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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Wallace, Sir William (c. 1270 —1305)

Second son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie and Auchinbothie, in Renfrewshire. He was probably educated by an uncle, who may have been a parson, at Dunipace, in Stirlingshire, and later at Dundee. Here the killing of an Englishman named Selby in response to an insult, is said to have caused Wallace to be outlawed, and so driven into rebellion against the English. Wallace gathered a band of followers around him, including Sir Andrew Moray, Sir John de Graham, Douglas the Hardy, and others, and they attacked the English justiciar, who was holding court at Scone. In revenge for the slaughter by the English of Wallace's uncle, Sir Ronald Craawford, Wallace and his followers burned the Barns of Ayr, the quarters for the English soldiers.

Edward I then sent a force under Sir Henry Percy and Sir Robert Clifford against Wallace. All the nobles except Sir Andrew Moray then deserted Wallace, signing the Treaty of Irvine. Wallace retired north, and in spite of the barons' desertion was soon at the head of a large army which recovered nearly all the fortresses the English then held north of the Forth. While besieging Dundee, Wallace learned that an English army, led by Surrey and Cressingham, was marching northwards. Wallace moved south to meet it, and descended on it crossing the bridge over the Forth by Stirling on 11th September 1297. When the English troops were half over, Wallace attacked, routing his opponents and killing many, among them Cressingham. Sir Andrew Moray was killed on the Scots side, but the Scots pursued the English to Berwick and virtually drove them out of Scotland.

Wallace had by now been given the title of Guardian of Scotland. Edward, in Flanders at the time, hurried back home, and in July 1290, entered Scotland at the head of a great army. The untrustworthy Scots nobles again deserted Wallace's standard, and on 22nd July 1298, after a vigorous battle, the Scots were defeated near Falkirk, Sir John de Graham being among the slain.

Wallace resigned his Guardianship, returned to predatory war against the English, paid a visit to France, and on 5th April 1325 was taken by the English at Robroyston, aided by the treachery of Sir John Menteith. Wallace was sent through Dumbarton south to London, where, on 22nd August, he was impeached as a traitor to a king to whom, as Wallace pointed out, he had never sworn allegiance, and the same day barbarously executed.

However, Wallace did not die in vain, for his actions and his fate played some part in moving Robert the Bruce to end his vacillations, and thereby set in course the train of events which ended at Bannockburn, and the freeing of the Scots from forcible English domination.

Wallace's Dundee friend, John Blair, is said to have written a life of this national hero of Scotland. The life by Blair was apparently used by the Lothian writer Henry the Minstrel (d. 1492), often styled 'Blind Harry', whose poem The Actis and Deidis of... Schir William Wallace collected all the facts and legends by then surrounding Wallace's exploits, magnifying and mythifying them over some twelve thousand lines of somewhat pedestrian heroic couplets.

In 1722 William Hamilton of Gilbertfield (1665? — 1741), one of the minor poets of the Eighteenth Century Revival, put Blind Harry's Wallace into English. This was the version of the poem with which Burns was familiar.

In his autobiographical letter to Dr Moore, Burns said 'The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace... The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.'

Mrs Dunlop, daughter of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie, touched Burns's 'darling heart-chord- by taking note of his praise of her ancestor. Thereafter the patriot was for Burns 'GLORIOUS WALLACE, the SAVIOUR of his Country' the scenes of whose exploits he longed to visit.

He wrote to Robert Muir from Stirling on 26th August 1787:

'I knelt at the tomb of Sir John the Graham, the gallant friend of the immortal Wallace; and two hours ago I said a fervent prayer for Old Caledonia over the hole in the blue whinstone, where Robert de Bruce fixed his royal standard on the banks of Bannockburn.'

His reverence for Wallace's share of the War of Independence no doubt helped to inspire 'Scots who Hae'. It also produced Burns's versifications of an episode from Wallace, the ballad-like song 'Gude Wallace', based on a chap-book version of about 1750. The air to which it is set in the Museum, 1796, has not been traced elsewhere.

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