William Wallace, The Covenanters and the Torwood Wallace Oak

On Sunday 12 September, 1680, Donald Cargill excommunicated king Charles II in a field by the Wallace Oak at Torwood in Larbert and Dunipace parish, Stirlingshire. It was the day after the anniversary of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge…

The Torwood Oak

The Torwood Excommunication is discussed in detail in other posts. You can find out what took place, what was in his afternoon sermon, who Cargill delivered up to Satanwhat it meant, when he did it, who was there and how word of it was spread.

Where Did Cargill Preach at Torwood?

One great mystery surrounding the events is where they took place in the Torwood.

According to the Rev. George Harvie’s parish entry in the Old Statistical Account of 1794:

‘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 a 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.’ (OSA, III, 336.)

The Wallace Oak, or Wallace Tree, was first recorded by name in 1687 when a contract was agreed for harvesting areas of the Torwood ‘excepting [the] Wallace Tree’. (FNH, Vol.22, 80.)

It also appears that the Wallace Oak appears as a great tree on General Roy’s map of the 1750s.

Torwood Wallace Oak 4

The consensus among modern historians is that the Wallace Oak lay close to the edge of the Wallacebank Wood on the Woodside/Glenbervie estate.

On modern OS maps it apparently lay about here.

Map of Wallace Oak

Its location can be viewed in more detail here, on the Canmore website.

You can read more about the Wallace Oak and its location in a series of articles in the Forth Naturalist and Historian. See Vol. 21, p63; Vol. 22, p79-91; 93-96.

The Reverend Harvie was the first to record a specific site for the Torwood Excommunication. He appears to have located it in a ‘square field, inclosed by a ditch’ that was ‘adjacent’ to the Wallace Oak. Precisely what Harvie meant by ‘adjacent’ is not clear, but it does sound as if he considered the site to be reasonably close to the Wallace Tree.

It is not obvious to me, as a historian rather than an archaeologist, where the ‘square field’ lay on any of the maps available on the NLS website. What we do know is that the landscape around the Wallace Oak was in a state of flux, as the recent work of Colin Forrester has revealed that the area around the Wallace Tree was subject to the periodic harvesting of the Torwood on at least three occasions between Cargill’s preaching and Harvie’s account. It is not clear if the harvesting impacted on the square field. Nonetheless, Harvie, who wrote just over a hundred years after Cargill’s preaching, may have provided a clue to the location of the preaching which may be still detectable on the ground.

Two generations after Harvie, the New Statistical Account of 1834 to 1845 contained a similar account, but it did not mention the ‘square field’:

‘The forest of Torwood is associated with all that is ennobling in patriotism and personal valour. Here stood Wallace’s oak, 12 feet in diameter, in the hollow of which he and his patriotic companions, it is said, used to meet and concert their plans for wresting their country from the grasp of the ambitious [king] Edward [I]. This noble son of the forest disappeared about thirty years ago, after having weathered the storms of a thousand winters.

Not far from the site of this tree, Mr Donald Cargill, in the month of September 1680, in the presence of a numerous assembly, pronounced sentence of excommunication against some of the most violent persecutors of that day, among whom were Charles II., his brother, James Duke of York, Duke of Monmouth, and several other persons of note. This act of Mr Cargill’s was never publicly approved of by Presbyterians.’ (NSA, VIII, 381-2.)

Like Harvie’s location, the NSA described the site of the excommunication as ‘not far’ from the Wallace Oak.

Further information on the Wallace Oak was given by John M’Laren, the minister of Larbert and Dunipace from 1847 until his death in 1898, to Robert Hutchison of Carlowrie at some point in the period before 1881:

‘From information kindly furnished by the Rev. J. M’Laren of Larbert, we further learn regarding this historical and interesting tree. He writes as follows:—

“The real Wallace oak is gone for ever. It stood in what was a part of the Torwood some centuries ago, but the knoll which it occupied has been long separated from what is now called the Torwood by ground which has been cleared, and is quarter of a mile from the present wood.. The old forester (ætat 72), who has lived nearly all his days in the Torwood, cannot remember ever having seen the veritable tree; but Mrs Stirling of Glenbervie [aka. the Woodside estate], who is also of a similar age, remembers well having accompanied her late husband and a young Oxonian, who was filled with zeal about Wallace, to see the oak, on a bright day in May 1835, and that then the old tree stump had sent forth a young shoot. Since then the copse has been rampant, and quite obliterated the old tree. The knoll is still called ‘Wallace’s Wood;’ a small plantation it is, and a field adjoining it, ‘Wallace’s Bank,’ and another field near by is ‘Wallace’s Kail-yard.’’ (Robert Hutchison of Carlowrie, ‘On the Old and Remarkable Oaks in Scotland’, in Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, 1881, 204-5.)

