Winter chills, snow and ice (and the exhilaration of geology)

Take a close look at maps of Wester Ross and follow the coast with your finger. Finger track along the coast and in your mind’s eye visit tiny coves, buttressed cliffs and sea stacks, delicately, exquisitely painted with Gaelic names: geodh, rubha, camas, sgeir, eilean. Alternatively chase your mouse across Google Earth and you will see uncountable and multi-coloured indentations, serrations, grooves and notches. Many of these result from the machinations of ancient ice fields, when the Ice Age Arctic crept south and covered our islands. Inland, contour lines describe heights often unattainable in winter unless by the experienced. But today from Red River Croft it is possible to sweep eyes up from the table covered in maps to gaze at montane white and sparkling splendour, then down again to plan for warmer, safer days.

Snow clad Beinn Alligin, proud and tall

Snow clad Beinn Alligin, proud and tall

Snow and ice define this remoteness, not just as winter chills descend, but also in the carving and sculpturing of rock and stone, clues which hint at the effects of ice and snow on these landscapes in remoter times. Geology is fundamental; geomorphology the dynamic driver. And the result over millennia is the joyous and rampant variation in earth materials, landform configurations and vistas. Magnificent though the high arctic plateaux of the Cairngorms are, the profuse range in geology here, coupled with proximity to Atlantic oceanic weather systems, has resulted in mountains of much greater complexity; toothed pinnacles, ragged ridges, precipitous near-perpendicular plunges into chasms and gullies, monumental buttresses and corries. The once mile high ice sheet of the last Ice Age scraped, gouged, chiselled and carved features great and small. As climate began to warm, intense cycles of thawing and freezing exaggerated erosion rates and speeded up movement of rock, rubble and sediment. The work of ice and freeze-thaw was not uniform, earth’s materials were multitudinous. Cast your eye about and the resistance of rock and crystal to bombardment and ice energy becomes apparent: Diabeg’s nodulous volcanic morphology, Red Point’s dome-shaped sandstone smoothness, Beinn Dearg’s quartzite-topped pyramidal strength. (Glance again at the maps!)

On our beach too we can see evidence for the work of ice, strangely. Boulders, cobbles and pebbles are made up chiefly of sandstones stolen from the mountain ranges to the east, but in amongst the profusion of Torridonian bits and bobs are lumps of Lewisian gneiss, quartzite, limestone and many more.

At Opinan beach ancient glacial morraines have been refashioned and smoothed by waves and time: a treasure trove of rock types

At Opinan beach ancient glacial morraines have been refashioned and smoothed by waves and time, a treasure trove of rock types

As the ice sheets shoved and glaciers pushed, countless rocks of myriad form and type plucked from ancient peaks were moved and deposited in new places, in new configurations. Then snows melted and fast flowing torrents carried rock and stone even further creating new landform features. Moraine, drumlin, esker, kame, erratic and kettle hole; exotic, mysterious names. (Was there ever anything erratic about the work of glacial ice? The ages-long work was indomitable surely?) Along our coast are many deposits of large morainic type, and of finer rock flour, and these have contributed to our beaches. Once angular and ice-sharpened they are rounded now, smoothed by centuries of bumping, crashing and scraping with every inward and outward swash of tide or by rushing, pummelling river waters. Count the different types and it is possible (for a geologist anyway) to work out where the ice began its relentless march, from whence came these boulders; carried on the shoulders of the glaciers or entrained within the blue-white airless iciness? But even more exciting when holding a piece of eons-old sandstone, formed in utterly ancient, hot deserts of waterless winds, and thinking of its much more recent icy journey, its reluctant trimming but glorious polishing by sea water, is the sudden glimpse of other pieces held within: angular, dark fragments! And then the realisation that these fractions of mysterious darker rock must themselves have been created in an even more ancient world: born of volcanic eruptions perhaps, shattered and moved by frost and ice in almost inconceivably remote and ancient ice ages, then captured and buried within a hot desert sandstorm, only to see sunlight a billion years later. O the magic of it all!

2015 has, so far, been beset mostly by squally winds, thunder and hail storms, and torrential bursts of rain. More recently temperatures dropped fiercely, freezing the ground, puddles, lochs and the smaller burns. Ice creates. It has artistry and design flair, devising magical shapes and patterns and it has purpose. Growing ice crystals expand and push out tiny particles of soil. Take a close look at frozen footpaths anywhere and you will see this effect. On melting the miniscule fragments of rock and soil drop back, repositioned, rearranged.

