In 2004, I took an amazing and memorable trip through the United Kingdom with my son, parents, aunt and uncle, and my brother’s family. The memories are lasting and I am thankful for the experience and the time with family. This is a reflection of one especially cherished day from that trip.
The rain is falling gently, more of a heavy mist now, blurring and softening the edges of everything in my view like an old photograph. I’m sitting on the damp moss of a rock, peering through the woods of Abbey Craig down to the open valley below and the River Forth that splits the green sprawl in two.
Save for the modern houses, this is the same view of William Wallace and his man as they lay in wait in these very woods, watching the English approach on the other side of the river 1297. A lover of history and an aspiring author of historical fiction, I spent many months studying the battles fought by the Scottish against the English and King Edward I, known as Edward the Longshanks.
I wonder if it was misty and drizzly like this autumn day on that autumn day more than 700 years prior when William Wallace, along with Andrew Moray and the men who fought beside them, would find victory over the English army. I imagine what it was like to crouch in this same spot, watching the English cross over the narrow bridge in slow progression, waiting for the signal to attack. Or was it a downpour, as it was only an hour prior when I stood on the wall walk of Stirling Castle, looking at the Wallace Monument across the wet and grey cityscape?
I am traveling with extended family on a tour of England, Scotland, and Wales, our most recent stop being Glasgow. Bound to see Stirling while so near, I take the train to spend the day in the historic city along with my Uncle Ron and Aunt Jan – the only others willing to venture out in the rain.
We set out from the Stirling train station on foot, eager to find the castle only to discover the nearly one mile hike is mostly up hill. My aunt and uncle are not to be dissuaded by the steep climb despite knees that had become slightly more creaky in recent years.
Uncle Ron and Aunt Jan and I spend several leisurely hours exploring the castle grounds, the cannons aimed through the thick stone parapets, the great hall, and every corner open to tourists. They are as curious as I am, stopping to read all the plaques explaining the significance of a piece of furniture or art, or telling of the importance of the historical events that took place here.
Later, when I tell my dad about the day and show him pictures of us on the wooden wall walk elevated high above the grassy bailey below, he marvels that my uncle agreed to accompany me on that part of the castle exploration.
“He really hates heights, even more than I do,” Dad tells me. He looks closer at the photo and says in wonder, “There aren’t any rails!” and shakes his head. The fact that my uncle didn’t remind me of his fear of heights only adds to the warmth of the memory of sharing this day with him and my aunt.
As much as I love my family, I also love to explore new places on my own, often feeling rushed by others who do not enjoy the details as much as I. Not once do I feel rushed by my aunt and uncle as I linger to memorize the details of the great hall, or stop to enjoy the view from every vantage point along the castle wall, imagining what it looked and smelled like in centuries past. Even when the drizzle starts again, they don’t complain or suggest we take cover; they just stand quietly by my side looking out over the expansive graveyard to the cathedral beyond, seemingly as content as I am to soak up as much of the moment as possible.
I point to the tower rising above the trees on a hill in the distance. The rain has started to fall harder now and the sky has darkened with the heavy clouds but the stone structure is still visible.
“That’s the William Wallace Monument,” I say. “It’s a one mile hike from the base of the hill on a walking path up to the monument.” I look sideways at my aunt and uncle, but they continue to stare at the hill and the tower blurring through the steady downpour.
My aunt pulls the hood of her raincoat tighter and gives her characteristic little chuckle, saying “I don’t think I’m up for that. What do you think, Ron?”
My uncle asks if I’ll be OK going to the monument by myself (I will), if I have enough cash (I do), if I can find my way back on the train alone (I can), and will I promise to be on the train before nightfall (I promise), then agrees they will pass on trekking up to the monument in the pouring rain and let me go myself. I am in my early thirties, but I love my uncle for his concern, and I love them both for sharing this experience with me.
When we reach the bottom of the hill, they turn toward the train station, and I head in the direction of Abbey Craig. It is two miles to the monument, and I set out in a fast walk to cover the distance. The rain has let up by the time I get to the bottom of Abbey Craig. I admire the latest tribute to William Wallace in the form of Mel Gibson as Braveheart done in stone sculpture. (I loved the movie after I got over the enormity of the historical inaccuracies.)
Now, as I sit on the moss-covered rock among the trees halfway up the craig looking out over the valley, I am overwhelmed by the enormity of being in a place of such historical significance. I close my eyes and listen to the soft pattering of the water on the leaves and the low whistle of the wind moving through the treetops, and pretend I am one of the men waiting patiently for the signal to scramble down the hill and join the attack.
I continue the climb to the top of the hill. The monument is a tall stone tower with another carving of William Wallace high on the face above the entrance. This William Wallace does not resemble Mel Gibson in the slightest, but this depiction feels more believable with a trimmed curly beard adorning his face, chainmail adorning his legs and arms, and sword raised high in victory.
The monument was built in 1861 specifically to honor the Scottish hero. The structure itself makes me think of the tales of knights of old and maidens trapped in tall towers. I imagine the Lady of Shallot looking down from the high narrow windows to the world below, trapped by a curse within the four stone walls.
The first floors of the tower hold the gift shop and the museum. There are busts of the Scots who formed the history of the land, a depiction of William Wallace being tried as a traitor of the crown, displays of chainmail and other items, and of course the famous sword. It is as formidable as one would expect, the entire sword longer than I am tall, hanging majestically in a glass case. I move through the floors quietly, enjoying the solitude of being a party of one and the luxury of taking in everything, processing it in my own way without interruption.
The final attraction is the climb to the Crown at the top of the monument to look out over the entirety of the Forth Valley and beyond. The stone stairs wrap higher and higher up the monument, and though I am safe inside the walls of the tower, the climb feels precarious. The stone of each step is worn smooth and slants downward, and the higher I climb, the more the wind whips down the narrow staircase from the window slits above. The rain has started again, and I can feel spits of water on my face as I brace my hands against the stair walls to keep from being blown backwards.
The steps are getting wet and the couple ahead of me is leaning forward hard to balance against the relentless wind pushing against us. The man stops and turns to the woman behind him, shaking his head. She eagerly turns around, ready to give up the quest to reach the top, and I don’t disagree. I turn and start the decent down the stairs, moving slowly with my fingers gripping precariously at the stone walls.
I didn’t reach the top of the William Wallace Monument to stand at the Crown, but as always, the journey is the best part of the adventure, and this one is no different.