Wallace’s Kailyard may be a possible location for Harvie’s site for the excommunication, as it sounds like some kind of defined area.

The Wallace Oak in 1789

The original Wallace Oak on the Woodside/Glenbervie estate, which was on its last legs for the most part of the Eighteenth Century, disappeared at some point in the early Nineteenth Century. After it disappeared, the reference to another Wallace Oak on the Carbrook estate appeared.

The ‘Innocent Imposter’ and the Cargill Thorn Tree on the Carbrook Estate

However, the location of Cargill’s preaching was then associated in later tradition with a Hawthorn tree on the Carbrook estate. It appears that the Cargill Thorn lay near a different Wallace Oak in the policies of the Carbrook estate:

‘There is, however, an innocent imposter, which the people about insist on calling Wallace’s oak. It stands within the policies of Carbrook, close to Torwood, and is evidently some two or three hundred years old. But though a respectable tree, it is far too young to have been connected with Wallace.” (Hutchison, THASS, 205.)

Hutchison, rather than M’Laren, then continues:

‘Near the latter tree [i.e., the Carbrook Oak] is an old thorn, which is called “Cargill’s Thorn,” from the circumstance that that renowned Covenanter is said to have stood under its branching head, when he excommunicated Charles II.’ (Hutchison, THASS, 205.)

It is quite possible that the ‘old’ Hawthorn tree in 1880 had survived from long before the time of Cargill, as they can live for hundreds of years.

For Hutchison, Cargill’s Thorn on the Carbrook estate was the site of the excommunication, rather than at the square field. It is possible that the square field lay near the thorn, but that seems unlikely as the thorn tree lay at a considerable distance from the original Wallace Oak.

Although Hutchison made the linkage to the Carbrook Thorn in 1881, there is no evidence that the Reverend M’Laren made the same connection.

Woodland by the Tor Burn © Richard Webb and licensed for reuse.

The year before Huthison/M’Laren’s information was published, Robert Gillespie, the revising editor of the third edition of Nimmo’s History of Stirlingshire, also placed Cargill’s Thorn on the Carbrook estate. According to Gillespie, the thorn tree was used by the congregation of the parish at the Disruption in 1843 when the parish minister, John Archibald Bonar, joined the breakaway Free Church. Bonar had been the parish minister since 1826. (Fasti, IV, 326.)

‘The Rev, John Bonar, latterly of Glasgow, who was first and former minister here, came out of the local parish kirk at the Disruption of 1843, and many of the inhabitants must still have a vivid recollection of the services given by that earnest divine the Sabbath following the leave-taking at Larbert. The people, of whom there were a considerable number, met under the shade of the grand old thorn, near Torwood glen, which may still be seen in a green and fruitful maturity, marking the spot of the excommunication of Charles II., Duke of York, by the persecuted but undaunted Donald Cargill, and the scene was undoubtedly impressive as the long grey locks of the impassioned preacher ever and anon rose and shook in the breezy air.’ (Nimmo, History of Stirlingshire (3rd edition, ed. Gillespie, 1880), I, 346.)

The site may also have been used for a communion to mark the 150th anniversary of Cargill’s excommunication in 1830, as it is likely that Bonar was the officiating minister. A surviving communion token marked ‘Cargill M S 1830′ associated with Cargill’s thorn tree is listed in the collections of Falkirkshire Council.

Bonar’s name was also attached to the accounts of Larbert and Dunipace parishes published in the New Statistical Account, however, it appears that the entry for Dunipace parish, which did not mention the thorn tree, was composed by Robert Watson, the parochial schoolmaster. There is no simple connection between the NSA account of the excommunication site being ‘not far’ from the Wallace Oak and Gillespie or Hutchison’s evidence for Cargill’s Thorn.

