Legendary Tree: OS Grid Reference – NS 847 836?
Also Known as:
- Canmore ID 46875
- Wallace’s Tree
Archaeology & History
The Wallace Oak was first recorded by name in 1687, when a legal contract was written agreeing to the destruction of much of the Torwood forest, “excepting [the] Wallace Tree”, which was to be left intact, thankfully. From thereon we had to wait more than 200 years before a burst of historians began describing the failing remnants of this giant old oak, with its curious archaeological attachments and traditions. Its status was recorded in two reasonably long narratives near the beginning of the 19th century. The first was by the natural historian and economist John Walker who, in his fine work describing the many ancient trees of olde Scotland, gave us the following:
“Wallace’s Oak, as it has been called for ages, still remains in the Torwood near Stirling. The old tradition of the country bears, that Sir William Wallace, after a lost battle, secreted himself in this tree, and escaped the pursuit of his enemies. By this account, it behoved then, that is, about 500 years ago, to have been a large tree. Whatever may be its age, it certainly has in its ruins the appearance of greater antiquity than what I have observed in any tree in Scotland.
“At a very remote period it has separated in the middle, and the one half of it has mouldered entirely away. The other half remains, and is in one place about twenty feet high. But what the tree was above this height, is unknown. All the original part of the tree is putrid. Yet one may perceive that the whole of it, from the head to the very bark, has been red wood, and is so hard even in its putrid state as to admit of a polish.
“In this ancient Torwood, it stands in a manner alone. For there are no trees, nor any ruin of a tree, to be seen that is nearly coeval. Compared to it, even the oldest of them is of a very modern date. The memory of its having saved Wallace, has probably been the means of its preservation, when all the rest of the wood at different times has been destroyed. It has been immemorially held in veneration, and is still viewed in that light.
“There is a peculiar sort of renovation of an old tree that sometimes occurs, and has taken place in this. A young bark has shot upwards from the root in several places, which has formed fresh branches towards the top of the old trunk. This young bark has spread, and still spreads, like a callus, over several parts of the old tree that are dead; and particularly over a very large arm, which has had no bark on it in the remembrance of the oldest person alive….
“The tree stands in carse land, in a deep wet clay-soil. The road that passes by it in the wood is laid crossways with thick branches of trees, to prevent carriages from sinking to the axles in wet weather. “
Just a few years later, the classic Stirling historian, William Nimmo (1817), wrote about Wallace’s Oak in the second edition of his Stirlingshire book. Known about in oral tradition by local people, Nimmo told how:
“Torwood was a place where he and his party, when engaged in any expedition in this part of the country, often held their rendezvous, and to which they retreated in the hour of danger. Here is still to be seen an aged oak, well known by the name of Wallace’s Tree; which seems to have been, even then, rotten and hollow within, and is said to have often afforded a lodging to him and a few of his trusty friends. It is supposed to have been one of the largest trees that ever grew in Scotland. It is now almost quite decayed; but, from its ruins, appears to have been of an uncommon size. The remaining stump is no less than eleven or twelve feet in diameter. It stands upon the summit of a small eminence, which is surrounded on all sides by a swamp. A rugged causeway runs from the south through the swamp, and leads up to the tree. Some other vestiges of the stonework are discernible, surrounding the tree in a circular form, and leading to the conjecture that this oak is of a very high antiquity; and that, having been much frequented by Druidical priests, amongst whom the oak was sacred, the causeway had been laid for their approach to it, and the performance, underneath its branches, of religious rites.”
Nimmo may have a point here. Not necessarily of druids (although druidic traditions and reality is known from many old tracts to have continued in many of the hidden places in Scotland), but certainly in relation to the paved track leading to a what may have been a recognised moot-hill, on top of which this great oak once stood. Great trees and ancient meeting places were held in high esteem, not only in the legends of druidism and more established animistic pantheons, but in the recognised pragmatism of local tribal gatherings, in Scotland, Wales, England and in traditional cultures all over the world. (Gomme 1880) The traces of stonework leading to the hill strongly implies an archaeological site in the paving alone; but moreso, as an important site in the traditions of the Scottish people. The fact that these stone ruins were still visible when Nimmo visited the site in the latter-half of the 18th century in the context he describes, implies it may have been the remains of a possible crannog; or a moot hill; or even, with its great oak surmounting, a sacred grove! In my mind, it was probably being used as a gathering place long before William Wallace and his men gathered here…
In 1880, a 3rd edition of Nimmo’s Stirlingshire was published and edited by R. Gillespie. Herein were additional notes about Wallace’s Oak that had been uncovered by Mr Gillespie. Although he’d visited the place,
“Not the smallest vestige…of the Wallace oak remains. Even the ” oldest inhabitant” can say nothing of it save what he has gathered from tradition. Sir Walter Scott, in his Tales of a Grandfather, speaks of having seen some of its roots eighty years ago; and recently we were shown a treasured morsel of the tree in the Chambers’ Institute at Peebles. Wallace, undoubtedly, often chose the solitude of the Torwood as a place of rest for his army, raised and roused to oppose the tyranny of Edward. Here he concealed his numbers and his designs, sallying out suddenly on the enemy’s garrisons, and retreating as suddenly when afraid of being overpowered. While his army lay in these woods, “the oak” was his head-quarters. Within it, the illustrious hero generally slept, the hollow trunk being huge enough to afford shelter both to himself and one or more of his associates.”
The tree was also mentioned by John Harvie in the Old Statistical Account of the area in 1794. He told:
“In Dunipace parish is the famous Torwood, in the middle of which there are the remains of Wallace’s Tree, an oak, which, according to a measurement when entire, was said to be about 12 feet diameter. To this wood Wallace is said to have fled, and secreted himself in the body of that tree, then hollow, after his defeat in the north. Adjoining to this is a square field, inclosed by a ditch, where Mr Donald Cargill excommunicated King Charles II.”
When John Gibson (1908) came to write about it, he told that “Wallace’s Oak, which stood on another part of Woodside (low Torwood), has…vanished.” No roots, no lingering trunk—nothing. But although the tree has long since gone, William M. Stirling pointed out in 1817 that,
“A young tree is pointed out in the neighbourhood, as having sprung from an acorn of Wallace’s Oak.”
If and when we can locate the old toll-house of Broomage at Larbert, we get much closer to identifying the exact location of this long lost oak. Then, perhaps, a commemorative plaque should surely be placed there to remind people of their great history, and included on tours of sites relating to Sir William Wallace.
- Carrick, John D., The Life of Sir William Wallace of Elderslie – volume 1, Constable: Edinburgh 1830.
- Fowler, John, Landscape and Lives: The Scottish Forest through the Ages, Canongate: Edinburgh 2002.
- Gibson, John C., Lands and Lairds of Larbert and Dunipace Parishes, Hugh Hopkins: Glasgow 1908.
- Gomme, George L., Primitive Folk-Moots, Sampson Low: London 1880.
- MacFarlane, Walter, Geographical Locations Relating to Scotland – volume 1, Edinburgh University Press 1906.
- Nimmo, William, The History of Stirlingshire (2nd edition), John Frazer: Stirling 1817.
- Walker, John, Essays on Natural History and Rural Economy, Longmans: Edinburgh 1812.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian