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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
The Old and Remarkable Horse Chestnut Trees in Scotland

By Robert Hutchison of Carlowrie.
[PremiumFive Sovereigns.]

The horse chestnut (Æsculus Hippocastanum) does not appear to have ever been largely cultivated as a timber tree in Scotland. Probably, from the brittle nature of its wood, it has never attained a front rank among the hard wooded trees suitable to the Scottish climate, as a valuable timber-producing tree for economic purposes. But whether this be the reason or not, the fact remains that our old friend Professor Walker, in his Catalogue of Remarkable Trees in Scotland, only cites four specimens of the horse chestnut, namely, at "Bargaly, in Galloway," at "Hatton in Mid-Lothian," and two trees of the species at "New Posso, in Tweeddale," which he says, writing in 1780, are probably the oldest and the largest in North Britain, and that they were then known to be about 150 years old. Dr Walker in his memoir further states, that "the planting of the horse chestnut in Britain," in his day, was not "of a very old date." Reference will be further made to these two individual trees at New Posso, or as it is now called Dalwick, in this chapter, which Dr Walker in 1780, and subsequently Gilpin, and Sir T. Dick Lauder in 1826, considered the oldest, largest, and finest in Scotland at the time they wrote. The measurements given by Dr Walker of the only four trees he quotes, being only from 6 feet 10 inches at 4 feet from the ground for the smallest, to 11 feet 4 inches for the largest, show conclusively that in his day the horse chestnut had not been held in much esteem for extensive planting in Scotland during the early years of its introduction from its native habitats into Great Britain.

The horse chestnut appears to have been introduced into Europe from the northern parts of Asia about the year 1550 ; and the earliest notice of its appearance in England occurs in Gerard's Herbal, where in 1579 he speaks of it as a rare tree. When first introduced it was planted with walnuts and mulberries as a fruit tree, and it is curiously enough described as "a tree whose fruit was of a sweet taste, roasted and eaten as the ordinary sort," and shows how little was really then known of it or its fruit. Evelyn, who wrote in 1663, referring to the slow progress the tree had made in popular estimation even at that date, says of it:—"In the meantime, I wish we did more universally propagate the horse chestnut, which, being increased from layers, grows into a goodly standard, and bears a glorious flower, even in our cold country. This tree is now (1663) all the mode for the avenues to their country palaces in France, as appears by the late superintendent's plantation at Vaux." A branch of the horse chestnut with flowers on it was received by Clusius from Vienna in 1603. Singularly, even he had never seen it till that time, and gave the first figure of it in 1605. It was not known in Paris till 1616, and was probably first planted generally in Britain about that time, or soon afterwards.

According to the authority of Dr Heldreich, director of the Botanic Gardens at Athens, the horse chestnut is undoubtedly found wild, and indigenous to the mountains of northern Greece, Thessally, and Epirus. He states that he has seen numerous groups of trees in various localities in the mountains of Eurytania. In the summer of 1879, he found it in five different localities, all of them in the lower pine region, at altitudes varying from 3000 to 4000 feet above sea-level. In such sites it occurs in shady forest ravines, and is associated with the alder, walnut, plane, ash, oaks of various varieties, holly, hornbeam, sycamore, and Abies apollinis. It is very probable that the earliest introduction of the horse chestnut into Britain was from the districts along the shores and maritime ports of the Levant, and that its introduction was coeval with that of the laurel to English gardens from the same sources.

According to Evelyn, the name horse chestnut was given it from a belief in its supposed medicinal property of curing broken-winded horses and other cattle of cough ; but other old authors assert that it was so called from the peculiar appearance presented by the base of the young leaf-stalks on being cut across in a slanting direction, between the joints of the former year's growth, when an exact representation of the frog and sole of the hoof of a horse is seen. The generic name is of course derived from "Esca" signifying food. One enthusiastic admirer of trees in general, and of this species in particular, exclaims —"How can this tree fail to be otherwise than a much-admired favourite, for its very name is designated by a combination of three words signifying separately, a noble animal, an elegant game, and a delicious kernel!"

Before noticing some of the more remarkable trees, of which details of their measurements and localities are accurately given in the appendix to this chapter, it may be proper to state generally some of the more characteristic features of the horse chestnut, and of its suitability for various soils and situations, and glance briefly at its economic or commercial value as a timber-producing tree in this country.

