If you happen to be crossing the beautiful little bridge to Seil island – affectionately known as ‘the bridge over the Atlantic’ – look out for the display of fairy foxgloves which appear in early summer.
These gorgeous flowers are not, as you might imagine, blooming on the banks or in the surrounding woodland. They are, in fact, clinging to the stonework of the bridge.
The fairy foxglove (Erinus alpinus) is a tiny little alpine perennial, and its native range is Southern and Central Europe. So why is it found on the west coast of Scotland? Some experts believe that it has naturalised itself here, probably from the gardens of plant collectors or specialist nurseries. It must have been here for many generations, however, to have colonised the bridge to this extent – and it has a partiality for bridges, because it also occurs on the old packhorse bridge at Carrbridge in Inverness-shire.
There is an older story, however, which says that the fairy foxglove grows where Roman soldiers once trod. I think this lovely idea originates from the fact that it grows on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland; I am not sure how many centurions would have made it across to Seil island without facing stiff opposition, and of course they were way too early for the bridge!
The flowers are delicately fragrant, and they spread happily once they get established. We have, in fact, collected a few seeds from these little plants and they are now growing happily between the paving slabs of our front garden – they much prefer this dry habitat to any type of soil or compost that was offered them.
The fairy foxglove is also known as ‘alpine balsam’ or ‘liver balsam’, which suggests that at one time it was used for some kind of medicinal purpose, maybe as a herbal drink.
I can’t write about the fairy foxgloves without mentioning their beautiful ‘mother bridge’. It was built in 1793 and it spans the Sound of Seil, a narrow stretch of sea between the mainland of Argyll and the small island of Seil. The fairy foxgloves have the most glorious view of the tide ebbing and flowing beneath them twice a day!
The Tigh an Truish
One of the first houses on Seil is known as the Tigh an Truish – the ‘house of the trousers’. This is an eighteenth-century inn and its name stems from the time just after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, when the wearing of traditional kilts was banned by the British government. Bagpipes were also prohibited, being regarded as an instrument of war. (There is more truth to this than you might at first think! English troops were spooked by the sound, and some of them turned and fled when they heard a piper’s mournful keening.)
So, back to the trousers… country people would have carried on wearing the kilt in their own locality, where there were no officers, but when they wanted to go further afield they had to dress appropriately. Before heading across the water to the mainland they would therefore stop and change their kilts for trousers, and they would do so at the Tigh an Truish.
The Tigh an Truish is still a pub, with a glorious view of the bridge and the Sound of Seil.
A house of trousers next to a bridge of fairy foxgloves. This is precisely why I love Scotland!
All photos © copyright Colin & Jo Woolf except close-up of Tigh an Truish via Wikimedia