William Wallace denied day in court

HIS heart may have been brave but it would be sinking today.

Legal chiefs have ruled that the name of William Wallace – Scotland's medieval matinee idol – can never be cleared.

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that the body that examines potential miscarriages of justice in Scotland was asked to look into the 700-year-old conviction of Wallace but refused to do so.

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The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) decided it had no jurisdiction over the London court that found him guilty of treason.

And its English sister organisation has confirmed it will never pursue the Wallace case, which is regarded by historians as being based on trumped-up charges against the man who led the Scottish army in the wars of independence.

Most historians have long recognised that William Wallace was wrongly convicted of treason in London in 1305.

The knight – effectively the ruler of Scotland – had been accused of betraying an English crown that he did not recognise.

Gerry Sinclair, chief executive of the SCCRC, said last night that the organisation would not carry out such a review.

"I was asked whether we could consider the conviction of William Wallace," Sinclair said. "I had to point out that, as he had been tried and punished in London, it did not fall within our jurisdiction, but would be for the English Commission to consider."

The Criminal Case Review Commission, the equivalent of the SCCRC in England and Wales, said it would not review cases such as Wallace's because of tougher appeal court rules south of the border.

The SCCRC recently looked into the Appin murder, the notorious killing of Colin "the Red Fox" Campbell in 1752. The murder had been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, Kidnapped.

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However, Sinclair and his team decided not to refer the case to the Court of Appeal, because they did not feel it would be in the public interest.

He said: "Our own statutory provisions place no time limit on the review of cases, but clearly some time limit has to be applied, as it cannot be in the interests of justice to spend public time and resources on historical miscarriages which can achieve no practical benefit today."

But many experts have been champing at the bit for the chance to review the Wallace case, which was a milestone in the history of European law as well as the troubled relations between England and Scotland.

Wallace's English nemesis, Edward I – 'Longshanks' – is regarded north of the border as a murderous, invading tyrant. In England, however, he was seen as a reformer who created much of the current legal system, including the introduction of solicitors and barristers.

The Wallace trial was designed to show that English law – as well as brute force – held sway north of the border.

"The treason charge was simply a concoction based on the assumption that Scotland was a province of England," said historian Tom Devine. "In that sense it was a mistrial.

"Scotland had been recognised as an independent nation by the papacy and, therefore, any treason charge was just a reflection of an arrogant English monarchy."

Wallace admitted a whole stream of charges other than treason. Lawyers argue that these might be made to stick, even 700 years on. Devine said: "Wallace was portrayed as a brigand. But one man's brigand is another man's national hero."

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John Finlay, who teaches history of law at Glasgow University, said: "It was technically possible for a knight to be tried by someone other than his own sovereign for crimes against the code of chivalry."

Leading mediaevalist Hector MacQueen, a law professor at Edinburgh, stressed that any review of the case would effectively have to decide whether Scotland was independent or not and, therefore, whether Wallace owed any allegiance to Edward.

"Any review would be a mediaeval legal minefield," MacQueen said. "In fact, the whole issue has been a minefield for years. Perhaps it is better left to historical monologues than the Court of Appeal. I happen to think Wallace was innocent. But then, I am biased."

David Ross, the convener of the William Wallace Society, admitted some of his hero's followers may have committed atrocities.

Many had been brutalised by horrific excesses carried out by the English occupying army, including the massacre of thousands of civilians after the fall of Berwick. But he claimed Wallace himself was a pious man who was murdered by his enemies."This is a man," Ross argued, "who did not do anything wrong but fought to protect his country from incredibly aggressive invaders."

The verdict of history

Scotland's historic victims of miscarriages of justice include:

1 Mary, Queen of Scots. Marie Stuart was beheaded for treason in 1587; she was said to have been plotting to betray her cousin, Elizabeth I.

2 James Stewart. The Culloden veteran was convicted and hanged for the 1752 murder of Colin Campbell, the Red Fox, a hated land factor. Stewart was found guilty by a jury of 15, 11 of whom were Campbells. Few historians think he carried out the crime.

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3 Thomas Muir. A radical inspired by revolutions in America and France, Muir was sentenced to 14 years' exile in Australia for sedition and calling for universal suffrage in 1793. Muir was the first foreigner ever to be made a citizen of France and was nominated as Scotland's first president by exiled republicans.

4 James Wilson. One of the leaders of Scotland's 1820 Rebellion, Wilson was sentenced to death by an English court convened in Glasgow after marching on the city under the banner "Scotland Free or a Desert". He was hanged and beheaded.

5 Helen Duncan. The Scot was one of the last people in Britain to ever be jailed for witchcraft in 1944 after she revealed that a Royal Navy warship had sunk during a seance. Her conviction eventually led to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act.