The first noticeable feature in the progress and growth of the horse chestnut is its early budding in spring in our northern latitude. Each short stout twig being soon surmounted by its terminal bud in early spring, which swells and strives with active energy to outstrip its lateral fellows in throwing off its wintry scales and coating—like a youth at school defiant of his winter topcoat—even so in like manner, imprudent of future chilly and severe weather, does the horse chestnut cast off its gummy cell and envelope at Nature's call, as the increasing warmth of the sun's rays begins to melt away the gum with which the outer scales had been sealed together, thereby causing the expanding pressure from within to unfold the delicate young leaves and embryo spiral flower stalks. The horse chestnut, while not fastidious as to soil, succeeds best and grows most rapidly in a rich loam, with a cool subsoil rather damp. That it is a tree of rapid formation of wood may be inferred from the fact, that when it has attained twenty years of age, it is frequently met with from twenty-five to thirty feet in height, and at that age its entire length of annual growth is generally completed for the season within a month from the bursting of the bud in spring on the terminal shoot; ample time is thus afforded for the mature ripening of the season's growth, and for the formation of the young shoot bud-sheaths for protection from winter ; the summer and autumn nutriment of the tree going entirely to the thickening of branches, and development of woody fibre in the trunk and limbs. From this peculiarity, however, the timber of the horse chestnut is soft and brittle, and of little commercial value for manufacturing or constructive purposes. The principal uses for which its wood can be most advantageously employed, are for water pipes to be kept constantly under ground, for which it is very suitable, or in the manufacture of packing cases, for which it is in large demand in many shipping ports and industrial centres of export fabrics on the Continent. In this country the horse chestnut can hardly be regarded as other than an ornamental park tree, and as such it is perhaps unrivalled for symmetry and effect when planted singly, or in the formation of a straight avenue line. Noble examples of horse chestnut avenues exist, and are referred to in the appendix. Who has not heard of the famous avenues of Bushey Park near London, which, when in full flower, it is well worth any lover of trees going a day's journey to see and admire? In our northern latitude, also, we find many umbrageous stately avenues of this beautiful and graceful tree. For example, at Drummond Castle, Perthshire, along the roadside towards Crieff, one of the finest avenues is to be seen. It is perfectly vigorous, and presents one continuous beautifully arched aisle for several miles. For a considerable distance, well proportioned beeches of majestic growth, guard, sentinel-like, the highway, planted about 20 feet apart; then for another stretch, tall healthy overarching lime trees take up the line, till the horse chestnuts prevail and continue the beauty of the scene, vying successfully with the other lines in adding pleasing and picturesque effect to the landscape, while their grateful shade is most refreshing to the pedestrian. These trees are all of large dimensions; many of them girth from 11 to 13 feet at 5 feet from the ground, and are from 60 to 70 feet in height. Another mixed avenue of horse chestnuts and limes may be seen within the Drummond Castle Park, and is of commanding growth and beauty. The soil is a light loam upon the trap-rock formation, which crops out in many places on the surface in the park.

At Gilmerton, East Lothian, there is a fine avenue of horse chestnuts, which average 72 feet in height, and present noble boles from 18 to 25 feet in length, while their circumferences vary from 10 feet 2 inches to 11 feet 5 inches at 5 feet from the ground. The soil is a heavy clay loam upon a tilly clay subsoil. Other avenues worthy of notice, in various districts, might be named from the notes furnished by correspondents in various parts of Scotland; but we need not lengthen out this chapter with needless repetition of evidence to inculcate the fact well known to every tree-lover, that in rich loamy free soil, in sheltered situations, avenues formed of the horse chestnut will amply repay their owners, in richness of shade, and gorgeous effect when in flower, for their beautiful minaret-like spikelets rising tier above tier of handsome blossom, form not the least conspicuous features in a well-formed avenue of this very suitable tree. The finest horse chestnuts in the southern counties of England are said to be at Mount Edgecombe in Devonshire, but details of the growth and dimensions of the individual trees composing it have not yet been received.

It would appear that if planted as an avenue tree, the horse chestnut should be used alone in its formation, for it is impatient of other species near to it; and at the approach to the Wimborne Cemetery, Dorsetshire, a striking instance of this occurred lately. About seventeen years ago, an avenue of horse chestnuts was planted. The trees were considered too wide apart (25 feet), and accordingly, about eight years afterwards, an English yew was planted between each. The result of the appropriate intermingling of the yew trees' gloomy foliage in such a situation has been most unfortunate, for the horse chestnut avenue, previously very thriving, has drooped away in growth every year, and is now rapidly dying out. The cause, whatever it may be, seems fairly attributable to the close proximity of the yews, and probably arises from the roots of the two species having incongruously got into contact.

As a park specimen tree, the horse chestnut is largely employed in Scotland, and in such a position its fine symmetry is well displayed. Perhaps when so planted it requires a more sheltered situation than the sycamore or oak, as it is more easily injured by wind in an open site, and is consequently not so well adapted to resist a stormy gale without suffering more or less damage, which shows more upon the horse chestnut from its beautiful and striking peculiarity in an open situation, of always presenting a regular parabola in its contour of dense umbrageous head. A striking example of this peculiar characteristic is found in a tree, given in the appendix, growing at Kirkconnel House, Dumfriesshire. It stands on the lawn in front of the mansion, near another very fine specimen, although less conspicuous in this special feature, and which is also given in the appendix. The latter girths 11 feet ½ inch at 5 feet above ground, and has a diameter of spread of branches of 72 feet, with a finely balanced head 55 feet in height. The former, which presents from a distance the appearance and outline of a huge mushroom, is 40 feet high, and 9 feet 11 inches at 5 feet from the ground, and has a diameter of spread of branches of 89½ feet. A third fine specimen here, growing in a plantation, and consequently taller, being probably "drawn up" is 65 feet high, and girths 10 feet 9½ inches at 5 feet from the ground. In the same district, at Ardwall near Gatehouse, and growing at an altitude of not more than 30 feet, and within 200 yards of the sea, stands a beautiful horse chestnut 75 feet high, girthing 12 feet 2½ inches at 3 feet, and 12 feet 3½ inches at 5 feet above ground. Many other fine specimens of similar dimensions are to be found at St Mary's Isle, Kirkcudbright, and in other localities of Dumfriesshire and the Stewartry, as well as in Wigtownshire and South Ayrshire. In the last mentioned county, several notable specimens occur, and are given in the appendix. Of these we may refer to the Fullarton horse chestnut, 11 feet 5 inches in girth at 5 feet above ground; Loudoun Castle specimens, of which the largest is 13 feet 9 inches at 1 foot, and 14 feet 10½ inches at 5 feet, where it branches into two huge limbs, each a goodly tree in itself; while the Eglinton Castle specimen outstrips all others in the district, and is a very noble tree. It grows in soft light loam upon clay, and is nearly 60 feet in height, and girths 18 feet 11 inches at 1 foot, and 17 feet 9 inches at 5 feet, where its bole divides into a beautifully umbrageous head. This is indeed a very old tree, and shows evident symptoms of antiquity. It stands near the front court of the castle, and has been clasped very many decades gone by, and bolted on several occasions, the bolt in some cases passing right through the main trunk. Its girth is 17 feet 3 inches at 3 feet, and at 4 feet it branches out into heavy limbs, two of which measure 12 feet 6 inches at the joint with the trunk, and are 9 feet 6 inches and 9 feet 10 inches after they divide. The diameter of spread of branches is 70 feet clear. Soil very damp and marshy.

At Camis-Eskan, Dumbartonshire, growing in light soil and gravelly subsoil, we find two very good specimens, respectively 14 feet 5 inches and 15 feet 6 inches at 1 foot, and 13 feet 3 inches and 13 feet 9 inches at 5 feet above the roots, and thriving in the genial and salubrious climate of the west coast. But for the largest and most remarkable growths, we must look to the more inland counties of central Scotland, where we find the premier specimen of Scotland, at Moncrieffe, Perthshire. This noble tree is now 21 feet 10 inches at 1 foot and 19 feet at 5 feet from the ground, with a massive bole 8 feet in length. This grand tree grows at an altitude of 50 feet above sea-level, and is 80 feet in height. At the point where its bole divides into three large limbs it measures 22 feet 3 inches in girth. The largest limb itself measures 11 feet 8 inches, the next in point of size 10 feet 10 inches, and the third 10 feet 6 inches in circumference. Tradition reports it to be about 250 years old. Walker gives the oldest horse chestnuts in Scotland, and he is corroborated by Gilpin and Sir T. D. Lauder, as growing at Dalwick in Peeblesshire, and they are given in Walker's Catalogue as "perhaps the largest in Britain," and as being then (1780) about 150 years old. Diligent inquiries as to their existence and condition at the present day have failed to elicit any information. So they are probably gone. Here also is another fine tree, which is 80 feet high, and girths 13 feet 8 inches at 5 feet above ground. At Lawers, Perthshire, another magnificent specimen is noticed; and for others, we may simply refer in the following order to the trees detailed in the appendix, from Dunipace (Stirlingshire); Hatton (Mid-Lothian); Edzell [This historical tree "by the old Castle of Edzell," is mentioned as being in 1863, 12 feet in girth at 4 feet above ground, and will be seen to be now 13 feet 9 inches at 5 feet. Its trunk, which was in 1863 slightly decayed by a lodgment of water, is now healed over. Under this tree one of the lairds of Edzell is said to have been murdered by an assassin, employed for the purpose by the betrothed lover of his sister, who was heiress to the estate.] and Gray (Forfarshire); Gordon Castle, and Ballindalloch (Morayshire) ; while others not quite so heavy, but still of considerable magnitude, in various counties and altitudes and soils, illustrate how well the horse chestnut tree succeeds in Scotland generally as a park tree.