What is clear is that Gillespie, Hutchison and one local minister, Bonar, believed that the Cargill Thorn on the Carbrook estate was the site of the excommunication. However, there is no way of knowing whether they made that association due to the close proximity of the thorn to the Carbrook Wallace Oak.

It is probably not a historical coincidence that the records of Cargill’s Thorn appear once the original Wallace Oak had disappeared.

The Location of Cargill’s Thorn.
Gillespie was quite specific as to the location of the Cargill Thorn on the Carbrook estate:

‘We have had occasion to speak of the many ancient associations of Torwood in other chapters. Here, at the foot of the old Toll Brae, Donald Cargill, the ejected minister of the Barony Church, Glasgow, and one of the last champions of Scotland’s spiritual independence, excommunicated in October [actually September], 1680, the reigning monarch, Charles II., a many renunciation of crowned tyranny, and war to the knife declared against the Stuart race. (Nimmo, History of Stirlingshire (ed. Gilliespie), I, 382.)

The old Toll Brae appears to have been to the north of Torwood and is now part of Glen Road. According to a road map of 1776, the toll lay on the south side of the Tor Burn. Torwood Glen, through which the burn flows, is perpendicular to the road. The Tor Burn forms the parish boundary with St Ninian’s parish to the north.

According to Gillespie, ‘the Glen [of the Tor Burn] is situated a few yards distant from the famous old thorn on the estate. Its dell, as may readily be imagined, is thickly covered with brushwood and brackens, but it has also a musical burn in its rocky centre, which in spate seasons bounds with real Cascadian passion over the Sheep’s Linn that lies a short way down.’ (Nimmo, History of Stirlingshire, (ed. Gillespie), II, 289.)

Map of the Approximate Location of Cargill’s Thorn.

Back to the Wallace Tree?
However, in 1909, another claim was made for the location of Cargill’s Thorn. According to information passed on by Mrs Houston of Johnstone Castle, the granddaughter of the Mrs Stirling of Glenbervie who had provided information to M’Laren before 1881:

‘Cargill’s Thorn, marking the spot where the Covenanter, Donald Cargill, excommunicated Charles II., no longer exists, having been blown down within the last ten or fifteen years. It stood on the east side of the Falkirk and Stirling high road, on Woodside (Glenbervie) estate, which originally formed part of the ancient low Torwood.’ (Gibson, Lands and Lairds of Larbert and Dunipace Parishes, 74.)

It is possible that Mrs Houston misidentified which estate Cargill’s Thorn stood on. However, in claiming the thorn for Woodside, she reasserted the Woodside/Glenbervie estate’s claim to be the location for the excommunication.

We are left with two possible locations for the excommunication, either the ‘square field’ near the Wallace Oak on the Woodside/Glenbervie estate or Cargill’s Thorn on the Carbrook estate.

I favour the square field site next to the Woodside Wallace Oak due to its earlier provenance and defined features, rather than the more romantic sounding Cargill’s Thorn.

If you are in the area, the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum has a tremendous collection of Wallace materials.

If anyone has further information about the Cargill’s Thorn or the location of the excommunication site near the Wallace Oak, please get in touch.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.

~ by drmarkjardine on December 29, 2011.

15 Responses to “William Wallace, The Covenanters and the Torwood Wallace Oak”

  1. […] posts have covered ‘where’ the Torwood excommunication took place and ‘who’ was excommunicated and ‘why’. It is now time to turn our […]

  2. […] The site of Cargill’s preaching may have been an attempt by the Society people to harness the Wallace legend to their cause. The symbolism of the Cargill preaching by the Wallace Oak was probably not lost on the audience. The association of the Torwood Oak with William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish patriot, certainly stretches back to 1687, probably to 1643 and possibly to long before the latter date. According to tradition, the oak had been used by Wallace and his followers in their resistance against Edward I’s conquest of Scotland. It is not clear when the legend of Wallace as “democratic” patriot began, but it was in existence in the eighteenth century. There are striking similarities between the predicament of Wallace in the late 1290s and that of the Society people in 1680. Like Wallace, the Society people were upholding a seemingly lost cause after defeat. Like Wallace, they saw themselves as struggling with a “compromised” elite which had “betrayed” Scotland. And also like Wallace, they viewed themselves as liberators of Scotland from tyranny. The Wallace Oak was possibly the perfect site for Cargill to excommunicate Charles II, however, there are no contemporary sources which indicate that the Society people made the connection to the Wallace legend. For a detailed discussion on the Wallace Oak and the site of the Torwood Excommunication, see here. […]

