Wild Words: Salute to the fair soldiers of summer

The horse chestnut in the shadow of Old Inverlochy Castle. Photograph: Kirsteen Bell.

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Driving north on the A82 this week, I rounded a bend near Letterfinlay and found myself catapulted into summer.

While most of the trees round my home on the south shore of Loch Eil are just tentatively green, two horse chestnuts by the road above Loch Lochy stood resplendent. Hundreds of five-fingered leaves waved at me through the window of my car, broad and open to the sun.

The order in which different tree species put out their leaves comes partly from their inner structure. Softwoods like birch, alder and cherry can quickly mend any winter damage to the vessels that transport water from root to crown. Hardwoods, however, have fewer large-diameter vessels that tear and rupture more easily. They take longer to repair and make ready for the rush of spring sap.

Horse chestnuts are a close-grained hardwood so at first glance their early exuberance seemed out of place. It was very much of its own specific place. Whether hard or soft, each tree can also make a choice about when to go into leaf based on its immediate environment.

Individual microclimates have different amounts of light, heat and humidity that tell the tree when it is time to grow. As a result, the oak, willow, birch, hazel and alder on our north facing shore are slower to emerge than their south-facing cousins. The verdancy of those horse chestnuts on the hill above Loch Lochy suggested they live with an abundance of sunshine.

The leaves curled in on themselves away from a biting north-west wind.

It was with that in mind I went to visit another horse chestnut much further downstream. This one grows in the shadow of Old Inverlochy Castle, where the River Lochy flows towards Loch Linnhe. I wanted to see if it had unfurled too.

Instead its leaves were small. They curled in on themselves away from a biting north-west wind. Occasionally the air would lift them towards a blue sky, their edges vivid in the April sunlight – but I had to admit it was still too early to fully embrace the idea of summer.

In Scottish Place Names, Lomond Books, 2000, George Mackay says Letterfinlay means ‘Hill of the fair soldier’, leitir, meaning hillside, fionn meaning fair and laoich meaning soldier. The Letterfinlay horse chestnuts then are the fair soldiers of summer: a vanguard announcing the light and warmth still to reach the rest of us.

www.kirsteenbellblog.wordpress.com – @KirsteenBell

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1
Kirsteen Bell

Main photograph: The horse chestnut in the shadow of Old Inverlochy Castle. Photograph: Kirsteen Bell. NO_F18_WildWords_Horse Chestnut at Old Inverlochy Castle_Wide_Kirsteen Bell