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 Regarding the Film Braveheart
Braveheart Errors: An Illustration of Scale
Draft Edition

by Sharon L. Krossa

Last updated 2 Oct 2008  

Just as an illustration of the scale of the disconnect between real history and the film Braveheart, here is an analysis of the first few minutes...

Time (Approx.) Movie
0:00 0:50 Opening Titles
0:50 1:35 Aerial Scenery
1:35 1:40

Text appears:

1280 A.D.

1:40 2:05

Narrator: "I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes. The king of Scotland had died without a son, and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward the Longshanks, claimed the throne of Scotland for himself."

Men on horseback riding along a path through some trees along a body of water. They are wearing a bizarre interpretation of a belted plaid.

2:05 2:20

Narrator: "Scotland's nobles fought him and fought each other over the crown. So Longshanks invited them to talks of truce -- no weapons, one page only."

The horsemen and others appear to be gathering at a linked pair of overlarge and untidy black houses by some trees in a majestic valley surrounded by mountains. [This was filmed in Glen Nevis.]

2:20 2:30

Narrator: "Among the farmers of that shire was Malcolm Wallace, a commoner with his own lands. He had two sons -- John and William."

A little boy runs along after a man and older youth on horseback, who are riding away from another set of buildings that look like overlarge and untidy black houses also set in a majestic valley surrounded by mountains. The boy is essentially dressed in rags -- his outer garment looks like a burlap sack with ragged holes cut for his head and arms. The boy and the man have hair that is mostly short (almost crew cut) but left long just at the back (think certain trendy 1980's hairstyles, now commonly called "mullets"); some (but not all) of the longer back hair is untidily braided, with the man having something furry (or perhaps feathery?) dangling from one messy braid. [This was filmed in Glen Nevis.]

So, in the two and a half minutes (of which a full 50 seconds is nothing but movie title graphics and a further 45 seconds is nothing but aerial scenery), the film manages to cram in the following errors:

  1. The opening scenery is from the West Highlands, an area not at the center of, or even particularly involved in, Wallace's risings against Edward. (The rest of Scotland does not look anything like the West Highlands, nor did it circa 1300. The appearance of West Highlands are as disctintive compared to the rest of Scotland as the appearance of the Grand Canyon is compared to the rest of America, so this is like using aerial shots of the Grand Canyon in Arizona as the "scene setting" opening shots of a movie about the American War of Independence.)

  2. As the content of the film will eventually make clear, the narrator/film doesn't actually tell us of William Wallace. Instead, it tells of us some fantasy character in a fantasy world who coincidentally share's Wallace's name.

  3. It is the historians from Scotland, far more than from England, who will recognize the errors of the narrator/film.

  4. History is written by the literate, be they victors or vanquished, whether they have hanged heroes or followed them. In the case of Scotland, plenty of it has been written by Scots, including medieval Scots who opposed English overlordship and modern Scots opposed to union with England.

  5. In 1280, the King of Scotland (Alexander III) was not only not dead, but both of his two sons were also alive and well. The younger son, David, didn't die until 1281, the eldest son, Alexander, didn't die until 1284, and King Alexander himself didn't die until two years after that. (Alexander also had at least one living daughter in 1280, Margaret, who didn't die until 1283.)

  6. Even when Kind Alexander III did die in 1286, with no surviving sons, he left a granddaughter, Margaret, who was acknowledged as his heir by the Scottish nobles and even the King of England, who negotiated with Scotland to marry her to his son and heir. Rather than fighting each other over the crown, the Scots appointed guardians who ruled the realm in her name for four years, until she died in 1290 while on her way to Scotland.

  7. But even at this point, the nobles did not fall into civil war, and Edward I of England did not claim the throne of Scotland for himself. Instead, they held a court case to determine who was the rightful heir. While Edward did claim overlordship of Scotland, did preside over the court case, and undoubtedly influenced the conclusion, the end result was to pick (in 1292) John Balliol as King of Scotland by what we and contemporary and subsequent medieval Scots would consider quite normal rules of primogeniture of males of like degree. (In other words, they picked the right guy according to the rules.)

  8. King John ruled until 1296, when he was forced to abdicate (after going to war with England due to opposition to such things as Edward's "cruel" insistence on hearing appeals of Scottish court cases in England and due to the Scottish nobles not wanting to be made to fight for England in foreign wars). Then, and only then, did Edward I claim to rule Scotland directly himself instead of installing a new Scottish king.

