It has been a very mild winter so far in the Highlands this year, with only a couple of relatively small snowfalls that haven’t lasted for more than day or two before the temperatures have risen again. During a recent visit to Dundreggan for a meeting, therefore, on a frosty day when there was still some snow on the ground, I took the opportunity of spending an hour and a half with my camera to document some of the beauty of the winter weather.
By the time my meeting was finished, the wind and a slight rise in the temperature meant that the snow had fallen from the branches of the trees, thereby removing one of the subjects I’d hoped to photograph. However, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, so I headed over towards the Allt Ruadh, or Red Burn, just to the west of the buildings at Dundreggan, as I hoped there would be some interesting ice formations along the watercourse. Arriving there after a few minutes, I wasn’t disappointed …
The lower section of the burn has some gentle cascades on it, and they create enough spray for layers of ice to build up on any wood that has fallen into the water.
When I reached the burn I only had to walk about 20 feet upstream to find what I was looking for – a large tree branch, with many smaller side branches, that had fallen into the burn, and was completely coated in ice.
The spray from the tumbling water in the cascades must have accumulated during the night, accreting and growing over time, only to be eroded during the day by the twin forces of the flowing water and rising temperatures, to form some beautiful natural ice sculptures.
It appeared to me as though the ice on the main stem of the fallen branch was the result of two different processes or stages. The coating along each branch and twig looked like it had accumulated from the spray from the cascades freezing where it landed on them. Then, at a later stage, it must have warmed up a little, causing some of the ice to melt and drip, only to freeze again during that process, creating the icicles that were hanging vertically downwards.
At one side of the burn, the bright green fronds of hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) had icicles hanging down from each one, as did the moss next to them. The moss acts as a conduit for water to drip steadily down it when it is warmer, and the cumulative drips had created these icicles.
There must have been some dynamic interplay between the flowing water and frozen ice taking place here, out of sight until I arrived to document it.
As I continued to photograph the ice formations, I realised that I was probably the only person to see them this day. The temperature was increasing, and in fact by the following day the snow and ice was all gone, because a warm front had arrived from the west. While I was grateful for the time I spent there then, I also wondered how many other ephemeral beautiful sights like this are never seen, because neither I nor anyone else happened to pass by during the relatively short time period when they are there?
All too soon, the light began to fade, as the days are still very short at this time of year in the Highlands. I’d had just about 90 minutes out in the woodland and had spent almost all of it in the same place, taking these various photographs of the ice on this section of the Red Burn. Who knows what natural ice sculptures there were further up the burn, where there are other, larger cascades? I’ll never know the answer to that question, but I’m sure that there was a lot more of beauty there that day, which I never saw.
Nature is ever changing, and constantly providing unique combinations of weather, light and precipitation, which combine with the plants, trees and vegetation communities to create special moments and juxtapositions of phenomena that will never be repeated in exactly the same way again. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to experience some of those myself in the Caledonian Forest at places like Dundreggan, and days like this serve to increase my sense of deep gratitude for all the beauty and wonders of the natural world around us.
To finish this blog, here’s a short compilation of video footage from the day, showing the flowing and frozen water side by side with each other.