William Wallace in the Parish of Bonhill
Much of the information which has been passed down to us about William Wallace comes from a work entitled –
“The Acts and Deeds of the Most Famous and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace Knight of Ellerslie.”
This book was written by Henry the Minstrel – otherwise known as “Blind Harry”.
Most modern historians believe that it was composed around 1470, but Henry himself claimed that his material came from a Latin account which had been written by John Blair, a Benedictine monk who was a close companion of Wallace.
There seems to be no compelling reason to doubt this. It may be also that Henry drew on a considerable body of transmitted oral tradition which should not be automatically regarded as fictional simply because it was spoken rather than written.
Henry tells us that, shortly after being “outlawed” by the English occupying powers, Wallace and a few companions travelled westward out of Glasgow, along the northern shore of the River Clyde, below the Kilpatrick Hills and past Dumbarton. Here, in the Earldom of Lennox, they took refuge in lodgings near the shores of Loch Lomond, where they remained for several days.
The Minstrel goes on to tell us that, at this time, Wallace had a meeting with the Earl of Lennox. The most likely venue for such a meeting at the end of the 13th century would have been the main Lennox stronghold of Balloch Castle (1238 – 1390), situated where the loch flows into the River Leven (the remains of the moat are visible to this day).
The mediaeval parish which embraced this most southern stretch of Loch Lomond’s shores was Bonhill, which then reached as far north as Arden. It is most likely, therefore, that Wallace and his company lodged in that parish. In those times accommodation for travellers was provided by the Church. There is not only this general reason to assume that Wallace and his companions lodged at the Parish Church of Bonhill, but there is the more particular reason that the Scottish Church was very much a part of the “underground” resistance movement against English domination. Wallace would have been much safer in the care of local clergy than elsewhere. Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow (to which Diocese Bonhill belonged) was a staunch supporter of Wallace.
Another, and perhaps stronger, reason to believe that he received sanctuary at Bonhill is the understanding that Wallace had been educated by the monks of Paisley Abbey – the same monks who had a fishing community at Lynbren, in Bonhill, on the River Leven.
Bonhill Church (just two miles from Balloch Castle) was located, then as now, at the confluence of the Pappert Burn and the River Leven. The church had, in all likelihood, been built for the folk of the parish by an earlier Earl of Lennox. We know that it was in existence at this time because – over a hundred years earlier – in 1188, when Pope Clement III declared the Scottish Church to be independent of England, Bonhill was one of fifteen medieval Parish churches then listed in the Deanery of Lennox.
Given that there is nothing particularly romantic or heroic about this specific episode, there seems to be no reason to think that Henry would have had cause to invent it. In the light, therefore, of his account and the circumstantial evidence set out above, it is likely that William Wallace spent several days in Bonhill Parish, most probably at its church.