Deep roots of William Wallace tree legend

William Wallace
Image caption Statues to William Wallace have been erected across Scotland

A local legend claiming that Scottish patriot William Wallace was chained to a tree in what is now Port Glasgow has led two friends to embark on a three-year quest to locate and preserve the tree.

Cha Halliday, 53, from Greenock, and Sean Donnelly, 48, from Inverkip, have been all over Scotland visiting sites linked to Wallace, the Scottish hero of the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

But a small reference in a book on Wallace led them to a little known site close to where they lived.

According to Scottish author David R Ross, in his book On the Trail of William Wallace, the Scottish warrior was captured in August 1305 at what is now Robroyston, north of Glasgow, and taken overnight to Dumbarton Castle to await transfer to London to stand trial for treason.

He recounts the local legend that Wallace was taken across the Clyde at West Ferry, and transported along the old Roman road to an area called Broadfield, which is now in Port Glasgow in Inverclyde.

It is said that he was chained to a tree until English troops arrived and he could be handed over and taken down south.

The chains were said to have remained at the scene for many years and each time they rotted away they were replaced.

Image copyright Cha Halliday
Image caption Dr Mills and Sean Donnelly examining the section with the chain still attached

They were said to be painted red each year by local children to symbolise the blood shed by Wallace in his fight for Scottish independence.

Historian Fiona Watson said there was very little reliable evidence on Wallace beyond his victory at Stirling Bridge, his defeat at Falkirk a year later and his death in 1305.

Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered on 23 August 1305 after being found guilty of treason.

Dr Watson said: "We know nothing about Wallace between him being chased by the English near Dundee in autumn 1304 and his capture in summer 1305."

She said there was no evidence to place Wallace in Port Glasgow but over the years people across the country had "filled in the gaps" in Wallace's tale with stories associating their area with the great Scottish hero.

She said: "There is little evidence to support many of the associations but it does not mean they are not strongly held."

The truth behind the Port Glasgow legend is hard to establish but it appears the stories of the Wallace Tree have deep roots in the Inverclyde area.

Image copyright Cha Halliday
Image caption The oak before it fell in 1995

A 1962 Greenock Telegraph article carries an appeal to save the "gnarled oak", saying its loss would be a "tragedy".

It refers to notes from a Mr Scrymgeour who describes a different legend.

He tells of the flight of William Wallace from English soldiers, with a price on his head.

Mr Scrymgeour begins with Wallace's escape from an inn at Elderslie on a horse belonging to one of the soldiers who had cordoned him off at the hostelry.

Wallace, he says, then made off over the hill towards Greenock.

He claims that when Wallace reached the big tree at Broadfield he climbed into its branches to hide himself and his two-handed broadsword from the pursuing soldiers.

Mr Scrymgeour also tells how the 13th Earl of Glencairn sought to save the tree in 1768 when it was showing signs of decay.

The earl had the infected part bored and boiling pitch poured into the hole.

According to Mr Scrymgeour: "He also had the heaviest branches chained in such a fashion that each or all could be tightened at will by the aid of a triple screw."

This could provide an alternative explanation for the chains which have been associated with the tree.

Image copyright Cha Halliday
Image caption Close up of chain embedded in the growth of the oak tree

The tree had been located where the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church now stands when it was blown down in heavy storms in 1995.

More than 18 years after the tree was felled, Mr Halliday set about trying to find it.

After some detective work and the aid of Facebook, the tree was tracked down to the former Gourock Ropeworks yard, where it had been taken for safe-keeping.

"They guy who had it said he knew someone would come looking for it one day," says Mr Halliday.

In order to get a date for the age of the the tree, Mr Halliday called in dendrochronologist Dr Coralie Mills.

It was during her visit that a second piece of the tree was found hidden in the undergrowth.

It had a length of chain embedded in its growth, providing more evidence that it was the tree that had been referred to locally as the Wallace Oak.

Image caption Mel Gibson starred as William Wallace in the 1995 film Braveheart, which won five Academy Awards

The age of the chain is unknown but clearly does not stretch anywhere near as far back as Wallace's time. It is likely have come from a local shipyard in the late 19th or early 20th Century.

Dr Mills told BBC Scotland that the oak itself was very old and put a date of 1786 on the section of the tree that she sampled.

Allowing for the evidence that the section of the tree had probably been about 2m from the ground, she put the age of the tree at 1763, if it was a single-stemmed tree.

However, the newspaper article from 1962 held out the possibility that the tree could still be much older.

Dr Mills said the date of her tree sample was very similar to the reputed date of the Earl's boring of the tree and the stimulation of roots growing down through what must have been a rotten or hollow lower stem.

She said: "In other words, the part of the tree we have aged is re-growth above the much older hollow base."

Image copyright Buster Brown
Image caption The Wallace Monument in Stirling was constructed in 1869 to commemorate his life

Dr Mills said she could not determine the age of a hollow stem and so could only estimate the age of a tree which was already old and hollow in the 18th century.

"It could easily have been several hundred years old at that point," she said.

The oldest known scientifically aged living trees in Scotland are mid-15th Century.

"We cannot refute the Wallace tradition on the basis of the dendro results," Dr Mills said.

A conclusion which "delighted" Cha Halliday.

He told BBC Scotland: "I liked the story because it was a legend and I was worried Dr Mills might be able to prove the tree was about 100 years old or something.

"But it was a chance we had to take.

"If she could get it anywhere near Wallace's time then it would keep the story going.

"Obviously a lot of people before me have believed in it and if we can keep it going and get something to mark it then I think it is amazing."

Scotland has a rich heritage of notable trees with famous associations.

In 1830, artist and naturalist Jacob George Strutt, in his book Sylva Brittanica, published a special section called Sylva Scotica in which he listed 10 famous Scottish trees.

Most of these trees have not survived into the 21st century, including two trees associated with William Wallace,

The Wallace Oak at Elderslie, in which tradition provided Wallace and 300 of his followers shelter as they were pursued by the English army and The Torwood Oak, near Stirling, beneath which he was said to have made camp.

The latter tree was already dead by Strutt's time, the pieces being carried off as souvenirs.

A similar fate befell the Wallace Oak at Elderslie after it was brought down by a great storm in 1856.

Strutt also mentioned the Bishopton Sycamore in Renfrewshire where Wallace was 'delivered up to his enemies by the treachery of a pretended friend'.

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