At Bannockburn

Scott Hames

‘How can a field sell out?’ the man from Edinburgh wanted to know, helping his wife out of a cream Land Rover. They’d driven over for Bannockburn Live, only to hear there might not be tickets available after all. You should expect crowds any time you pay £7 to park on a farm, but the sea of anoraks was a genuine surprise. For months the Scottish press had been rubbishing the event, drooling at the prospect of an SNP-backed disaster, but there were huge lines to get in. ‘It’s all this anti-independence thing,’ Land Rover man muttered, sniffing conspiracy in the drizzle.

There were plenty of Yes badges and sgian-dubhs on display, but the atmosphere was anything but gung-ho. The biggest crowd was huddled near the stage, showing their appreciation for King Creosote's music by keeping subdued. People looked quietly determined to enjoy themselves. Children skirmished with foam pikes, stopping to argue about the right way to hold them. Parents chatted about politics as they waited for ice cream (it was the shortest queue), minding each other’s buggies and swaying to keep warm. Because the band drowned out their voices I couldn’t tell the kilted Americans from the kilted Scots.

The line for gourmet sausage and potato wedges reached nearly to the open rotunda at the centre of the site, marking the borestone where Robert Bruce planted his standard in 1314. In August 1787 Robert Burns came here and ‘said a fervent prayer for Old Caledonia over the hole’. Last year a new poem by Kathleen Jamie was carved into the timber ring around the new steel flagpole. It ends:

Come all ye’, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.

To read the closing lines you have to face east, the direction Edward II attacked from. The sky in the east last Saturday was thick with RAF jets. As well as the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, it was Armed Forces Day, and Stirling Council, ruled by a coalition of Labour and Tories, had hit on the wheeze of hosting a different state-nationalist pageant three miles away from the battlefield. Their free event next to the castle was expected to attract larger crowds and more press attention. David Cameron, Alex Salmond and the Princess Royal were there, pledging support for our boys and girls, and Twitter was full of technicolour uniforms, parachute displays and me-holding-a-grenade-launcher selfies.

I bumped into some English friends queuing for the afternoon’s final simulacrum of ‘gory beds’ and underdog triumph. Slightly embarrassed, I told them I probably wouldn’t have come if it hadn’t been for Stirling Council’s cynical hijinks, my distaste for really-existing militarism trumping my distaste for medieval scab-picking. (At £22 a head, it’s expensive gesture politics.) The Labour leader of Stirling Council had effusively thanked the ‘major British businesses’ who sponsored the show down the road, including the arms makers BAE Systems, Boeing and Finemeccanica. My English friend said he will probably vote Yes to Scottish independence.

The re-enactment was underwhelming even before it started to pour. We had been promised ‘brutal’ Hollywood action but the costumed pike-men and women spent most of their time clogging around in formation, gurning into a forest of camera-phones. There were cheers and hisses when the two armies took the field. The narration was half exposition, half keep-it-light pantomime. The English king was simply ‘Longshanks’, performed with entertaining cineplex gusto. As the Scots took the field, the king was welcomed like a no-nonsense centre-half: ‘Get intae them, Brucie!’

It lasted about half the time we’d waited in the queue. As we were leaving the sodden field, some of the Armed Forces Day jets – they may have been Red Arrows – buzzed the site at close quarters. People were startled rather than thrilled; my daughter spent a few nervous minutes scanning the horizon. I suppose we were being ‘included’ in the neighbouring event, there being ample room for Wallace and Bruce in celebrations of British martial glory. The organisers of both events, and their various government backers, have taken pains to downplay any symbolic dissonance between the two, and there is no contradiction between support-the-troops patriotism and wanting Scotland to rule itself. But the flypast felt hostile and, as heavy nationalist spectacles go, decidedly more belligerent than the history nerds with the pointy sticks.