Can you stand the heat of battle?
The Scots won the day at the Battle of Bannockburn and as Fionn Davenport found as they opened their new visitor centre, they're winning still
In Mel Gibson’s Braveheart , Edward II is portrayed as a closet homosexual, incapable of pleasing his wife, Princess Isabella, who turns to Gibson’s roguishly manly William Wallace for male attention. The unfulfilled frisson between them is an extra little plotline, but given the real Isabella was 12 when she landed in England to marry Edward – two years after William’s head was stuck on a pike on London Bridge – it’s an unnecessary addition to an already dramatic story.
I discovered the truth last week at the new Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre on the outskirts of Stirling, not quite within view of the castle that was the ultimate prize for the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, and Edward’s English army. Bruce’s victory on June 24th, 1314 (over an English army three times larger than his) remains, 700 years later, the lone bright star in an otherwise dark firmament, and the visitor centre is suitably impressive.
There is one problem. There’s not a single bit of memorabilia left from the battle: no broken armour, no pikes, none of the thousands of arrows the armies rained on each other over two gruesome days. So the designers (under the aegis of the National Trust Scotland) opted for a completely digital and interactive experience that would, according to Scott McMaster of the centre’s advisory panel, “break new ground in battlefield interpretation.”
I’ve never been a fan of museums that don’t have actual things in them – an audiovisual display is no substitute for an authentic artefact – but such was Scott’s enthusiasm that I forced myself to reserve judgment until I’d gone through the whole experience.
We were given 3D glasses and led into the Prologue, where a cartoon Queen Isabella put the battle into its proper historical context, explaining why her husband Edward sent his army north to reinforce Stirling Castle. Another cartoon character filled me in on Robert’s story; how he’d murdered his great rival John Comyn and lost everything to Edward I but then spent eight years rallying the Scots to his side – a real boy-done-good story.
Then we shifted into the Prepare for Battle room, where surround-sound 3D videos showed archers practising their aim and cavalry preparing their charge. Clever technology allowed us “meet” some battle characters.
So far the kids loved it more than I did. But then I experienced the Battle Game – the greatest, most interactive game of Risk ever. Standing around a huge 3D map of the Stirling area, you take command of a Scottish or English regiment. Under the guidance of costumed “battlemasters”, we soon became focused warriors.
The Scots won the day at Bannockburn, and they did so again last week, despite my best efforts in command of an English regiment. As I left the room I was overcome with a desire to have just one more go.
The Bannockburn Visitor Centre opens on March 1st . Adults/children £11/8 . battleofbannockburn.com