What William Wallace Means To me
(Article by Gerda Stevenson, published in The Herald, July 2005.)
William Wallace meant very little to me until I was in my thirties, even although – perhaps because – I was born and brought up in Scotland, and went through the Scottish state education system.
But when I worked as a free-lance producer for BBC Radio Scotland's Education department in the late '80's and early '90's, there was a demand for Scottish history in our primary schools. I was invited to produce a five-part drama series, based on the Scottish Wars of Independence, focussing on William Wallace.
I wanted to produce a well-told story, which asked lots of questions, and commissioned Alan Spence to write the drama. As part of our research, we met the brilliant Geoffrey Barrow, then Professor of Scottish History at Edinburgh University. He sat at the BBC board room table in the much lamented Queen Street building. He had no notes or books before him, but contemplated the table's polished surface as if peering into a deep well of time, recounting the most fascinating stories illuminated by his own commentary, in response to our questions.
It became clear to us that Wallace was an inspirational figure, a leader of vision, ahead of his time, a man with no dynastic axe to grind, who saw Scotland as an independent European nation. We chose to balance the barbaric treatment of Wallace at the hands of the English – he was dragged behind a horse, hung, cut down and disembowled while still alive – with Scots savagery: 'Skinning the English' became the title of Episode 3, where we included the skinning of Cressingham (the loathed English Chancellor), at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Cressingham's skin was notoriously made into belts by the triumphant Scots.
A year later, I was invited to meet Mel Gibson who was casting Braveheart. I'd just had my purse stolen en route from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and was somewhat preoccupied. Mel asked me what I thought of the script, and I made a few comments: “Ah, history teacher?” he quipped. I explained I'd just directed another version of the story, and then thought: “You've blown it – most directors don't like to employ other directors, especially one who knows something about the subject.” But, perhaps because, like me, he's also an actor, he was interested in my experience, and he gave me a part in his film. I regretted that my character's daughter wasn't given her original name of Mirren Braidfoot, which, to me, has a mythological ring to it, so much more iconic than the lumpen sounding Murren MacClannough. And when we filmed the scene where the young Murren gives the thistle to young William, which he presses in a handkerchief, a flower to be treasured forever, I protested to the First Assistant Director, “You can't pick a thistle, David, never mind press it – it's a physical impossibility!” (After all, that's the whole point about the thistle, isn't it – a symbol of prickly indomitability?) “Yes, but this is Hollywood, love,” came the laconic East Londoner's response.
Some years later, I was acting in another film for Channel 4, Gas Attack, about anthrax poisoning and asylum seekers, set in Glasgow. Most of the cast members were non-actors, and many were themselves Kurdish asylum seekers, living in Glasgow. While having a coffee on the set one day, some of the Kurds asked me if I'd been in any films they might know, and I mentioned Braveheart. “Ah, Braveheart!” they responded enthusiastically. “We understand this film. Your Scottish history is just like ours!”