His First ExploitsThe state of national feeling in Scotland, at this time, has been already described; and it is evident, that the repressing of a rising spirit of resistance, which began so strongly to show itself, required a judicious union of firmness, gentleness, and moderation. Upon the part of the English all this was wanting. Warrene, the governor, had, on account of ill health, retired to the north of England. Cressingham, the treasurer, was a proud, ignorant ecclesiastic. Edward, before he departed, had left orders that all who had not yet taken the oath of fealty, including not only the lesser barons but the burghers and inferior gentry, should be compelled to do so under severe penalties, exacted by military force; and Ormesby, the justiciary, had excited deep and general odium, by the intolerable rigour with which these penalties were extorted.
The intrepid temper of Wallace appears first to have shown itself in a quarrel, in the town of Lanark, with some of the English officers who insulted him. This led to bloodshed; and he would have been overpowered and slain in the streets, had it not been for the interference of his mistress, to whose house he fled, and by whose assistance he escaped to the neighbouring woods. In a spirit of cruel and unmanly revenge, Hislop, the English sheriff, attacked the house, and put her to death; for which he was himself assaulted and slain by Wallace, f The consequence of this was to him the same as to many others, who at this time preferred a life of dangerous freedom to the indulgence and security of submission.He was proclaimed a traitor, banished his home, and driven to seek his safety in the wilds and fastnesses of his country. It was here that he collected by degrees a little band, composed at first of a few brave men of desperate fortunes, who had forsworn their vassalage to their lords, and refused submission to Edward, and who at first carried on that predatory warfare against the English, to which they were impelled as well by the desire of plunder, and the necessity of subsistence, as by the love of liberty. These men chose Wallace for their chief. Superior rank—for as yet none of the nobility or barons had joined them—his uncommon courage and personal strength, and his unconquerable "thirst of vengeance against the English, naturally influenced their choice, and the result proved how well it had fallen. His plans were laid with so much judgment, that in his first attacks against straggling parties of the English, he was generally successful; and if surprised by unexpected numbers, his superior strength and bravery, and the ardour with which he inspired his followers, enabled them to overpower every effort which was made against them.
To him these early and desultory excursions against the enemy were highly useful, as he became acquainted with the strongest passes of his country, and acquired habits of command over men of fierce and turbulent spirits. To them the advantage was reciprocal, for they began gradually to feel an undoubting confidence in their leader; they were accustomed to rapid marches, to endure fatigue and privation, to be on their guard against surprise, to feel the effects of discipline and obedience, and by the successes which these ensured, to regard with contempt the nation by whom they had allowed themselves to be overcome.