By Lucy J. Hunter-Weston
Clan Hunter is the proud custodian of the Wallace Oak! An ancient tree stump at least as old as Hunterston Castle itself, has now found its final residence within the walls of our mediaeval pele tower.
After many years of painstaking fundraising, research and qualification, the ancient oak tree to which it is claimed that the mediaeval patriot of Scotland and freedom fighter, Sir William Wallace, was chained, has finally been given a safe haven within the walls of Hunterston Castle near West Kilbride in South Ayrshire.
The ancient oak tree which has been dated by dendrochronologist, Dr. Coralie Mills, to around the time when Sir William Wallace was taken captor by the English in 1305, has been hailed as one of the oldest and largest oak trees ever to have grown in Scotland. A unique example of its kind. Its authenticity is also rooted in the story telling that has been passed down through the generations and in the perseverance of the Society of William Wallace to gain recognition for one of Scotland’s indomitable patriots.
Who was William Wallace?
Before jumping immediately to the journey of the Wallace Oak to Hunterston, it’s perhaps a good idea to give it some context. For those who have already steeped themselves in Scottish history, William Wallace is an old acquaintance, but for those who don’t know who he is, here is a potted account of this patriot for Scotland. For more detailed information, please see the sources below.
Sir William Wallce was born around 1270 into a well-to-do family in Renfrewshire, and although little has been documented about his early life, this man of myth, legend and icon has been revered by countless generations of patriots and freedom fighters. Given his family’s status, Sir William would almost certainly have been educated and would have studied French and Latin. He may also have had military experience, which would explain his successful military campaigns. According to sources, his personal seal is an archer’s insignia, suggesting that he had served as a mercenary soldier possibly even for Edward I of England. (Wikipedia: Lübecker Nachrichten, 21. September 2010: The document is still kept in the city’s archives.)
Wallace’s legacy, however, lies in his patriotism. The 14th Century chronicler, Walter Bower (1385-1449), states in his work The Scottichronicon, that Wallace was “a tall man with the body of a giant … with lengthy flanks … broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs … with all his limbs very strong and firm” (Wikipedia). If this is true, then Sir William Wallace would have had no trouble in gathering large forces around him to fight his cause. His cause was to stop English dominance.
The first recorded uprising in which Wallace played a significant role, was at Lanark in the First War of Scottish Independence in May 1297. He killed the Sheriff of Lanark, William de Heselrig and then went on to lead the raid on Scone.
Many more uprisings followed however, the most significant of these is the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297 where together with another compatriot, Andrew Moray, Wallace slayed English forces. After their victory, the two men took the title of the Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland on behalf of King John Baliol who had been forced to abdicate by Edward I of England in 1296.
King Alexander III of Scotland
Alexander III was Scotland’s king from 1249-1286. During this time Scotland flourished and contact between England and Scotland was peaceful. Trade relations were good and the economy was booming.
When their king died in 1286, Scotland was in turmoil. The precarious relationship with England, which had been good for so long, began to falter. Alexander’s granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway, then a young girl (7 years old), was set to become his successor. A government of guardianship had been set up to rule until Margaret was come of age. However, on her journey from Norway to Scotland she died in Orkney and the fight to rule the Kingdom of Scotland began in earnest with many powerful Scottish families trying to qualify their eligibility. Edward I of England was asked to arbitrate and become a sort of referee for the contenders.
Eventually, a suitable contestant was found. The nearest family tie to David I of Scotland, John Baliol, was chosen. Edward I of England was convinced that John Baliol would be malleable and conspire with him to pave the way for a smooth take-over of Scotland. Although King John Baliol was not the strongest of rulers, he refused to join in Edward I’s campaign in France, 1295, and instead signed an alliance with France against England. Ultimately, after only 4 years of ruling (1292-1296) he finally succumbed to King Edward I’s bullying. Edward was determined that Scotland should fail as an independent kingdom so that he could rule both England and Scotland himself. He subsequently invaded Scotland in 1296 and defeated King John Baliol at Dunbar. John Baliol was captured and subsequently imprisoned in London.
William Wallace, rebel leader
This was too much for the rebellious movement and freedom fighters who had known a peaceful and prosperous existence under Alexander III. William Wallace and many others like him, were determined to quash the English dominance. The defeat of the English army at The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297, was a significant step in Scotland’s quest to rid themselves of the English king.
The battle was a no-brainer: a large English army led by the Earl of Surrey, tried to squeeze themselves in their masses over a small bridge crossing the river Forth to do battle with the Scottish army. The Scottish army, led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray, though smaller, had the advantage over the English. From their vantage point on the hill, they rained spears and other ammunition down on the Earl of Surrey’s forces who were virtually a sitting target. Many English knights fell and those who were able to get to the other side, were hard pushed to make progress through the marshy ground. Wallace, Moray and their armies were victorious.