  9. So, in fact, there had been no actual armed conflict between Scotland and England in this period until King John Balliol's short lived "rebellion" in 1296 and it was not until this year that Edward, after a fashion, claimed the Scottish crown for himself. Note that is 16 years later than the film's false "1280", and, significantly, just the year before the real Wallace's uprising in 1297. [Keep this in mind for all later scenes showing or referring to the supposed long-endured "oppression" of Scotland by England -- that's a good chunk of the movie false in all aspects right there.]

  10. Edward I was a Christian. He was in no sense a "pagan" -- there had not been any true pagans in Britain since the end of the Viking era centuries earlier. (He wasn't even a "paganus" in the much earlier Classical Latin sense of "peasant" or "yokel".)

  11. In the 13th century (and the 14th, 15th, and most of the 16th), no Scots, whether Gaels or not, wore belted plaids (let alone kilts of any kind). Further, when the Scottish Gaels did start wearing their belts outside their plaids (mantles), they did not wear them in the rather bizarre style depicted in the film. In other words, not only did the film get the clothing wrong, but they got the wrong clothing itself wrong! (This is like a film about Colonial America showing the colonial men wearing 20th century business suits, but with the jackets worn back-to-front instead of the right way around.)

  12. Many, perhaps even most, of the nobles of Scotland, especially those involved in the wars with England, were not Gaels, but rather were culturally similar to English nobles. These Scottish nobles, and also many lesser land holders, would have dressed more or less like their English counterparts, many of whom were their relatives, and spoken a Scottish dialect of English and/or Anglo-Norman French, again like the English nobles. Such were the families of Wallace, Bruce, Balliol, Murray, Stewart, Douglas, Comyn, and many others.

  13. To the best of my knowledge, at no time did Edward invite the nobles of Scotland "to talks of truce -- no weapons, one page only." Certainly not in 1280, when Alexander III had his nobles well in hand, nor in 1286, nor 1290, nor 1292, nor 1296. Especially he would not have called them to such talks in Glen Nevis or anywhere that looked remotely like Glen Nevis, far from Edward's strongholds and power. (Again, this is like depicting discussions between the Colonial Americans and British as taking place in the Grand Canyon.)

  14. Although the name of William Wallace's father was not really known (at the time the movie was made), what was known was that he was no mere "farmer". He was a knight who held lands.

  15. William Wallace also had at least two brothers, Malcolm and John. Malcolm was the eldest and although it is not clear when their father died, by 1296 Malcolm was a knight himself holding lands in Elderslie. So that's a minimum of three sons, not two, at least in 1296. How many sons Wallace's father had in 1280 is anybody's guess! [Note for future reference that at least one of William's brothers, Sir John Wallace, outlived him, and his brother Sir Malcolm may have as well.]

  16. The valley where Wallace's home is shown to be is also in the West Highlands, not the area (Elderslie and the parish of Paisley) nor even at all like the area from which Wallace actually hailed (or at least where his brother held lands and he very likely hailed). It was filmed in Glen Nevis, near Fort William. Glen Nevis is a valley with a base altitude of less than 600 feet above sea level that runs between very steep mountains that range between 3600 to 4400 feet tall; Elderslie, near Glasgow, is in very gently rolling country side where the tallest hill is only some 749 feet high (and takes its time rising to that height). (Again, this is like depicting George Washington's childhood home as having been in the Grand Canyon.)

  17. The sons of knights did not dress in rags. Further, even poor Scots would have known how to sew (or at least had a family member who knew how to sew) -- poor people, even less than rich, could not afford to let their clothing unravel and disintegrate because they left edges unhemmed.

  18. There is no reason at all to think that late 13th century Scottish men had "mullet" haircuts from the 1980's. There is no reason at all to think they braided their hair. There is no reason at all to think they tied bits of fur or feathers in their hair. Further, there is no reason at all to think they hadn't ever encountered a comb... [In general, the hairstyles shown for the Scots throughout the film seem to be distinctly late 20th century fantasy in inspiration, influenced by the film "Last of the Mohicans" and the television series "Xena: Warrior Princess" more than by history.]

That's a lot of error to pack into less than two minutes of film, especially considering that less than a minute contained anything more than scenery!

In summary: Every bit and every aspect of these introductory scenes are, to put it bluntly, wrong. And the rest of the film follows the same pattern.


  See the War of Independence (1296-1328) and General Works sections of the Scottish Medieval Bibliography
  Braveheart on DVD
  See Scottish Clothing Resources for information about historical Scottish clothing.
  Smith, William and John Lockwood. Latin-English Dictionary. Edinburgh & London: Chambers & John Murray, 1976.

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  Web MedievalScotland.org   
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