I will always remember the moment I discovered Blind Harry. It was more than 30 years ago but seems like yesterday.

I was studying history at Glasgow University and had just had an intense discussion with my Professor about the contribution of the oral tradition in historical interpretation. The written word, I argued, was a very limited insight into the past, as it was the monopoly of a tiny privileged elite. The oral tradition, it seemed to me, was the best way to understand the past from the perspective of the people themselves.

He didn’t completely disagree with me, and made reference to Blind Harry as an example. At the time I didn’t know who Blind Harry was, I had never heard of him. I quickly discovered he was a 15th-century travelling minstrel and storyteller. He told his tales to both rich and poor, often using local traditions as his source.

Many of the local tales he encountered were about William Wallace. It was 170 years since Wallace’s death, but the countryside was littered with the name Wallace because people told stories about him and often located the tale in a specific place. Such tales no doubt had their origin in remembered experiences, what we may call old warriors’ tales. Then they were told and re-told and took on a life that lasted longer than the life of the original teller. And so they became local legend, or local tradition.

Blind Harry collected these oral tales about William Wallace and eventually wove them together in an epic narrative ballad that is a key source for stories about our national hero. It is undoubtedly heavily laced with poetic licence and elaborated with the storyteller’s imagination. But when I read it, the non-stop blood curdling tales took me into that period of history far more effectively than any other book from the university library.

While I understood that Blind Harry’s work was not verifiable history, it nonetheless had something else. These were the tales told around family fires many hundreds of years ago, these were the stories rooted in ordinary people’s memories and experiences. The real smell of the past seeped out of the pages.

To take a more recent example of this, we have recently commemorated Remembrance Day. It is a time when old soldiers come together and share memories and experiences. Most of their stories remain unrecorded by official history: tales of the horror of war, the bravery, suffering, sadness and comradeship. But also tales of events and happenings located in place. Once a story is rooted to a place, the place itself takes on new meaning A hundred years have passed since the outbreak of the Great War, and nobody who fought in it now lives. Yet, fortunately, many of their memories have been recorded. It is these first-hand stories that give us the real sense of what the war was like, not the official documents or accounts.

Given the mess and chaos of war, and with the fog of time since past, some of these accounts will differ and provide contrasting interpretations of the same event. It matters not, for these are the stories born of real human experience, and once told and retold they become part of an oral tradition that has shaped our understanding of a war now beyond the reach of our own memories.

Who would dare say that these tales of old soldiers are invalid because we can’t verify them with written records? Yet this is what so-called academic history often does when it denies the validity of the oral tradition.

I concede, stories handed down for generations, or tales that have been told and retold long after knowledge of their origin is lost, cannot be directly equated to first-hand accounts. Yet let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ancient local tales and traditions can fill in the gaps left by written history, they can give us a taste of the past, transform limited dry ‘facts’ into felt experiences. And when such tales are rooted in a specific place, then that place becomes transformed by story. A rock is no longer just a rock, a tree no longer just a tree, and a nick in a crag no longer just a nick in a crag. The stories attached to them make them part of history; they become portals of our imagination. We will never really know how ‘factual’ such tales or legends are, but in truth this is also the case for a lot of history.

But as a storyteller once said: stories can be true without being factual. Blind Harry understood that. And such may be the case of the story attached to Wallace’s cave on Craigy Hill in the Garleton Hills.

According to local tradition, Wallace and some of his men hid in the cave. From their concealed position they fired arrows down onto the castle below, which was still held by supporters of Edward I. The arrows had a deadly aim but the occupants of the castle could not identify where they were coming from. Wallace and his small band of compatriots were perfectly concealed, yet they had the castle in their sights and so in a state of siege.

Then suddenly Wallace thought he had been discovered. A hunting dog arrived, sniffing about the entrance to the cave. But the dog had been sent by a supporter, and tied around its neck was a bag of cooked roots, a welcome meal. Wallace did not spend overly long in his concealed vantage point, but long enough for the place to be known for ever after as Wallace’s Cave.

And here we can turn to Blind Harry for some supporting evidence of this local tradition. He tells us that Wallace was indeed in this area. He came here in the aftermath of Stirling Bridge, pursuing the supporters of Edward who were fleeing towards Berwick: “They fled as fast as fire does from a flint, “Ne’er looked about, nor once a Scotsman faced, “But to Dunbar march’d in devilish haste… “At Haddington a mighty slaughter made.” But the hated Corspatrick, the Earl of Dunbar got away. It was not the end of the matter but in the meantime Wallace returned: “In Haddington he quartered all that night.” Early the following year, Wallace set out after Corspatrick once again, leading a force into East Lothian: “Unto Musselburgh does safely get, “Where he with honest Lauder met, “Who hated Edward as he hated Hell “Against Earl Patrick was most glad to go “Who to his country was a bloody foe.” Wallace travelled by the Garleton Hills, then East Linton. In a field by Innerwick a fierce battle was fought. But the cat and mouse struggle continued, until Wallace put Corspatrick out of Scotland: “O’er Patrick’s lands, Wallace he marched fast, “Took out the goods, and castles down did cast.

“Within the Merse and Lothian left he none, “To him belonged, except Dunbar alone.” Harry leaves us with the impression that Wallace’s footprints are all over East Lothian. He knew the county, and his account is woven by knowledge of local tales and handed down memories of proud ancestors who were eye witnesses of those bloody times.

It must have been during this time that Wallace used his cave, and last summer I decided to find it. The modern map makes no reference to the cave, but the tradition was clear; it was supposed to be on Craigy Hill, which overlooks the ruins of Garleton Castle. Those ruins date from the 1500s, but very likely there was an earlier castle here; the one Wallace besieged from his cave!

But search as I did I just couldn’t find the cave. I was scratched by whin and eventually I returned to my car as a raincloud mocked my failure with a shower that soaked me to the skin. But I was determined I would continue the search.

Salvation came with the wonderful old maps provided by the John Gray Centre online. One evening I was browsing the maps online and on a map from the 1850s the cave is clearly marked! “There it is!” I cried out to my less than impressed teenage daughters as they scrolled their mobiles.

Then I came across an account by members of the Grampian Speleological Group. One of their members had also noticed the reference to the cave on the old map and this set Ivan Young on a mission to discover the cave. Like myself, he failed to find the cave, but after studying the old map he returned with a friend John Crae and this time they found the cave.

Ivan wrote: “I drove to Craigy Hill, looked around where the older map placed the cave and soon found it.” He had actually walked beneath the cave on his first trip but hadn’t seen it. It is just on the north of the hill overlooking Garleton.

A frenzy of photos then took place, which Ivan and John have kindly provided me. They were taken by John Crae and show just how concealed the cave is. Ivan was literally feet away from the entrance on his first visit and was scouring the rocks like an eagle but still failed to spot it. A photo taken from below the cave shows the entrance would be impossible to locate otherwise.

The cave’s position also fits perfectly with the story that it overlooked the castle below, for as Ivan told me, the view from the entrance was quite spectacular and very commanding. One photo of the two men shows how the castle below is in perfect sight.

The cave is not large, more like a nick in the rock, but that fits too. A large cave would be too visible. The photo of Ivan at the entrance (left) shows how small it is. They have researched some background to the cave, which was only a small part of their explorations described in their March 2012 bulletin online.

Now, thanks to John and Ivan, I can’t wait to return, and visit the cave where Samuel Smiles once “played at patriotism” with pretend bows and arrows in his childhood, and where, more than 700 years ago, Wallace himself may have lain and, like a bird of prey looking down on his enemies in the castle below, unleashed real and deadly arrows.