To emphasise his powers, Wallace took his forces over the border to the north of England and laid siege to Northumberland, Cumberland and Alnwick. He also wrote letters to the German Hanseatic towns of Lubeck and Hamburg urging them to resume trade links.
Scotland was back!
Wallace was duly knighted and, while John Baliol was imprisoned in London, he threw himself into the task of getting Scotland back into some semblance of order. This he did successfully and gained support from influential lords including Bishop Robert Wishart of Glasgow, John Comyn and Robert the Bruce. However, not all of the nobility supported Wallace wholeheartedly, and he was still obliged to prove himself once more in battle.
Wallace in defeat
In 1298 the Earl of Surrey returned to battle duty with a replenished army and lay low in the border counties of Roxburgh and Berwick. Edward I took his army north into Falkirk where he met Wallace and his (smaller) Scottish army. Wallace prepared by first ravaging towns and villages along Edward’s path northwards thus making it impossible for Edward to replenish his army with the supplies they needed. This had some effect as the knights and soldiers were weakened through lack of food and materials. Though this was a setback, once Edward knew that he was close to Wallace and his army, he saw his chance to attack. The English cavalry were again confronted by a river and marshy ground but were still able to cross in sufficient numbers to wreak havoc on the Scottish opponents.
This time it was the Scottish who suffered huge losses at the hands of the English. Wallace retreated north burning Perth and Stirling in his wake which weakened Edward I’s army even further in his pursuit of this indomitable rebel. Edward’s army was also exhausted and depleted and, finally, retreated south again. With such huge losses on his side, Wallace was unable to uphold the reputation and trust he had gained. In December 1298, he relinquished his guardianship of the kingdom of Scotland to Robert the Bruce and John Comyn.
Some sources mention Sir William Wallace travelling to France in 1299 and then returning to Scotland, but little is known of his movements for about 4 years after the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Either because of his tireless crusade that he had started or because of the widespread hatred of English dominance, the rebellion and the fight for independence of Scotland lasted until 1304. However, during this time, many noblemen had allied with Edward I providing Edward with significant support.
In pursuit of William Wallace
The pursuit of Sir William Wallace and bringing him to justice, was an unfinished chapter as far as Edward I was concerned. He was determined to seek out and quash the inspiration of all that was driving the Scottish rebellion for independence. In his eyes, Wallace was a criminal, an outlaw, to whom no pardon or terms of capitulation could be offered. On August 5th 1305, Sir John Menteith, loyal to Edward I, sought him out and captured him at Glasgow. He was taken prisoner at Dumbarton Castle where he awaited transport to London. There his fate awaited him and Sir William Wallace was condemned to death at Westminster Hall, his crime being that he was a traitor to the king. Wallace reacted to his sentence saying, reputedly, that as he had never pledged allegiance to the king, he could not be a traitor.
On that same August day in 1305, following his sentence, he was *hanged, drawn and quartered. His head was severed from his body, dipped in tar and displayed at Smithfield (London). His limbs were also displayed in the border counties.
Subsequently, in 1306 Robert the Bruce raised a rebellion which was successful in gaining independence for Scotland. Had William Wallace led from the heart and not from the head?
Despite there being very little evidence or documentation of William Wallace’s life, his movements or his legacy, he has managed to inspire the Scottish people for centuries.
The story of Sir William Wallace is documented in a narrative poetry work by a certain ‘Blind Harry’ or ‘Harry the Minstrel’. This is a lengthy work written by ‘Blind Harry’ in around 1477, 172 years after Wallace’s death. (The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, Wikipedia) It describes the life and times of this rebellion leader. Though historians have found no proof that many of the events described in the book actually took place, it continues to be an inspiration to many. It inspired the film Braveheart (1995) starring Mel Gibson and a monument to Wallace stands on Abbey Craig near Stirling.
Where does the Wallace Oak fit in?
The Society of William Wallace (SOWW) was established in 1912 and is dedicated to researching the life of this great hero of independence. The oak tree is purported to be the one that William Wallace was chained to when he was captured in 1305 while awaiting transport to London. Wallace was taken from Dumbarton Castle across the Clyde to Port Glasgow where, as the story goes, he was chained to an oak tree while there.
Over the centuries the oak tree has gained in reputation. Even at the time of ‘Blind Harry’s’ narrative poem in 1478, the oak was renowned and spared during the time that other oak trees were being felled for building timber. In 1768 the oak was starting to decay and the then 13th Earl of Glencairn, tried to preserve it by pouring pitch into its cavities. This caused new growth above the old trunk.
