Poems & Essays

20 Mar

The Flowers of Bannockburn

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If you go to Bannockburn in June, you’ll tread on thousands of tiny yellow and white blossoms. The flowers keep close to the grass, the yellow ones little cups for catching sunlight, the white sparkling stars in a green heaven.

It’s hard to say if the armies of Edward II of England and Robert the Bruce of Scotland trampled those flowers when they met beside the Bannock Burn, a local tributary of the River Forth, in June 1314. The flowers may be new, an invasive species arriving sometime in the intervening centuries. As a historian, I’ve learned to mistrust my eyes; sifting through what remains of the past has taught me that the invader is always easiest to see. I know only that—over seven hundred years later—my daughter tumbled giddily among them, tiny and close to the grass.

Even before her conception, I kept copious records of her life—doctors’ names, appointment dates, ovulation charts—against the day my memory fails. After her baby showers and her birth, I filed away congratulatory cards by date. I organized evidence according to methods acquired at universities, endeavored to leave no gaps. Should she ever wish to learn the truth of her childhood, there will be plenty of primary sources—documents, photographs, artifacts. I have been thorough, less a mother cherishing her memories than a historian building an archive. Perhaps I am fighting time the only way I know how, through historic preservation. As a mother, my powers are faint—I know I cannot keep her safe—and even less can I keep her little. But as a historian—I am on surer ground.

We’re waiting our turn for a bloodless CGI experience at the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre when my husband provides his own interpretation. “It’s like when a kind of crap team wins the Super Bowl. Yeah, Scotland won, and nobody’s taking that away from them, but they weren’t exactly playing against Brady.”

He’s pleased with his own wit, and he’s right that Robert the Bruce’s army was hardly the New England Patriots of medieval warfare, but I glance around to make sure no one overheard him. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing history, it’s this: no one will thank you for telling the truth. People like their history the way it was handed down to them, with legends and myths and memories of being the good guys—or at least not being as bad as those other people—intact. History, in the end, becomes a record of the things we’re willing to remember, the way we’re willing to remember them.

My daughter’s baby book is a record of her cherubic first year, but if I delve into dark memories of things I’d rather pretend didn’t happen, I can recall forgotten moments: the pain and the blood of those postpartum and early breastfeeding days; the disapproval I felt or imagined from every corner; the horror emanating from those who refused to understand that post-partum depression had nothing to do with not loving my baby enough—and my own shamed silence. I allowed much to fall into darkness; I hid secrets from the gentle, pastel pages.

“Shut your English mouth,” I mutter to my husband, only partly joking.

He isn’t English. The alleged ancestral line that fought here has been American since Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. But then, neither was Edward II, any more than Robert the Bruce could really be called Scottish. Bannockburn came well before the rise to power of the nation-state, when Europe was ruled by powerful families, all more closely related to each other than to the native people of whatever plot of land they claimed for themselves. Most were trapped in a sticky web of alliances and fealties that overwhelmed any nascent nationalism.

I have a historian’s suspicion of genealogy. I know people lie and am stingy with my trust. One of the things people lie about is paternity. But they lie about many other things, and much of the time, they don’t realize they aren’t telling the truth. Often, they’re telling the story they believe to be true, a tale built of the crumbling shale of memory, of interpretation, of meaning invented later. At the time of Bannockburn, the Scots claimed descent from Noah, of Biblical flood fame. Not a decade later, Robert the Bruce—now King Robert I of Scotland—would claim that his more recent ancestry gave him a right to the throne of England as well.

Though we are careful to protect both them and her, we let our daughter handle the reproduction bows, lances, armor, and helmets out for display and education.

“Nice hat,” she says, patting Robert the Bruce’s great helm. She is being generous, as it looks like nothing so much as an upturned metal bucket with a slit down the front.

“Remember,” announces the tour guide with medieval relish. “There were no guns, no chemical weapons, no cannon. We’re talking about perhaps seven thousand men stabbed, slashed, hacked, and beaten to death.”

It’s the “perhaps” that matters. Casualty estimates for medieval battles, recorded by people most interested in telling a good story that would please the heavily armed nobles listening to it, are notoriously difficult to calculate. I’ve learned to recognize armchair historians by their certainty. When you walk with the past every day, you learn how little can be known for sure. You learn to be skeptical. People lie, and documents are forged or falsified or incomplete or nonexistent. Most people living their lives and trying very hard not to die aren’t thinking about leaving a clear record, and those with the power to do so are actively controlling the narrative.

One of the architects of the slaughter at Bannockburn was a man known as “The Black Douglas” to his enemies for his wicked deeds and as “Good Sir James” to his friends, for his good deeds. Naturally, they were the same deeds. The evidence suggests that he appears in one of my own ancestral lines. If any of this is true, it would make my daughter a linear descendant of combatants on both sides of the battle, but ask a toddler if this is meaningful to her and she will ask you for a rubber duck in the gift shop.

