Scottish and English fighters were to meet again on the battlefield yesterday to mark 700 years since their legendary clash at Bannockburn, in an anniversary laden with symbolism just months before Scotland votes on whether to leave the UK.
For many Scottish nationalists, the victory of King Robert the Bruce’s small force over the mighty English army of King Edward II was a decisive moment in Scotland’s fight for independence from its overbearing southern neighbor.
Up to 15,000 people were expected at the site in Stirling yesterday and today to watch a re-enactment of key moments from the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, performed by the group behind the epic scenes in Hollywood movies Gladiator and Robin Hood.
The anniversary falls three months before Scotland holds a referendum in September on whether to stay or leave the UK, and critics of the nationalist government in Edinburgh say the timing of the vote was deeply cynical.
In the event, however, politicians of all hues have taken a back seat from the Bannockburn event, instead focusing on Armed Forces Day, which was also being held in Stirling yesterday.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was due to attend the re-enactment, but also joined British Prime Minister David Cameron for a military parade and fly-pasts celebrating the contribution of troops and veterans from all over the UK.
Danus Skene, a clan chief whose ancestors fought with Bruce at Bannockburn, said a nostalgic view of the past was good for tourism, but should have no place in discussions about Scotland’s future.
“This image of Scottishness is not helpful,” the 70-year-old said by telephone from his home in the Shetland Islands.
Skene is head of the Clan Skene, a grouping of Scots who can trace their family name back to medieval times, and a strong supporter of independence.
However, the former high-school teacher said: “The debate is about national self-management, it’s about a whole range of contemporary issues. That’s what we’re talking about, not dressing up in armor.”
The story of how Bruce’s soldiers faced down an invading army that was both much larger and better equipped is a wonderful tale of winning against the odds, even if it has been embellished over the centuries.
About 250 performers from around the world donned replica armor and picked up swords, maces and pikes yesterday to demonstrate the battle in epic style, led by a farmer from Fife as the ruthless Bruce.
He was to open the re-enactment by thundering on his horse across the field on which the real Scottish king fought, bringing down his axe on the skull of an unfortunate English knight.
The weekend’s events started with a parade by hundreds of pipers on Friday night, where many in the crowd waved flags with a Union Flag on one side and the Scottish Saltire on the other.
A six-year-old boy, Matthew, stood on a bench and shouted “Scotland” as loud as he could, but he and his family, supporters of a “yes” vote in September, were outnumbered by those who want to stay in the UK.
On a national scale, the most recent poll for the Financial Times put the “No” camp on 47 percent, 10 percentage points ahead of the “yes” vote, while 15 percent were undecided.
Watching the pipers with their kilts and bagpipes set off for the parade at Stirling Castle, the subject of decades of fighting between the English and the Scots, Scottish tourist Rodney Collins admitted it was stirring stuff.