Defensive Position: What will be Nicola Sturgeon’s equivalent of Robert the Bruce’s shiltrons when proud King Boris sends his army north against a people determined to “be a nation again”? For this is the twenty-first, not the fourteenth century. Courage and a 12-foot spear might be enough to turn aside an English warhorse, but what does Scotland’s SNP Government have to turn aside an English tank?
I WAS WATCHING Neil Oliver’s “Rise of the Clans” last night on the History Channel. It’s a quirky production. Lots of re-enactments and even more burly Scots hurling themselves at one another, axes and broadswords flashing in the thin Highland sunshine. The directorial decision that I found most interesting, however, was to make Oliver himself a witness to the drama – as if he had just stepped out of a time-machine. This is Scottish history as seen, quite literally, through Oliver’s eyes.
The story begins with Bannockburn, the battle that Scottish football crowds recall whenever they sing “Flower of Scotland” and boast of their forefathers’ success against “Proud Edward’s army” and how King Robert the Bruce and his peasant soldiers “sent him homeward – tae think again”.
As a trained historian, Oliver was at some pains to explain how it was that Bruce’s much smaller force was able to defeat the heavily armoured English knights.
The answer was William “Braveheart” Wallace’s military innovation – the Shiltron. Wallace had equipped his peasant soldiers with 12-foot spears and taught them how to deploy them against English cavalry. Contrary to what you may have seen in Sir Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”, horses are not given to suicidal gestures. Set a barrier of sharp spearpoints in front of them and they will rear-up and shy away.
Even so, not a little courage is required to make the Shiltron formation work. A charging “destrier”, sixteen hands high and galloping ‘full-tilt’ at 30mph, is not something most people – even holding a 12-foot spear – are able to confront without cutting-and-running. But such was the Scots’ faith in “The Bruce”, that on the road to Stirling Castle they stood firm and turned aside the English charge.
But Bruce did more than repeat the tactics of Braveheart, he taught his men how to manoeuvre on the battlefield. The Shiltron, to use the modern military jargon, evolved from being a “static” formation, into a “kinetic” weapon. The Scots ability to manoeuvre en masse destroyed “Proud Edward’s” invasion force. Their retreat blocked by the steep-sided river – the Bannock “burn” – and hemmed-in by the advancing Shiltrons’ bristling spears, the superior numbers of the English army availed them nothing. Bruce’s own Shiltron’s decisive charge put the English to panic-stricken flight. Thousands were either cut down or drowned.
Stirring stuff! But what, I wondered, will be Nicola Sturgeon’s equivalent of Robert the Bruce’s shiltrons when proud King Boris sends his army north against a people determined to “be a nation again”? For this is the twenty-first, not the fourteenth century. Courage and a 12-foot spear might be enough to turn aside an English warhorse, but what does Scotland’s SNP Government have to turn aside an English tank?
Well, Sturgeon and her government have their own, very special, kind of shiltron – millions strong – and with more than enough courage to face down an England ill-disposed to countenance the break-up of the “United” Kingdom. A Scotland which has voted, democratically and peacefully, for its independence has us – the Scottish diaspora. We are her shiltron.
King Boris should understand that there are millions more people of Scottish descent living outside Scotland’s borders, than there are living north of the River Tweed. If he doubts the power of the Celtic diaspora he should, perhaps, have a word or two with Tony Blair.
Without the backing of Bill Clinton, and the millions of Irish-Americans at his back, the Good Friday Agreement would never have held firm. President Trump, similarly, owes too much to the support of those hard-bitten descendants of the Scottish borderers who settled the South and West to stand idly by and let English triumphalism crush the pride of four million defenceless Scots.
Fanciful nonsense? It won’t come to anything remotely resembling the doomsday scenario painted above? I imagine there were many Catalonians who were similarly dismissive of the idea that the Spanish State would violently suppress their independence movement and imprison its leaders. And yet, that is exactly what the Spanish Government did.
Catalonia, moreover, could not point to the arrogant over-ruling of its own people’s clear, democratic, and twice-expressed preference to remain a part of the EU.
Proud Boris should keep England’s army south of the Tweed – lest, from Nova Scotia to Dunedin, the indignant clans of the Scottish diaspora, give him cause “tae think again”.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 December 2019.