William Wallace, Port Glasgow, and me

Please select a featured image for your post

Ross Ahlfeld suggests the Faith of the people of ‘The Port’ has spread far beyond Scotland.

Port Glasgow must surely be given some sort of special recognition award for having the most fascinating Catholic social history of any town Scotland.

And if such an award doesn’t exist, then we really must invent one!

For example, late last year John the Baptist Catholic Church in Port Glasgow was featured on BBC’s ‘Fake Or Fortune’ show because it turns out the parish owns a possible Northern Renaissance Flemish masterpiece depicting the Lamentation of Christ, hanging above the Church door.

I imagine our Diocesan accountant is perhaps hoping a few more long forgotten, priceless paintings will soon turn up around Paisley Diocese to pay for our rapidly increasing heating bills!

More recently I was pleased learn that the famous ‘Wallace Oak’ from Holy Family Church is being moved from a warehouse in Port Glasgow, where it was being stored, down to Hunterston Castle in West Kilbride, where the tree will be treated with chemicals to preserve it, so that the oak can then go on display.

The Wallace Oak consists of the remains of the root and stump of a huge old oak that once grew in the grounds of Holy Family Catholic Church in Port Glasgow; which was blown over during a storm back in 1992.

A long standing local tradition suggests that Sir William Wallace was chained to this tree by English soldiers during his transportation to London for trial, following Wallace’s capture at Robroyston in 1305.

Interestingly, when the Wallace Oak blew down in the 1990s, Fr. Quinn, the Parish Priest at Holy Family, gave a large branch from the tree to local parishioner Mr Joseph Delaney, who carved a statue of St Padre Pio from the timber.

Nobody is able to say for sure if Scotland’s greatest hero really was held captive at Port Glasgow but it seems likely that Wallace was held at Dumbarton Castle then transported across the river to Port Glasgow and there is also good circumstantial evidence which suggests there may be some truth in the tale.

When the nearby Newark Castle was being built almost 175 years later in 1478 by the (historically recusant Catholic) Maxwell family, all the local oak trees in Port Glasgow were felled to make the beams for the Castle ceiling.

All apart from the Wallace Oak which even back then, was considered sacred.

In more recent times, there was also the infamous Wallace Bar nearby the site of the oak, which also commemorates Port Glasgow’s association with Scotland’s greatest patriot, a pub so rough that even Sir William Wallace probably wouldn’t have gone in unarmed.

Regardless, as far back as anyone can remember, each year in the summer, local school children in Port Glasgow would re-paint the old chain surrounding the tree bright red to commemorate the patriot’s sacrifice.

And whenever, the old chain got worn away or broken, it would be replaced by local shipyard workers and it seems that this venerable old tradition continued right up into the 20th century.

For me, there is something subconsciously Catholic about the whole tradition of the Wallace Oak, not just the fact that the oak grew in the grounds of a Catholic parish or even the fact that the story of Sir William Wallace reminds us of Scotland’s pre-Reformation Catholic heritage.

Rather, the solemn yearly tradition of painting the chain red evokes images of a deeply liturgical rite, with Wallace’s ‘sacrifice’ paralleling Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross.

Indeed, Mel Gibson’s 1995 epic Braveheart movie also alludes to the story of Wallace serving as an allegory for the Resurrection of Christ, in the scene when Wallace’s fame and legend spreads among the common folk of Scotland.

Similarly, tiny broken off pieces of the oak, which have fallen off during the move, have been parcelled up and sent off as souvenirs to Wallace enthusiasts and devotees all over the world by the William Wallace society.

Again, this practice is almost identical to the Catholic tradition of venerating the relics of the saints, as an aid to devotion and a conduit towards the worship of God.

To me, this kind of ongoing use of ‘secular sacramentals’, suggests that even post-Christian society continues to have a deep rooted yearning for the transcendent.

People still seek devotion and ritual in their daily lives. Every time society seeks to do away with true religious worship, religious worship returns in a different (often idolatrous) form, be it the veneration of self, celebrity, money, violence, sex, shopping, sport or nation.

Yet, I happen to believe that Wallace left us modern Scottish Catholics a far more tangible and important legacy through Wallace’s lesser known ‘Lubeck Letter’ to the Hanseatic merchants of Lubeck, inviting them to come and trade with the recently liberated and free Scottish ports.

Thanks to Wallace’s letter, which can still be seen in Lubeck today, North German traders arrived in ports such Leith, Berwick, Lerwick and Aberdeen, coming from the Hanseatic cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck.

Equally, following the Lubeck letter many Scottish merchants and traders settled all along the North Sea and Baltic coasts from Rotterdam to Danzig, and everywhere they went the Scots merchants built altars to St Ninian and set up St Ninian’s Guilds too.

Helsingør, for example, hosted a Scots community and they too erected an altar dedicated to the great patron Saint Ninian inside St Olaf’s Church, which can also still be seen in Denmark today.

My ancestors are from Bremen and as a proud son of St Ninian’s parish and St Ninian’s school in Gourock, this shared heritage is important to me and serves as a reminder that ours is the common faith, not just of old Scotland, but of old Europe too.

Yet, even without a mysterious painting or a legendary Oak, the Port would still be a fine place full of decent folk. Parish priest Fr Dan and the good parishioners at John the Baptist are currently in the process of supporting a number of local food insecurity and poverty alleviation projects around the town.

Of course, there are those who say the painting at John the Baptist is a fake and Wallace wasn’t really held at Port Glasgow but regardless, the story of the Wallace Oak and mystery surrounding the Lamentation of Christ panting, are fantastic tales.

In the end, neither historical or religious claims can ever be conclusively proven or disproven either way; eventually it all comes down to faith.

Not a faith in local folklore or faith in secular saints and national folk heroes but faith in the living Christ, the Christ of our ancestors, the Christ who leads us to eternal life.

And let us also continue to restore our own noble living traditions, both local and international.

Our Lady of Aberdeen pray for us,

Our Lady of Paisley pray for us,

Our Lady of All Nations, pray for us.

Ross Ahlfeld is a writer and community worker from Port Glasgow.

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Get the latest Scottish Catholic news. Sign up today.