The Real Braveheart

Not since the Victorians trampled over one another to get their hands on a scrap of the Highlands have so many cared about kilts, broadswords and glens. Thanks in no small part to a Scottish invasion of Hollywood in 2012, with the country itself playing central roles in Skyfall and Brave, Scottish tourism is undergoing something of a renaissance.

BraveScottish tourism has banked on the huge cinematic releases of Brave and Skyfall.


Attractions such as Edinburgh’s Castle and Royal Mile are among the most visited in Europe. Standing bloody at the centre of the world’s fascination with Scotland is, of course, the ultimate rebel, William Wallace. Living in Edinburgh myself, it is not uncommon to hear tourists trying their best ‘freedom!’ cries in the wee hours of the morning after one too many at the local pubs.

But who, or what, was ‘Braveheart’, the epic moniker that makes ninety-nine percent of us visualize Mel Gibson in anachronistic face paint? While we seem to have forgiven the film’s countless historical misfires – the conspicuous absence of Stirling Bridge in its depiction of the improbable Scots victory of 1297, for instance – surely they at least bothered to pin the right face on its eponymous hero? Of course, as is so often the case with Scottish history, the truth weaves a far more intoxicating tale.

Stirling BridgeMel Gibson as William Wallace.


Technically speaking, Braveheart was a dried up heart inside a silver casket, hung around the neck of Sir James Douglas and baking in the Spanish sun circa 1330. This was not just any heart, though – it was nothing less than the heart of the recently deceased Robert de Bruce, King of Scots and champion of the early Wars of Independence (who, to clarify, had no role in Wallace’s betrayal to the English in 1305). When Bruce felt his final hours approaching, he asked his closest peers to nominate a man among them to carry his heart to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on crusade. ‘Douglas!’ was the unanimous outcry, and no wonder; the English even had a bogeyman rhyme about him for the kids, and the man was still walking about:

Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,

Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,

The Black Douglas shall not get ye

After all, Douglas had been wreaking havoc with Bruce since nearly the beginning. He stood with Bruce during the dark days of his defeats at Methven and Dalrigh in 1306, orchestrated the famous ‘Douglas Larder’ raid to recapture and then slight his native Douglas Castle, waged a terrifically effective campaign of raids into Northumbria and Cumbria, and stood triumphant at Bannockburn in 1314. Not a bad résumé.

Castle DouglasThe remains of Castle Douglas today. 


Jerusalem, however, lay out of reach, so instead he sailed with a retinue of hand-picked Scots to assist Alfonso XI of Castile in his crusade against the Moors. They met the Moorish army near the Castillo della Estrella, or Castle of the Stars, between Seville and Granada, with the famous Scot leading a contingent. Fatefully, a command got lost in translation and Douglas led his men into the thick of the Moorish infantry line before the rest of the crusaders could arrange themselves to support them. Pushing through to safety, Douglas became hemmed in and was without hope of escape.

This is where things get too good to be true. Removing the silver casket containing the heart of his king and old friend from his neck, Douglas – presumably raising the visor of his helm for dramatic effect – cast it into the advancing enemy and let cry, ‘Go forward, brave heart, and I will follow or die!’ When the Scots scoured the field after the battle, they found Douglas’ tattered body encircled by a ring of dead foes, the casket with Bruce’s heart underneath.

The specifics vary depending on who you ask – mention of the ‘brave heart’ incident is made in John Barbour’s The Brus in 1375, but as David Ross observes it seems to be added by a later hand. Walter Scott reinforced the romantic image of Douglas and the heart in his Tales of a Grandfather (if there was ever the Romantic equivalent of a Midas Touch, Scott possessed it). But that’s okay, I’ve learned to take my Scottish folk heroes with a pinch of salt – like their porridge, would they have had it any other way?

RobertTheBruceVarious depictions of Robert de Bruce.


I first encountered Sir James while researching castles for my intended book only a few months ago, having until then failed to muster the courage to start tackling the byzantine histories of Scotland’s noble families. I had just finished reading the late and dearly missed David Ross’ On the Trail of Robert the Bruce, and was captivated by the story of Douglas bearing Bruce’s heart. Bothwell Castle, a scant 10 miles from the centre of Glasgow on the banks of the Clyde, brings that story to life beautifully. While the 4-storey donjon (or keep, later corrupted to the familiar dungeon) and inner courtyard give a sense of awe, the real treat is round the back. Carved from the stone above the postern gate on the outer wall is a heart, the same heart that became the Douglas coat of arms following James’ epic deed.

Bothwell CastleBothwell Castle.


Having been to over 60 castles and fortifications, all of which are inspiring in their own right, I can nonetheless count on one hand the number of moments where I’ve got shivers up my spine from sheer inspiration – catching first sight of incomparable Dunnottar on its rocky promontory, standing atop the vertigo-inducing height of Tantallon’s curtain wall (another Douglas stronghold), watching Duart come into view from the deck of the ferry to the Isle of Mull – and this one ranks with the best of them. If in Scotland, have a read about Douglas’ Andalucian adventure in the postscript of Ross’ book, take the trip to South Lanarkshire, and find the heart – I cannot think of a better way for an amateur historian to spend a day.

So who, after all that, is Braveheart? It’s certainly not William Wallace, deceased 24 years before Bruce’s own passing. That leaves Bruce himself, the inspiration for such devotion, and Good Sir Douglas, whose last moments inspired the creativity of later writers. For that matter, you could say that Braveheart is actually the intellectual product John Barbour or Walter Scott, minters of the moniker. My money’s on Douglas, how about yours?

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