On the Ruins of Wallace's Tree in the Torwood (1720)

Wallace's Tree - Torwood

Wallace's Tree - Torwood.

Drawing by Alexander Nasmyth, engraving by William Miller, date unknown.

From Life of Sir William Wallace, Vol. 1, by John D. Carrick (1830).

Courtesy of Gutenberg.org.

   The oak tree was a well-known symbol of the Stuart dynasty and of Jacobitism. The oak in this poem is almost unambiguously representative of the dethroned Stuarts, with the dying Torwood oak made "Sovereign of the Wood" (4). Murray Pittock notes that "destroyed oaks symbolized the victory" of William II and III over James VII and II in the Glorious Revolution (2013, 165). The 600 years of age ascribed to the tree may also mark the time from which, in the twelfth century, the Stuarts served as High Stewards of Scotland (Stewart 1963, 6).

   Beyond the Jacobite connotation, the Torwood oak is here used to represent the nation in elegiac tenor. According to T. C. Smout, trees, both as individuals and as forests, have long been important markers of the Scottish "historic or cultural landscape" (2009, 153), from the (largely imagined) time of the druids (155). In the aftermath of Culloden, government forces burned an ash tree revered by the Clan Cameron: "as deliberate an act of cultural and ethnic vandalism" as any other (156). A legend dating to the sixteenth century states that Scotland, or at least the Highlands, was once covered in heavy woods "that protected the Picts from the Romans" (163). This legend has great power over the national imagination, with politicians up to the late twentieth century promising to restore "The Great Wood of Caledon," which had shielded Scotland "[u]ntil capitalism and the English came" (164-65). I would suggest that the poem below resonates with this deep national relationship with trees, especially given the ritualistic purpose Pennecuik ascribes to the Torwood oak.

   The post-Union years saw a "recrudescence of interest" (Pittock 2007, 334) in the fabled Scottish hero, William Wallace (d. 1305). There were several oaks said to have served the function of protecting Wallace or acting as some kind of meeting place, but the Torwood (between Falkirk and Stirling) oak boasts the most established tradition (Smout 2009, 157). While there are a few nineteenth-century poems on the tree, Pennecuik's would seem to be the earliest poetic notice by a century. True to his dramatising tendencies, Pennecuik may have pronounced the tree doomed before its time. Streams from Helicon was first published in 1715, but in 1723 the tree was observed to be in good form, "still bearing leaves and acorns," and guarded from cutting. In 1771, the tree was described as a ruin, and by 1812 it had disappeared entirely (Smout 2009, 157). Pennecuik's wish that "foreign Pilgrims" would "in Devotion come / Hither, to bear" the tree's "sacred Ashes home" (7-8), did not bode well for the tree. According to Magnus Magnusson, the Torwood oak was "loved to death by souvenir hunters" - even its roots were worked into a snuff box presented to George IV on his 1822 visit to Scotland (2000, 147).  


                        ON THE
                  WALLACE'S TREE   
                  In the TORWOOD

HAil! rev'rend Reliques of a princely OAK,
Devouring Time THY Giant Strength hath broke;
In Royal Pomp, six hundred Years you've stood,
Pride of the Plains, and Sovereign of the Wood:
How I revere thy venerable Bones,                                                                           5
Fit to be set 'mongst Pearls and precious Stones.

May foreign Pilgrims in Devotion come
Hither, to bear thy sacred Ashes home:
Hear ev'ry Thing Tradition speaks of THEE,
And write the Wonders of the Torwood Tree.                                                           10

THOU in the Center of THY Army stood,
Till Years declar'd the Manhood of the Wood:
Alone, THOU did'st a Monarch's Pow'r maintain:
So did thy Chistian [sic] WALLACE stand alone,
In warlike Posture, when his Men were gone.                                                          15

Henceforth the OAK shall o'er the Forrest reign,
And ev'ry Tree pay Homage to this KING
Since it is Loyal, far beyond its Fellows,
Prov'd to a Rebel Absolon[1] a Gallows;
But shelter'd Royal Charles,[2] and Scotlands Guardian Wallace.                               20

Hail old Patrician! famous thro' the Isle;                           
Uncut THOU falls for SCOTIA'S Fun'ral Pile:
Green grew thy Boughs, till SCOTIA was betray'd,
With HER Thou flourished, and with HER decay'd.[3]

I saw THEE on the fatal first of May,[4]                                                                   25
Fair SCOTIA'S Wedding, no, her Burial-Day,
Drop all THY Leaves, THY Sorrow to express,
Nodding THY aged Head down to the matted Grass.

Ere then the feather'd Quires perch'd on THY Boughs,
And sung their Mattins[5] when the Morning rose;                                                    30
With daw'ning Day the Musick was begun,
The Consort lasted till the setting Sun:
On THEE they built their Nest, there hatched their Young
Paying the Tribute of a daily Song.

But, since they're gone, and THOU art Visit now,                                                     35
By chat'ring Magpy's, and the dull Cukoo;[6]
Low at THY Feet, beneath THY benign Shade,
Where loving Ivy and the Primrose spread,
Deadly Solanum[7] droops his baneful Head:
There hissing Serpents spew their Vomit out,                                                          40
And Poison with their forked Tongues THY root.

