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.
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.
Ettrick 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.
In 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.
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