further one goes back, the more people and events become equated. Memory is inherited, but to last it has to be cross-generational- to be a national hero you need to come to symbolize something that is, to some extent, timeless. For example, Bruce is a war hero, a king of Scotland, and the symbol of the Scottish fight against England. Scott is partially responsible (with a lot of assistance) for the popularization of Scotland, as well as a more modern type of Scottish patriotism.

Of course, national heroes exist across the four nations. This was highlighted at the conference when I first presented this idea, Medieval Myths and British Identities, when Robin Hood, Gwenllian of Kidwelly, and St Magnus of Orkney were discussed in their capacity as nineteenth and twentieth century heroes. There are certainly many more across the UK: St George, King Arthur, William Wallace, Brian Boru, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, James Joyce, and Aneurin Bevan. There are also heroes that transcend some or all of the four nations, ‘British heroes’, such as the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Nelson, and Andy Murray (the only living person on this list).

So much of our present ‘national’ identities are based on the collective memory of the past, and this has real implications when using a four nations history framework. The exhibit on Bruce’s lost tomb resided at Abbotsford because national heroes cease being actual historical people, and instead become cultural symbols of the past and, possibly, of our future identity. As a caveat, I have absolutely no issue with the exhibit or the larger project it is illustrating, but I think it is important to consider why we make the heritage choices we do, and what this reveals about our current cultural memory of events and people, and the implications on our identities.

[i]The Lost Tomb of Robert the Bruce, press release, 10 April 2015,

[ii]The Lost Tomb of Robert the Bruce exhibit, Abbotsford, 7 September 2015.

[iii]The Lost Tomb of Robert the Bruce, press release, 10 April 2015,

Laura Harrison is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. She is looking at how the Scottish Wars of Independence are thought of, used, and commemorated by the public in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of the PhD blog Pubs and Publications, and hopes to one day be a national hero of any nation, even a very small one.


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