Alan Watson Featherstone, the founder of Trees for Life, writes about his experiences out in the Caledonian Forest, and about his work for the charity.


Ice formations on the Red Burn

Ice formation beside a small cascade on the Allt Ruadh, or Red Burn, at Dundreggan.

Ice formation beside a small cascade on the Allt Ruadh, or Red Burn, at Dundreggan.

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.

Ice-covered tree branch beside cascades on the Allt Ruadh or Red Burn.

Ice-covered tree branch beside cascades on the Allt Ruadh or Red Burn.

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 …

Closer view of the ice-covered branch that was lying in the burn.

Another view of the ice-covered branch that was lying in the burn.

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.

Parts of the fallen branch were festooned with icicles, which appeared frozen in the act of dripping from the ice-encrusted branches.

Parts of this fallen branch were festooned with icicles, which appeared to be frozen in the act of dripping from the ice-encrusted branches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closer still to some of the smaller branches coated in ice.

Closer still to some of the smaller branches coated in ice.

Detail of some of the beaches encased in ice, overhanging the cascades on the burn.

Detail of some of the branches encased in ice, overhanging the cascades on the burn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

This unique ice sculpture was beside a very small cascade at the edge of the main flow of water in the burn.

This unique ice sculpture was beside a very small cascade at the edge of the main flow of water in the burn.

The small twigs on the upper end of the main branch formed a beautiful pattern of interlocking ice shapes.

The small twigs at the end of the main branch formed a beautiful pattern of interlocking ice shapes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Another view of the natural ice sculpture formed by freezing temperatures and nearby flowing water.

Another view of the natural ice sculpture formed by the combination of freezing temperatures and flowing water.

The ice here appears to have formed in two distinct stages.

The ice here appears to have formed in two distinct stages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

These hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) at the edge of the burn had ice hanging down from each frond.

These hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) at the edge of the burn had ice hanging down from each frond.

Closer view of the ice hanging from the hard ferns and moss at the edge of the burn.

Closer view of the ice hanging from the hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) and moss at the edge of the burn.

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.

Another view of the ice-covered branch in the middle of the burn.

Another view of the ice-covered branch in the middle of the burn, with a thin layer of snow on the rocks nearby.

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.

The branch may have fallen into the burn some distance upstream, before being carried to this rocky section, where it became stuck, and provided the perfect opportunity for all the ice formations to develop.

The branch may have fallen into the burn some distance upstream, before being carried to this rocky section, where it became stuck, providing the perfect opportunity for these ice formations to develop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another close up of the ice on the fallen branch.

Another close up of the ice on the fallen branch.

Here the icicles from the branch have merged with some surface ice on the water itself.

Here the icicles from the branch have merged with some surface ice on the water itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Another variation of the same scene, showing the burn and the surrounding woodland of birch and alder trees it flows through.

Another variation of the same scene, showing the burn and the surrounding woodland of birch and alder trees it flows through.

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.

As I walked back from the  Red Burn, the clouds were briefly illuminated by the colours of a beautiful sunset.

As I walked back from the Red Burn, the clouds were briefly illuminated by the colours of a beautiful sunset.

 

 

 

 

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.

2 Responses to Ice formations on the Red Burn

  1. Chris Squire says:

    As the poet has it:

    ‘ . . Full many a gem of purest ray serene
    The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
    Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air . . ‘

    Thomas Gray

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