Monday, September 14, 2009

Wallace's Oak

Freedom is best, I tell thee true, of all things to be won; then never live within the bonds of slavery, my son. -- Attributed to William Wallace's uncle.

There once was an ancient oak tree in the Torwood, near Falkirk, Scotland. It was reputed to be a common resting place for none other than William Wallace, Scotland's most famous patriot. It lived for centuries evidently; the painting here is by A. Nasmyth (1771). Sir Walter Scott records how he would retire there before or after battle in Tales of A Grandfather (1st series, 1828), Chap. 7:

A large oak-tree in the adjoining forest was long shown as marking the spot where Wallace slept before the battle, or, as others said, in which he hid himself after the defeat. Nearly forty years ago Grandpapa [Scott himself] saw some of its roots; but the body of the tree was even then entirely decayed, and there is not now, and has not been for many years, the least vestige of it to be seen.

Magnus Magnusson, Scotland: The Story of a Nation (2000), pp. 146-147:

Oak wood has long been revered in Scotland as a potent symbol of strength, hardness and durability. Until two centuries ago there was a vast oak tree known as 'Wallace's Oak' in the Torwood, a couple of miles north of Falkirk. In 1723 it was described as having a girth of thirty-six feet, still bearing leaves and acorns, and 'ever excepted from cutting when the wood is sold'. Fifty years later its girth measured as twenty-two feet at four feet above the ground by a John Walker, who observed that '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 has been immemorially held in veneration and is still viewed in that light.' But, as Sir Walter Scott and others reported, by the end of the eighteenth century no trace of it remained, and efforts to pinpoint the exact site of the tree have been somewhat conjectural.

Tangible relics of 'Wallace's Oak' remain, however. The great tree was ultimately, and literally, loved to death by souvenir hunters. In the 1790s a piece of it was made into a box by the goldsmiths of Edinburgh and presented to George Washington, first President of the United States, as 'the Wallace of America'; this relic does not survive, alas -- it was stolen in a stage-coach raid in the 1820s and never seen again. The last of the roots of the tree was excavated to make a snuff box which was presented to King George IV on the occasion of his celebrated Royal Visit to Edinburgh in 1822...

Today, Wallacebank Wood, owned by the Glenbervice Golf Club, and managed along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust as a Wildlife Reserve, is home to coppiced descendants of the Wallace Oak.

William Hetherington wrote a poetic tribute to the Wallace Oak in Twelve Dramatic Sketches, founded on the Pastoral Poetry of Scotland (1829), which is recorded in James Grant Wilson, The Poets and Poetry of Scotland: From the Earliest to the Present Time (1876), Half-Vol. 4, p. 263:

The Torwood Oak

The Torwood Oak! How like a spell
By potent wizard breathed, that name
Bids every Scottish bosom swell,
And burn with all a patriot's flame!

The past before the rapt eye brings --
Forth stalk the phantom shades of kings,
And loud the warrior's bugle rings
O'er gory fields of blood!

I see the Roman eagle whet
Its hungry beak, I see it soar;
It stoops, I see its pinions wet,
Ruffled and wet with its own gore:
I see the Danish raven sweep
O'er the dark bosom of the deep, --
Its scatter'd plumage strows the steep
Of rugged Albin's shore.

Lo! England's Edward comes! -- the plain
Groans where his marshall'd thousands wheel,
Grim Havoc stalks o'er heaps of slain,
Gaunt Famine, prowling, dogs his heel!
Ah! woe for Scotland! blood and woe!
Fierce and relentless is the foe,
And treason points the murderous blow,
Edges the ruthless steel!

But who is he with dauntless brow,
And dragon crest, and eagle eye,
Whose proud form never knew to bow
Its lofty port and bearing high?
Around him close a glorious band, --
Few -- but the chosen of the land;
Beneath the Torwood Tree they stand,
Freedom to gain, or die!

'Tis he, the bravest of the brave!
Champion of Scotland's liberty,
Whose mighty arm and dreadful glaive
His mother-land could thrice set free!
That hero-patriot, whose great name
Justly the foremost rank may claim
Of that grace the rolls of fame --

Yes, oft the Torwood Oak has bent
Its broad boughs o'er his noble head;
Oft, in his hour of peril, lent
The shelter of its friendly shade;
And though rude Time and stern Decay
Its moulder'd stem have swept away,
The hero's name there dwells for aye --
A name that cannot fade!

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