Laura Harrison: ‘Outlaw King’? The collision of pop culture and research

‘A true David v Goliath story of how the great 14th Century Scottish ‘Outlaw King’ Robert The Bruce used cunning and bravery to defeat and repel the much larger and better equipped occupying English army.’ (IMDb)

This is the summary of the upcoming Robert the Bruce biopic, which will begin filming in Scotland this summer. The film will be helmed by David MacKenzie (Hell or High Water) and will star Chris Pine (Bruce) and Ben Foster (James Douglas). You can read full details here.

I’m sure this news gave most historians of medieval Scotland pause. Hollywood does not have the best track record in terms of adapting tales of Scottish History. I’m sure there will be lots of talk about the historical accuracy of the film upon its release, but for now I’m intrigued enough by the prospect of an adaptation of the life of Bruce. My PhD research focuses on commemorations of the first Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328), the time period in which this film is set. Though I focus on commemorations from 1800-1939 for my PhD, I am inevitably sill interested in the later representations and commemorative efforts of this period. In some ways, I really hope this film is a good representation. The life of Bruce is quite the story to tell, and if someone were able to do it with even a nod to historical accuracy I would, to use the technical academic term, be all over that. There is cause for cautious optimism – the film is being produced by Netflix, who have a decent track record, and it is actually being filmed in Scotland. I do, however, feel much less confident in the title (Outlaw King), and Chris Pine’s ability to do a Scottish accent.

Past adaptations of Scottish history have also dented my optimism. Like most Scottish historians, particularly those who study the first War of Independence, I’m probably suffering from post-Braveheart PTSD. I was nowhere near academia when the true Braveheart-mania was occurring (being about eight years old), but the shadow of it is still there. It would take a lot for another film to have quite the same cultural impact that Braveheart has had, but it is really difficult to not be afraid this is going to be Braveheart 2.0, and capture the public’s interest while propagating falsehoods about the history.

Intriguing, this announcement has already had an impact on my research, in a way I was not expecting. My mixed reaction to the news of this film has made me wonder how people in the nineteenth/early twentieth centuries felt about the wide variety of commemorations that were taking place. In a ‘history is written by the winners’ situation, most of what I encounter is incredibly positive – generally because it is either people asking for money or justifying the money spent. However, it is also very likely people were complaining to their friends in private about yet another Wallace statue being built, or another anniversary celebration looking for money.

Wallace Statue, Dryburgh, built by David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, 1814

I have come across one example of dislike for a commemoration. The Dryburgh Wallace statue was almost universally vilified. It is often claimed that Walter Scott threatened to turn a cannon on it, should he have ever managed to procure one. More than a century after it was built, George A. Fothergill wrote a letter to The Scotsman which noted that ‘too many Scotsman have already poked fun at this monstrosity for me to also pick it to pieces…’ (‘Letters from Readers’, 12 Jan 1928). However much approbation it received though, this statue is still an outlier. I’ve otherwise found very few examples of dissent for any of the commemorations I look at in my research, but there must have been some. I’m now considering how I might access these other perspectives.

This has also led me to consider some of the similarities in terms of the popularity of the Scottish historical past between the present and the period I study. Despite what Marinell Ash has famously argued, the period from 1800-1939 could be considered the time when Scottish History came into its own, both as an academic discipline and as an interest to the public. Culturally, I think we are in a similar period now. From genealogical interest, to homecoming tourism, to a run of history-focused television shows and films being set in Scotland (Outlander, Macbeth, Brave, Game of Thrones), Scottish history has captured the popular zeitgeist. How does this affect our research? Will we focus more on subjects popular with the public to receive more funding? Will Outlaw King become why students take my classes? Will I have to make jokes about it in every conference paper from here on out? Will film tours start taking over all my favourite monument sites? I’m not suggesting any of these are inherently negative – I’m always in favour of promoting interest in Scottish history – but it does feel like this could be the calm-before-the-storm in terms of the public popularity of Bruce. In the perennial Wallace v Bruce debates, I’ve always been a big fan of Bruce – much to the chagrin of my Mel Gibson- loving friends. I’m feeling trapped between wanting to have an accurate film depiction of Bruce, and egotistically enjoying supporting the underdog. I’m also concerned about what mis-information could do to Bruce’s story – the ‘real’ story of Wallace is something historians are still trying to distance from Braveheart. How can we control the information when our research suddenly takes on a new meaning?

Laura Harrison is a co-founder of the Scottish History Network. She is in the third year of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. You can find her via Twitter.

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3 thoughts on “Laura Harrison: ‘Outlaw King’? The collision of pop culture and research

  1. Seems to me a case of Art feeding Science and Science feeding Art. While a “Braveheart-esque” approach to Bruce may be filled with historical inaccuracies it also fills the public imagination. Following Braveheart were the historical documentaries and docudramas which attempted to set the record straight. This is the where historians engage. If there were no inaccuracies, in fact or interpretation, there would be less for historians to assess. I wonder how many times a historian wandered into an new line of thinking, otherwise not considered, simply because they were seeking to correct something. Let the artists fuel the imagination while the historians fuel the mind. The differences do not diminish either but enrich each other. Something to look forward to adding to My List on Netflix.


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