The Trouble with Braveheart

Stirling work by William Wallace

‘They can take away our lives, but they can’t take away our freedom!’ shouts William Wallace (Mel Gibson) from his horse before the battle of Stirling Bridge.  The writers of Braveheart, the movie might also say they can’t take away our creative licence!

Maybe someone should!

We at the Creative Licence Police submit the following evidence:

Men in kilts in thirteenth century Scotland. Kilts did not become fashion until the Seventeenth century. In the thirteenth century they wore whatever they could find to keep them warm.

But this is Hollywood’s version of Scotland. The accent and the highland scenery just aren’t enough to go on; heavens above, people might wonder where on earth these people lived if they didn’t have kilts on!

Gibson’s blue face paint was also well out of use by Wallace’s time. The Picts in Roman Briton wore it to scare away Romans, but that was a thousand years before.

Ach, aye I'm William Wallace!

It is true that William Wallace led a rebellion against the English in the battle of Stirling Bridge, the first major battle of Scottish Independence, on 11th September 1297. What is not evident in the movie is a bridge.

The bridge, which was narrow and only allowed two cavalry horses abreast, was an essential part of the tactical victory. The Scots were lying in wait on the north of the river. John De Warenne, the Earl of Sussex, who with Hugh De Cressingham (Edward l’s treasurer in Scotland) led the English forces, fatally underestimated how effective the new Scottish army had become under Wallace. History reports that on the morning of the battle De Warenne slept in!

When the advance guard, about five thousand English and Welsh infantry and a few hundred cavalry, had made their way over the bridge, the Scottish troops viciously attacked them and they were cut off from the rest of De Warenne’s army.  Hugh De Cressingham was flayed alive according to the Lanercost Chronicle, and Wallace took a long piece of his skin to make a baldrick (a belt-like holster) for his sword. Snazzy.

In Braveheart we are led to believe that the Scottish spearmen used shiltrons, those circular hedgehog formations of spears that were so impenetrable to the English forces, but there is no record of this formation being used at Stirling Bridge.

There is however mention of it at the Battle of Falkirk, where Wallace was defeated.  It was also used later at Bannockburn in 1314, another decisive victory in the Scottish War of Independence in which Stirling was once again of strategic importance. The English had been on their way to re-capture Stirling Castle when they were defeated at Bannockburn.

But back to the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and Wallace’s triumph.  After seeing five thousand infantry and a hundred cavalry so readily killed, and the rest fleeing for their lives, De Warenne, who waited on the south side of the bridge with a healthy contingent of archers, was still in a good position to succeed, but the poor man had lost his confidence and, frankly, who can blame him?. He ordered the destruction of the bridge and retreated.

Many historians believe William Wallace was already a knight at the time of Battle of Stirling. Though Braveheart’s writers depicted him as a pauper, in fact he may have been the son of a laird, a Scottish landowner, though there is scant evidence to prove these points either way.

Stirling Bridge was rebuilt further downstream in 1500, but the stone piers of the earlier wooden structure remain, and can still be seen occasionally when the water level is low, a remnant of that bloodthirsty day.

Archie Gibson is a member of the support team at Highland Titles sells plots of Scottish land to people all over the world, many of whom have an affinity with Scotland and Great Britain.

Disclosure: Smitten by Britain received a Highland title in exchange for this post.


  1. Harry B says

    Excellent post. I always had trouble with Gibson directed movies. Always too violent and misleading in truth. Gibson always take liberties in order to sensationalize his movies Most of his “stretching” of the truth is found within his violent episodes such as the one in the Patriot where the British lock the townfolk in the Church and burn it to the ground. This is absolutley unfounded and basically a lie And yet they show this in High Schools as fact?

  2. Shashidhar V says

    This comes as news to me…and, I can very much vouch for most Indians. Movies such as these, which claim to be based on true stories and based on facts, are taken to be true by us. And, we are not even close to Scotland. Isn’t there a body or a union that first looks into such aspects and errors before the film is produced? And, would such errors also hold true for another marvelous film – Rob Roy?

  3. Allen says

    “In the thirteenth century they wore whatever they could find to keep them warm” No, “they” did not….. Not to mention the Scottish Knights and many of the foot soldiers would’ve been kitted out in armour and chain mail etc. Pompus wee article anyway, and come on, how long ago was Braveheart released?

  4. Laird Will says

    And of course there is the delightful tidbit that Wallace’s own sword stood just about as high as Gibson. Which goes to prove it’s harder to liberate a people than to make a movie about it!

  5. Melissa says

    As Archie said in his article, there’s such a thing as creative license which is some cases gets taken a bit too far.

  6. Starr Whyte says

    I’ve long been interested in swords and in enquiring about such things I was told that most style of swords in that day, specifically William Wallace’s sword, and claymores in general were the length of the wielder, from the point on the ground to the top of the hilt at the shoulder. There is info about claymore swords on the internet. William Wallace was a little over 6 feet tall. If Mel Gibson was as tall as William Wallaces sword then he must be 5 feet some odd inches About in my height range. My William Wallace replica sword is 15 inches shorter (about) than the real one in the Wallace Memorial. According to the info I found most claymores weigh between 5 and 7 pounds (USA)

  7. vrich says

    The movie may have taken some creative license but does any of this really add up to total misrepresentation? True, movie producers can have a biased agenda (e.g., Oliver Stone’s “JFK”) but there is a difference between that and this. We Westerners are very facts oriented – we want every fact correct and in linear sequence. Ancient cultures, not so much. The “moral” of the story was more important than the actual facts. Remember, for a very long time history was handed down orally. Every person who tells a story tells it a little bit differently. Imagine how differently over several hundred or a thousand years.

  8. says

    You beat me to mentioning that. In his hatred of the English, Gibson has never let the truth get in the way of a good plot line . The scene in the Patriot was based on something that the Nazis did, and never happened during the setting of the Patriot.

  9. says

    It depends whose side you’re telling. Although Wallace was fighting against English rule, he was also a latter day thug, devastating the lands and villages in what is now the north of England and the south of Scotland. Most of the people living around here were so far removed from politics and the English crown that they had no clue what was going on and were probably more like Scots than English. The English in the south certainly thought of them that way. The other “moral” in this story that was totally ignored is the cruelty he showed to normal, god-fearing people. But then, as a member of the privileged class (which Gibson also plays down) he wouldn’t care about them anyway.
    IMO Gibson’s agenda is every bit as biased as Stone’s.