The horse chestnut in Scotland sometimes presents peculiarities in its form of growth worthy of notice. For example, we find it in the park of Dunkeld House assuming quite a pendulous or weeping habit. This specimen is a very handsome and vigorous tree. It is now 71 feet high, and girths 16 feet 4 inches at 3 feet above ground. One or two other trees in the district, but not so tall or noteworthy, present a similar aspect. At Biel, in East Lothian, in a low-lying but open site, we find a very handsome tree, on the other hand, with a peculiarly distinct fastigiate habit of growth. It is 102 feet in height, with a clean and handsome bole 40 feet in length, and girths 10 feet 10 inches and 9 feet 11 inches, at 1 and 5 feet respectively. While such extreme and opposite eccentricities are not so common in the case of horse chestnut as in the beech and some other hard-wooded species, we find the round dense "parabola" form of head of the horse chestnut frequently presenting peculiar " sports," and distinctly peculiar growths. Sometimes the form of outline is flat, at other times pyramidal, but densely clothed with branches, and again its contour assumes that of a complete globe, The bark of the bole, also, not unusually resembles, in its curiously regular and spiral twistings, the stem of the Spanish chestnut. An instance of a densely rounded head may be given of a remarkable tree growing at Skene House, Aberdeen. By the kindness of Mr Hamilton, residing at Skene, we are enabled to give details of this curious tree. It is 13 feet 3 inches in girth at 2 feet from the ground, 11 feet 5 inches at 5 feet. The space covered by the branches is 90 feet by 70 feet, but heavy branches have been lopped in from time to time to prevent the tree encroaching on the walks in the garden and surrounding flower beds. About twelve branches or limbs touch the ground, but a clear space is left round the trunk of 22 paces, without obstruction for walking, and a table could be placed to accommodate a very large company, without any obstruction or difficulty, under its umbrageous shade. This old veteran flowers annually, and appears vigorous ; but alas ! recently only, in taking the measurements of the tree for this paper, a split has been discovered, by which two large limbs have been torn from the main trunk, the split reaching down almost to the centre of the bark and bole, and water is observed to be oozing out on both sides, within 4 feet from the ground. Measures are to be taken at once to retard further decay. No historical reference to this fine old specimen can be found, although evidently its site, appearance, and care bestowed upon its pruning, lead to the conclusion that it has probably been a memorial tree. The place belonged to an old family named Skene, who held it since 1317. The last of the direct line died about fifty-five years ago, when the property went by the female line to the Earl of Fife. The late Earl of Fife boasted of being the "34th laird of Skene." No record of any sale of the property could be found in the Register House, Edinburgh, till about three years ago, and all documents of ancient date or ancestral estate matters remain in possession of the Fife family, and no information can be traced as to this old and remarkable tree.

It is popularly believed in many districts that the horse chestnut has the property of not being liable to be struck by lightning. Certainly it has been recorded by Evelyn, that in an experience of forty years no instance had ever occurred. Hence also, it was from this belief that we find it so often introduced as a tree for shade and shelter for pasture lands.

There are several varieties of the species, such as Æsculus rubicunda, and a double flowering white variety, as well as its yellow kinsman, the Pavia or Indian chestnut. Properly speaking, the Pavia flava is a distinct species, but they are so very closely allied, and so capable of being hybridised, that the two species may be accepted as one. They are both equally hardy in England, and in most situations in Scotland, if sheltered. The Pavia flava, yellow or Californian variety, surpasses most autumn trees in beauty of tint, presenting a beautifully clear yellow colour, and richness of tone quite marked and conspicuous when grouped amongst other varieties. But the horse chestnut itself, of the ordinary variety, is a very showy "autumn-tint" tree. Becoming yellow sometimes even in the month of July, it gradually assumes a rich deep russet hue as the season advances. Its luxuriant foliage and majestic appearance in early summer, combined with the handsome candelabra-like blossom spikes in spring, render the horse chestnut a charming object in any landscape; and we must admire it for its beauty, if not for its utility, and for the conspicuous and prominent bearing at a distance, more particularly when in flower, which has obtained for it the soubriquet of "the Giant's Nosegay."

One or two minor commercial uses to which the horse chestnut is adapted have not been noticed, and in closing this paper they may be briefly referred to. Its wood, although light and of little value, as we have said, yet if cut up fresh, may be utilised for ornamental carving, and for the manufacture of articles of domestic use, where a white-grained easily wrought surface is required. The nuts are useful and highly nutritious for deer and sheep. In fact, in some countries on the Continent they are crushed up by machinery, and 2 lbs. weight are given daily, morning and evening, to sheep that are being fattened for market. The nuts when boiled and given to poultry are very beneficial. They also contain a saponaceous principle, and when decayed they turn into pulp or jelly, which has been found to answer the purpose of soap. In Ireland they are used to whiten flaxen cloth, and they make an excellent paste, which is also useful in glazing calico. The bark is sometimes used for a yellow dye, for which it is well adapted. It is also very bitter, and is sometimes used medicinally as a substitute for "Jesuit's bark."


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