By the 1950’s the old oak had decayed to such a degree that the Port Glasgow Town Council had decided to pull it down altogether. Canon Joseph Sweeney successfully rescued the oak from total destruction and in 1959, when the building of the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church was completed, the oak, now in its grounds, became a focal point for tourists, weddings and general photography. The chain that bound Wallace to the tree had also been replaced down the years and used to be painted red to symbolise Wallace’s blood.
Despite repeated rescue operations down the centuries, the Wallace Oak eventually succumbed to a storm in 1992. The stump was towed away by a local scrapyard merchant, David Smith of Port Glasgow, where it resided for the next 22 years.
The Wallace Oak uncovered
Recently, two local historians, Cha Halliday and (the late) Sean Conelly, inspired by David R. Ross’s book “On the Trail of William Wallace”, set out to find the remains of the old oak. They set up a FB page in 2014 where they posted the journey of their quest. It took them the length and breadth of Scotland, only to find that the famous oak was somewhere in the Inverclyde area. An article was then published in the Greenock Telegraph appealing to the public for any information that might lead them to this ancient tree. The response to the request was enormous, providing useful information including contact with locals David Smith and Joe Delaney. It was in Smith’s scrapyard that the remains of the old oak had been lying.
The Society of William Wallace
The Society of William Wallace became involved and met with David Smith to view the remains of the oak tree. In 2014 the William Wallace Oak Project was set up and the next step was to get the oak tree dated. In 2016, after taking samples and measurements for detailed analysis, dendrochronologist, Dr. Coralie Mills was able to give her verdict:
“The Wallace Oak, Port Glasgow : A Dendrochronological Investigation” : ‘If oak trees can attain ages of over 500 years and not yet be hollow then in principle hollow trees can be even older. If we go back 500 years from 1768, when the tree was said to have been bored and pitch pored in, then we get to the mid 13th century, and the tree could have been a decent size at the time of William Wallace’s capture in 1305.’ Dr Mills is interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland, and once again this is covered by local and national newspapers. (http://www.thesocietyofwilliamwallace.com/wwoak3.htm)
This was certainly hopeful news and between 2017 – 2019 discussions ensued between Historic Environment Scotland and the William Wallace Oak Project team to have the tree preserved for posterity. After more research and testing, HIstoric Environment Scotland declined the offer to preserve and exhibit the old oak; however, plans were set in motion to provide a monument to the tree on the spot where the William Wallace Oak once stood in the grounds of the Holy Family Church at Port Glasgow. The monument, depicting two stumps of the oak and a commemoration plaque, was unveiled in 2021. Dr. Coralie Mills, the dendrochronologist who carried out the research on the oak tree, gave a speech at the unveiling. In it, she gives some insight into how she and the WWOP team went about researching the oak’s provenance. It is an interesting piece. Here is the link, if you would like to read it. http://dendrochronicle.co.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/The-History-of-the-Wallace-Oak-Coralie-Mills-speech-23-10-2021.pdf
But what now?
Time was running out for this old man of timber. On hearing about the Wallace Oak Project from Martin Beer (@Clan Hunter), Madam Pauline Hunter, Laird of Hunterston, contacted the SOWW to offer Hunterston Castle as a final residence for the Wallace Oak. Cha Halliday, Stuart Duncan and Neil Lochiel from the SOWW were invited to visit Hunterston Castle to approve of the location. The allocated location in the Castle is kept at a constant temperature and therefore provides an ideal place for the preservation of such an ageing oak tree.
Although disappointed that the old oak could not be kept closer to its roots in the Inverclyde area, the WWOP team are grateful that Hunterston Castle will keep it safe and well. Historic Environment Scotland have advised the WWOP team as to how best to preserve the tree and these processes are ongoing at the time of writing.
Preserving such ancient timber is a lengthy process. We must be patient, but the Wallace Oak will be ceremoniously unveiled in its new resting place at Hunterston Castle as soon as it is deemed possible and Clan Hunter will be sure to advertise this. The Wallace Oak has waited 700 years to finally be granted its provenance and link to Sir William Wallace so we can also wait just a wee while longer to view this extraordinary piece of ancient history.
Many thanks to Martin Beer for keeping his eyes open and his ears tuned to this unique chance for Clan Hunter to help preserve another icon of Scottish history.
*(hanging, drawing and quartering was finally abolished in 1870 with the Forfeiture Act – https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/hanging-drawing-quartering-what-why-treason-disembowelment/)
Thanks to Martin Beer for the newspaper cuttings.