Friday, September 1

The Power of Symbols

During the nineteenth century Scottish nationalism was reborn after a century during which the once proud nation had all but surrendered both its distinctiveness and its independence to England. Sir Walter Scott fanned the flames of Scots pride with his swashbuckling historical novels, Robert Burns stirred the embers of Scots romanticism with his affecting bucolic verse, and Thomas Chalmers revived Scots vision with his confident covenantal worldview. There was a reawakening of interest in Scottish culture, Scottish history, and Scottish heroes.

By the middle of the century a group of prominent Scots formed a National Monument Committee. Their idea was to capitalize on the new fascination with all things Scottish to build a lasting testimony to faith, family, and freedom--the essential virtues they saw emerging from Scotland’s great legacy. It would be a monument featuring the greatest of all the Scots heroes, William Wallace. Initially the preferred site for the monument was Glasgow Green, however, on the instigation of the Rev. Dr. Charles Rogers, the chaplain at Stirling Castle, the site at Abbey Craig was selected.

The land had much to commend it. A high craggy mound overlooking the river Forth and the broad field of Bannockburn, it was the site of the old Cambuskenneth Abbey--which had been founded around 1147 by King David I. But more importantly, it was at one time also the site of a hill fort where in 1297 William Wallace camped before defeating the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

A public subscription was launched and a design competition was organized. The winner was an Edinburgh architect, J. T. Rochead. His design for the monument was a fanciful Baronial construction with a soaring Medieval tower, arising from a broad Laird’s courtyard, with an overlook representing the recently recovered Scottish Crown Royal. It bespoke Victorian excess in the regional vernacular of Scotland--whimsically combining both secular and ecclesiastical elements.

When the foundation stone was laid in 1863, a crowd of 70,000 was present. But disputes amongst the National Monument Committee members and financial problems resulted in construction not being completed for six years. But when it finally was completed on this day in 1869, it almost immediately became an icon of the nation’s long-held aspirations and dreams.

The monument soared above the Craig nearly 220 feet. The walls were eighteen feet thick at the base, tapering to five feet thick at the pinnacle--utilizing more than 30,000 tons of stone. A fifteen foot tall solid bronze statue of Wallace was sculpted by David Watson Stevenson and situated approximately thirty feet from the ground. The total effect was altogether awe-inspiring.

Inside the monument, there were four rooms in the tower, of approximately twenty-five square feet, with vaulted ceilings thirty feet high. Each of the tower rooms were connected by a spiral staircase--with 246 steps to the top. The rooms were to serve as a national museum--the greatest artifact in the collection being the 700 year-old sword Wallace used throughout his remarkable career. The sword was a traditional two-handed broad-sword, nearly six feet long and weighing nearly fifty pounds. The size of the sword indicated that Sir William must have been at least six feet six inches tall.

Amazingly, the monument proved to be a catalyst for an even greater awareness of Scotland’s unique identity and heritage. As the designer, Rochead, asserted, “Symbols of things are often more powerful in conveying the essence of those things than the things themselves.”


Lawrence Underwood said...

Thanks for the history behind that powerful symbol. As one from a strong Scottish heritage I find it very interesting. I've always found it ironic that both Wallace and Edward were extremely tall for their day.

Ní h-éibhneas gan Chlainn Domhnaill

Sira Birac said...

Every November there is a very challenging race from the valley up to the top of the Craig and then a climb all the way to the top of the monument, back down, and then to the river. I have run it twice. It is one of the toughest races I have EVER participated in; it's even more exhausting than the Edinburgh Marathon in June which is, besides Prague, just about the most difficult big city marathon anywhere in the world. Needless to say, we don't get a chance to see the sword of Wallace or admire the beautiful architecture much. I'll have to visit sometime at a much slower pace.

MH said...

I saw that monument from Stirling Castle, and it was amazing. One of my favorite stories, however, was how a statue was sculpted to look like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, and the towns people got so angry the cut off the head of the statue. So they put a new head on, left the other one at its feet, and built a cage around it.

Or so I'm told.

Amber Benton said...

Scottish Nationalism --- some symbols are passing --- read a bit about the Black Watch and now it is no longer a separate regiment...


Emily said...

Dr. Grant, thank you for the fascinating story. I always love reading your blog, especially when it concerns Scottish history. Recently, I was able to visit Stirling and climb the monument and it is great to know more about it.

Eleganza Strings/ The DeLadurantey Family said...

Definitely would have to agree that Scott's works will inspire and fan the flames for the love of Scotland. I absolutely love the reprints of "Tales of a Scottish Grandfather" by Sir Walter Scott.

God Bless,
Amber DeLadurantey