kirk o’ the forest

They called it “the forest”, plain and simple, there was never another one that size and importance. The Ettrick forest is extraordinary in the history of Scotland, its worth was political, biological and geographical. When one spoke of the forest, everyone knew which one was meant. There was only one of these dimensions; it reached into three Shires Selkirk, Dumfries and Peebles. The name Selkirk itself means church in the wood.

Ettrick Water


The Ettrick Forest is impressive and part of the vast Caledonian Forest that once covered the country, old pine trees, oaks, birch and hazelnut but also more open areas with heath and moss. An ideal habitat for red deer, wild boars and birds, sadly not much of it is left compared to its former size. James V allowed sheep farming on a large scale, which considerably decimated the trees within a few generations. However, it also meant that the forest had served as a hiding place for robbers and insurgents.

kirk o' the forest

©nme Graveyards of Scotland Graveyards of Scotland Ettrick Selkirk Sanctuary kirk and forestEttrick was traditionally a royal hunting ground and shelter, as well as many churches, the forest was a refuge for the persecuted and outlaw, here they were allowed to be,  both were sanctuaries, kirkyard and wood. Parallels to the English Sherwood Forest are obvious. Sometimes sanctuaries extended from the church through the graveyard and a whole village. It was an honoured place of refuge. But sanctuaries have been violated frequently over the course of history.

bell tower mausoleum Selkirk graveyardIn times of war the forest was a danger and a refuge. He was not controllable; he was inaccessible to the cavalry. So the hunters felt the dangers, the hunted its peace. Here hid both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, during the wars of independence. From here they undertook their dreaded advances, which were to prove so successful in the fight against the English King Edward I.

Selkirk graveyard

After the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 William Wallace gathered the Scottish nobles and representatives of the church around him and held a parliament that made him the Guardian of Scotland, the deputy ruler of the country without a king. With a ceremony and the blessing of the church, hidden in what used to be the great forest and today is located in the town of Selkirk, the Kirk o ‘the Forest, the church of the forest. From here, Wallace set out to defeat the English, and to re-establish his Scotland into a free, independent country whose mightiest man he was now. He would not be for long, though.

Many other churches in the area claim to have been the spot. It seems science has now agreed that Selkirk is the place, the sanctuary that saw the great William Wallace rise to political importance in winter 1297/98. The church must have been in what is now the graveyard of Selkirk. That Wallace was made Guardian in a forest church is documented.


sources and further reading:

Alistair Moffat: The Borders. A History of the Borders From Earliest Time. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2002

Nigel Tranter: Portrait of the Border Country. Hale, London, 1972

Daniel Martin: Upper Clydesdale. A History and Guide. Birlinn, 2016

Where William Wallace was made Guardian of Scotland


Liked the read? There’s more here...

Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. 

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.

Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.

The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.

6 thoughts on “kirk o’ the forest

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  1. What a fantasti article! Thank you for all te work you put in to curate the material and produce these blog articles. I loved he one on the Red Coats killing in the rsidue f Bonnie Prince Charlies Jacobites aftert Culloden in 1746, but a bit graphic for my Highlad coach tour customers!

    This however, inspires me. I MUST find out how wide the Caledonian Forest stretched and use the James V decision and legacy story in my 2020 tours. However I know little of its geographic spread. Is there a specific resource you can recommend for the geographic sprewad of the Caledonian Forest, please?

    1. Thank you, I am glad you liked my blogpost. I agree, this must have been an amazing forest at one time. Please check any of the references listed below the post for your questions. Moffat is probably the best source for you.
      And don’t hesitate to mention my blog to your customers. 😉
      All the best, Nellie

      1. Thank you very much, Nellie. I have a reference library of my own, curated through the process of acquiring no longer loved books at the massive annual Christian Aid Book Sale in a colossal church in central Edinburgh, over a number of years.

        Given the measures announced by our PM & his top medical advisers between 5pm & 5.50pm today (16th March), I have to view a trip to Central Library to borrow a copy of Moffat’s book as a breach of UK Govt advice. It is in their words, “non essential travel”.

        Meantime, however, I shall sift through my own reference material and see if anything comes up Trumps – no pun intended -, Nellie!

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