In frozen Winter, when rough Storms did blow,
Clothing THY shaven Head with Webs of Snow,
Briareus[8] Hands THOU streach'd above the Plain,
To shelter from black Winds, the Nymph and Swain.[9]                                            45

In Summer, when the Day began to peep,
E'er Buxom Mopsa[10] went to 'rend her Sheep,
To a South runing Stream she bends her WAY,
Muttering Words the Flamines[11] bid her say:
Then streight with Vigour to the Wood she ran,                                                       50
And revell'd thrice about the OLD-GOOD-MAN.

       Pronounc'd the Charm
       Would keep from Harm,
       And save her thro' the Day;

              By MARY'S Might[12]                                                                              55
              And WALLACE Wight,[13]
              I Conjure THEE O TREE
              Preserve my Drove,
              Cause Damon[14] prove
              True to his Love,                                                                                     60
              And wed with none save me.

But now, no Sheperdess or Swain is seen,
To gamble[15] round THY Trunk, or Dance upon the Green;
No more the Dairy Maid with Milking-Pail
Sits at THY Roots, to hear her Strephon's[16] Tale;                                                  65
No more the Shepherd in the scroching[17]  Noon,
Drives to THY cooling Shade, there to ly down;
No more on Trumps,[18] plays sweetly to his Clara,[19]
Nor with his native Notes, sings Leader Haughs and Tarow.[20] 


1 The treachous son of King David of the Old Testament. I have found no other reference to an execution at the Torwood oak.
2 Charles II is thought to have sheltered in an oak following the Battle of Worcester in 1651, preserving him for his restoration in 1660--but not the same oak of the Wallace legend (Pittock 2013, 165).
3 This line seems to echo Archibald Pitcairne's lines (translated from Latin by John Dryden) on the death of John Grahame of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, the leader of the first Jacobite rebellion in 1689: "Scotland and thee didst in each other live / Nor wouldst thou her nor could she thee survive." (in Pittock 2015, 35) 
4 May 1, 1707, is the day the Acts of Union between Scotland and England came into effect.
5 Morning prayers.
6 These bird symbols could have specific meanings that I am unable to illuminate. The magpie would generally be considered unmusical, where the cuckoo is a kind of usurper of nests (Kaufman n.d.).
7 A large genus of plant. I am unable to comment on the possible meaning of the plants named here.
8 A one-hundred armed Greek god.
9 Generic terms for pastoral lovers.
10 The name given to shepherdesses is used by Philip Sidney in Arcadia and by William Shakespeare in The Winter's Tale .
11 Roman (pagan) priests 
12 Mary, mother of Christ, appears sometimes in syncretic (Catholic and pagan) spells of this kind (e.g. Rogers 1884, 199). However, given the pairing with the Scottish historical figure William Wallace, perhaps Pennecuik means to invoke Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.  
13 Perhaps Scots wicht, meaning strength, rather than the English meaning of ghost.
14 Common male name in pastorals.
15 Scots: play, gambol. 
16 Shepherd - also from Sidney's Arcadia.
17 Scots: scorching.
18 Trumpet.
19 Common female name in pastorals.
20 A Scots ballad, c. 1700, by Nicol Burne (The Word on the Street, n.d.).



Dictionary of the Scottish Language. Accessed April 14, 2018. http://www.dsl.ac.uk/about-dsl/what-is-dsl/.

Kaufman, Kenn. "Common Cuckoo." National Audubon Society. Accessed April 14, 2018. http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-cuckoo.

"Leader-Haughs and Yarow." The Word on the Street. National Library of Scotland. Accessed Aprirl 14, 2018. https://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/14463.

Magnusson, Magnus. 2000. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Grove Press. 

Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed April 6, 2018. http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/.

Pennecuik, Alexander. 1720. "On the Ruins of Wallace's Tree in the Torwood." Streams from Helicon: or, Poems on Various Subjects. In Three Parts. 2nd ed. 40-43. London: the author. http://find.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=sfu_z39&tabID=T001&docId=CW3315698866&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE.

Pittock, Murray. 2007. "Allan Ramsay and the Decolonisation of Genre." The Review of English Studies 58, no. 235: 316-37. https://academic-oup-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/res/article/58/235/316/2948404.

---. 2013. Material Culture and Sedition, 1688-1760: Treacherous Objects, Secret Places. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

---. 2015. The Invention of Scotland: The Stuart Myth and the Scottish Identity, 1638 to the Present. New York: Routledge.

Rogers, Charles. Social Life in Scotland From Early to Recent Times. Volume 2. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1884.

Smout, T. C. 2009. "Trees as Historic Landscapes: from Wallace's Oak to Reforesting Scotland." In Exploring Environmental History: Selected Essays. 153-67Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Stewart, John. 1963. The Stewarts. Johnston's Clan Histories. Edinburgh: W. and A. K. Johnston. 

The Ruins of Wallace's Tree