  3. […] location of the field preaching is discussed here, its date here and those who heard the sermon […]

  4. Hi Mark,

    I couldn’t resist a look for the ‘square field, inclosed by a ditch, where Mr Donald Cargill excommunicated King Charles II’. So I used canmore to identify the location and then located it again on Google and Bing Maps.

    I don’t know if you’d already looked at Bing Maps Aerial and Birds Eye views, but they clearly show three sides of a square shaped field which appears to be surrounded by a ditch (although from the air it’s impossible to tell for definite). Two of the corners are remarkably acute, and there is a suggestion of a track leading across to the small clump of trees which could possibly be another field boundary.



    • Dear Jen,

      It does look intriguing! The problem may be the ever-shifting landscape around the Wallace Oak due to its use as a working wood. However, the field that you mention does look square from above (on three sides) and may be surrounded by a ditch. I suspect a site visit could be of use. A landscape archaeologist may be needed. I know that BBC Radio Scotland has a series called ‘Past Lives’ which investigates such queries. You could email them about the site. Details here:



  5. […] Cargill was associated with a Hawthorn tree at Torwood in […]

  6. I own a piece of the wallace oak it is a small cabinet with doors it has a plaque saying”made of the wallace oak at old elderslie and presented by A.Speirs Esquire of elderslie to his GD son William .D Bontine Dec 1830

  7. I own a miniature goblet, the top being part of an acorn. The inscriptions engraved on the metal band are thistles and the following “This Cup part of the Famous Tree in Torwood which often sheltered the Patriot Hero Sir William Wallace. Is presented to his Namesake at Inverouglass 1811”

    The was passed down to me from my Grandmother nee Jeanie Storrie whose parents John Tassie and Jean Wallace came to South Australia from Glascow I the ninteeth century.

    • Hi Margaret,
      That is a fascinating object you have there! The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum (in Stirling) would probably be interested in knowing that you have it. They have quite a collection of Wallace material, are interested in the tree and might be able to give you more information. http://www.smithartgalleryandmuseum.co.uk/

      Do you have a photo of it?

      Kindest regards,

  8. I own a cup similar to the one described before, but from Clan Irvine.
    Various inscriptions like: – “This Cap is part of the Oak Tree in the Torwood which was often an Asylum to the immortal Wallace. Drink of this and mark the footsteps of a Hero.
    – We’ll take a cup of Kindness yet for Auld Lang Syne*1. (Nous allons prendre un gobelet de bonté pour l’Amitié des Jours d’Antan)
    – Pro Patria.
    – Born 1876 – Died 1305.
    – Sub sole sub umbra virens.

    Photos can be found at

  9. […] Covenanters were later associated with trees . (See for example Cargill at the Wallace Oak, Peden’s Tree and Renwick’s Tree. However, there is no indication in local tradition that […]

  10. […] sources report the flyposting of possibly the most subversive documents produced in Scotland, the Torwood Excommunication at the Wallace Oak by Donald Cargill, the text of which delivered the leaders of the Scotland up to Satan. From what […]

  11. […] Near Wishaw is a ruined house where the Covenanter Donald Cargill is said to have escaped. Between mid 1679 and mid 1681, Cargill was probably the “Most-Wanted” fugitive in Scotland. Not only had he begun a rebellion against King Charles II in 1679, he had also done the unthinkable in 1680 and excommunicated the King and leading members of his regime close to the Wallace Oak at Torwood in Stirlingshire. […]

  12. […] had conducted the Torwood Excommunication on 12 September by the Wallace Oak, the closest Sabbath to the anniversary of William Wallace’s victory at the Battle of […]

  13. […] It is one of the most radical acts in Scottish history. On Sunday 12 September, 1680, the Covenanting minister Donald Cargill excommunicated king Charles II and six other leading figures in the Anglo-Scottish elite at the Wallace Oak at Torwood. […]

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