“Are you sure you want this?” I ask. She holds out a yellow rubber duck, a child’s bath toy styled as a medieval killer who—like his colleagues—caused, supported, and participated in the slaughter of innocents when it suited his purposes.

“You know he killed one of your cousins.” It’s the fate of the historian’s child to learn this sort of thing too soon. The death of Sir Henry de Bohun is perhaps the most famous moment in the battle. The young knight, catching Robert alone, lowered his lance and charged. He might have killed the Bruce easily, but at the last moment Robert rose in his stirrups and turned, bringing his two-handed battleaxe down on Henry de Bohun’s head, cleaving his skull down to the neck. It broke the ax, which was the only part of the incident the Bruce was sorry about. It’s a great story, the way it pits English arrogance against Scots practicality. It might even be true.

A sticker bearing “King Robert’s ax” indicates that the toy is 50 percent off, because in the 21st century King Robert chops prices in two.

“He have a hat,” my daughter says of Robert the Bruce Duck, and that settles it. Stories say more about their tellers than they do about their subjects, and if she wrote the history of Bannockburn, it would be called, “Robert the Bruce’s Hat.”

She has energy to spare, so I lead her outside and let her charge across the flowers and the grass. There are no signs at Bannockburn like the ones at Culloden, asking us to tread lightly, to remember we are walking on war graves. This is the site of a great victory, not a great defeat, and it is seven hundred years in the past, not less than three, like the brutal end of the final Jacobite uprising.

Edward II, Robert the Bruce, and their armies are not people we feel we might know. They have nothing to do with us; they are more legends than men.

And anyway, I spend a lot of time with the dead, and sometimes I think they might enjoy a little shaking up, something to relieve the monotonous tramp of long centuries. Sometimes I think they must grow weary of the endless hushed respect, and they might like to have a toddler rolling on the hills above them.

To tell the truth, which is so difficult and so rare, archaeological evidence has yet to prove definitively that the site of the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre is the site of the battle. But the truth, in the end, matters less than the story. For the Battle of Bannockburn’s legendary glory emerged only in the telling. To begin with, June 23-24, 1314 were just two days in the decades-long Scottish Wars of Independence. They neither began nor ended anything, but the story of Robert the Bruce’s victory there captured imaginations and made him the symbol of a nation and a people. And poor Edward II, who was certainly not the Brady of medieval kingship, hammered another nail into the coffin of his historical reputation when he turned and ran.

Before I became a mother, I was annoyed by the spin parents put on stories of their children, the glimpses of genius they saw in the slightest things, the impossible perfection they seemed to believe resided in their personal contributions to humanity. It still irks me. As a historian, I’m annoyed by genealogy, by the spin people put on their ancestors, and by their misguided certainty about who those ancestors were. Both of these practices strike me as a way to take selfies of time.

I keep a one-line-a-day journal of my daughter’s life now, selecting one memory from each day that I can cram into a few sentences. I try to record the difficult things, too, the times I fail, in case one day she is a mother herself and feels crushed under the weight of my inaccurate yet remembered perfection. Still, it is only one line a day. We live almost our whole lives in the gaps, in the moments lost to time.

A Scottish legend says that those who fall in battle return as the flowers of the forest. Perhaps they do return, in dreams, in stories, even in the growth of the flowers their bodies nourish. Perhaps they never really left. So begin with a battle. Add the centuries and storytellers, the slow shifting of continents and seas and the faster shifting of bloodlines, of DNA that crosses and re-crosses borders and oceans. Redraw those borders and mix in family fortunes that rise and fall. Add all this until you arrive at a little American girl, (purported) diluted blood of both armies pulsing at her quick heartbeat. As her ancestors once were, she is flesh and blood and bone and spirit, and I will never capture all of her in my archive.

She spins until she falls, dizzy, on the grass. She holds up the flowers, laughing. “Fours,” she says. “Fours.”

It occurs to me now that I can’t remember if I’ve got the shapes of the flowers right. Were the yellow ones the stars? Did the white ones hold the sun?

When we know so little, what can we know for sure?

Only that we are here now, among the flowers, bound by the past and the future, anchored in time by the ancestors and the descendants, alive.



Courtney McKinney-Whitaker drifted in and out of academia for thirteen years before recognizing her passion for writing historical fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults. Her young adult novel, The Last Sister, received the IPPY Silver Medal for Historical Fiction. She is the mother of a two-year-old daughter. Connect at courtneymckinneywhitaker.com or @courtneymckwhit.

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