This winter continues to be one of constant change, with wildly fluctuating weather and frequent storms hitting the north of Scotland. After a cold spell of two or three days in the second half of January, with snow and freezing, sub-zero conditions, a warm front moved in quickly from the west, and within less than 24 hours the temperature rose to 14°C. As a result, the snow held in the mountains melted very rapidly, swelling the rivers and burns, making for spectacular torrents where there are normally more sedate and gentle flows of water.
These were the dramatic conditions I encountered on a Sunday trip out to Glen Affric recently, when I planned to walk up one of the largest watercourses in the glen, the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh. Translated from the Gaelic, this means ‘water or river of the valley of the deer’, and it flows down from the east side of Carn Eige, the highest peak north of the Great Glen in Scotland, into Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin. It forms the catchment for water flowing down from several other Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet or 910 metres) as well, including Tom a’Choinich and Toll Creagach.
This area had obviously been holding a substantial amount of snow, and now, with its rapid melting, the burn was a raging torrent in full spate on the day I was there. I’d planned to walk up this burn because it is one of two in Glen Affric that are scheduled to have micro-hydro schemes installed on them, which I mentioned in a previous blog about the watercourse. Originally, there were 4 separate burns in the glen being considered for these schemes, but two of them were dropped after more detailed studies were done on their rates of water flow etc.
However, the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh, the largest of all the tributaries that flow into the Affric River basin, is obviously a prime candidate for such an electricity generating project, and as I walked up from the car park this day I could see many blue surveyors’ ribbons, indicating the route where the underground pipe for the water would be run. This is planned to be underneath the main access track in the area, which enables hillwalkers to reach the Munros such as Carn Eige, so it is a very popular route.
As I wrote in 2012, I find it hard to comprehend that a small-scale hydro scheme is even contemplated for this watercourse. It’s in the heart of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve (NNR), which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Natura 2000 scheme and a National Scenic Area (NSA). It’s one of the most designated areas of land in Scotland! Glen Affric is often cited as being the ‘crown jewels’ of the National Nature Reserve system, and is supposed to be managed for the ‘primacy of nature’. If it can’t be protected from industrial energy extraction, what hope is there for any area in Scotland? Under the scheme that is proposed, a concrete weir would be installed in the burn, well upstream from the waterfall shown here, and the water extracted to be piped downhill to a turbine house that will be located near the road and the discharge point of the burn into Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin.
This is being done to meet the Scottish Government’s ambitious commitment to renewable energy. Forestry Commission Scotland, which manages the Glen Affric NNR, has been pressed to meet as much of the commitment as it can.
While I support that target for renewable energy, it shouldn’t be achieved by industrial developments in National Nature Reserves that protect (supposedly!) some of the best remaining semi-natural landscapes in the Highlands.
This waterfall is only about 200 metres from the main footpath that leads up to Carn Eige, which is traversed by thousands of hillwalkers every year. However, there is no path that leads to it, and it isn’t visible, or even audible, from the footpath, so I suspect that very few people visit it, or even know of its existence. In a very real sense, this defines the potential tragedy that may unfold in the glen, as the water flow in this spectacular falls will inevitably be diminished by the hydro scheme, with almost no one knowing about it!
This inconspicuousness of the waterfall is reinforced by the fact that it doesn’t have a name on any of the Ordnance Survey maps for the area. In the past, when people still lived in Glen Affric, I’m sure they would have had a name for it, but that knowledge was probably lost with the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the tenant crofters were forcibly removed from areas such as this. This lack of a name is symbolic of our loss of contact with the land, and it is that in turn which enables so-called ‘developments’ such as this proposed hydro scheme to continue to impact the few surviving relatively untouched landscapes in the Highlands today.
I spent quite a while at the site of this waterfall, appreciating the spectacle and power of the water as it plunged downwards into the gorge. It created a whole micro-climate of its own, as the spray from the falling water was swirling constantly in the air, and getting on to my camera lens. As a result I had to take multiple versions of many of these photographs, because the long exposures required to get the blurred effect of the water meant that raindrops were regularly landing on the lens during each exposure. To some extent therefore it was a matter of luck, until I managed to get a version of each photograph with no drops of water on the lens. When I eventually moved on from there, I headed upstream for several hundred metres to another, smaller waterfall that is located inside the 55 hectare Meallan exclosure that we funded in 1991. This was the second project we implemented with Forestry Commission Scotland in Glen Affric, and our volunteers planted over 28,000 Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) there from 1992 to 1994.
This smaller waterfall was a favourite place for our volunteer groups during the tree planting weeks in the early 1990s. We often had lunch in this area, and even, on warmer days, went swimming just below the falls, receiving an excellent natural massage on our shoulders from the falling water! On this day, however, the waterfall was completely unrecognisable, as it was swollen to many times its usual size and it was inconceivable to consider getting in the water anywhere there at all.
Like the waterfall further downstream, this one is at the top of a small gorge, which is relatively inaccessible for a hundred metres or so below the falls. I had no need of trying to get into the gorge though, as there was so much of interest all around at this one spot. An old alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) with several main stems had died while it was still standing, and it was completely covered by moss, lichen, and some plants such as blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and common polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare).
These were all growing as epiphytes on the alder trunk, meaning that they are using it for support, but do not take any nutrients from the tree. Instead, they derive their nourishment from organic matter and dust that falls on to the trunk and gets trapped there. These epiphytic plants are also only able to thrive in this location because the cascading water in the burn creates a constant supply of moisture in the air, some of which is absorbed by the moss, lichen and other plants.
The trunks of the dead alder were completely covered in these epiphytic organisms, graphically illustrating how a tree fulfils an important role within the ecosystem even after it has died.
On a nearby downy birch tree (Betula pubescens) I found some birch jelly fungi (Exidia repanda). These gelatinous fungi can be found year-round, but are usually only seen in the winter – they are more visible when the trees are leafless, and are fully hydrated on wet days like this one. On dry days, which are more common in the warmer time of the year, they shrivel up to virtually nothing so are very inconspicuous then.
A closely related species, the willow jelly fungus (Exidia recisa), occurs on willow trees, and I’ve found it before on a willow further downstream on this watercourse – there are some photos of it on a previous blog. Further information about both these jelly fungi species can be found here.
While I was looking at the epiphytes on the alder trunks, my attention was drawn to a group of rocks at the edge of the burn. These had patches of crustose lichens on them, and they seemed almost to be glowing and radiant with life in the wet conditions.
I had hoped to continue further up the watercourse, but it had turned out to be another day when I spent all my time in a relatively small area, and with the light beginning to fade it was time to head for home. I did so with some sadness, knowing that the next time I visit this burn, the water flowing in it may be significantly reduced by the micro-hydro scheme planned for it. In a meeting a few days later I discovered that the scheme has still not been finally signed off, so there may still be some hope for the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh remaining free of industrial energy extraction …
To finish with, here’s a compilation of video footage from the day, showing the power and thunder of the burn in full spate. If the micro-hydro scheme does go ahead, such dramatic water flows may become a thing of the past.