Ice cometh, freezing ripples and pebbles on the loch shore

Ice cometh, freezing ripples and pebbles on the loch shore

But over the last days of January our coastal convolutions have been touched by snow. Not for us the drifting swirling depths seen in the high places or in ages past. Yet, when showers part and clouds are brushed aside and sunshine bathes us all, those superior heights appear to gaze this way, stern yet glorious, glistening in their remote fastness, and we know what winter means.

The Beign Eighe range, with its high remote ridges and a cluster of munroes, in a winter cloak of pure white

The Beign Eighe range, with its high remote ridges, in a winter cloak of pure white

Icy crystal spindrift rushes up the southern side of Beinn Eighe to meet snow shower downdrafts creating beautiful and enormous wave-like forms. Here, there and gone in seconds

Icy crystal spindrift rushes up the southern side of Beinn Eighe to meet snow shower downdrafts, creating beautiful and enormous wave-like forms, here and gone in seconds

The mountains have had an almost permanent covering since early December, only losing their glistening blankets when strong, and unusually warm, westerly winds blew in from the Atlantic. Then, snow meltwaters, uniting with tepid storm rains, churning downstream, noisily flooded burn and loch, and our Red River rose. But now, although troubled by avalanche and climbing tragedy, ice-covered peaks again shine and proclaim their ineffable majesty, while here, closer to salt and spray, snowflakes intermittently cloak the ground. Even so, all around us features are exaggerated. A strange optic effect this; a deep and total covering of snow will smother, silence and dampen detailed finery of rock, tree and shrub, yet lighter, intermittent snowfall seems to pick out imperceptible structures, configurations and morphologies of even the smallest clump of heather or gathering of boulders. So when we look at the nearby hillside, it is as if a pointillist has been at work (Seurat, Van Gogh?).  Each tiny twig and stone painstakingly, laboriously, delicately emphasized by the careful adding of titanium white (with some cerulean blue) by the finest of brush (round, size 4/0, I think!).

Snowy pointillism and nature's artistry

Snowy pointillism in nature’s artistry

Turn away from the microscopic near detail, to look west again and across the Inner Sound; snow has fallen on Skye and the Outer Hebrides. How the islands shine in the winter sun! Pale lemon these rays may be, but enchantment aplenty rises as a billion, trillion crystal-frost snowflake-diamonds respond immediately to the sun’s gentle touch.

Skye snows sparkle and shine

Skye snows sparkle and shine as clouds dissipate

This past week when winds have hurtled south, coming fiercely, directly from the Arctic, they have wickedly caused a biting ‘chill’. Animals have sheltered in south facing nooks and crannies and people have added layers of clothing, brightly coloured hats, gloves and scarves, over-topped by waterproofs. The snow-gales have been swift in their approach across the sea, whipped foamy green, with boisterous waves churning grey and yellow as they break across the sands. Standing braced at the cliff edge when a cluster of stormy, roiling clouds of snow and hail approaches it is impossible to separate sea from sky, and one’s whole self becomes a part of the storm, battered and deafened by the roar.

Snow clouds roil in from the north looking more like a dust cloud in the desert

Snow clouds roil in from the north looking more like a dust cloud in the desert

Just as swiftly, the wickedness passes and the sun again sends beams to wake up distant islands which call out “Here I am, look at me!” Their snowy whiteness dazzles then! And at once, in spite of hail-sore, stinging cheeks, warmth and feeling returns to finger tips and just as swiftly, birds call out and begin their dancing, skipping flight across the wave tops. We are all exhilarated. Land, sea, birds, me.

The squall passes and birds lift back into the air calling out their joy

The squall passes and birds lift back into the air calling out their joy

Exhilarating waves

Exhilarating waves, exhilarated birds

February is greeted by a full moon and the winds have quieted. Distant snow fields, rather than dazzling, shine differently; bathed in moonshine, mountains glow like opal shimmerings inside oyster shells. The last rays of the sun slide pink and crimson across the tops and as sister moon appears to grow in size, snow crystals luminesce. The whole landscape takes on the demeanour of the faerie, liminal, transitional, between dream and substance, between life and death. We are at the edge of the world here!


About Annie O'G Worsley

I'm a mum of four, gran, writer, crofter & Professor of 'Environmental Change'. I now live on a small farm (known as a croft) by the sea in a place surrounded by the ‘Great Wilderness’ mountains of the Scottish NW Highlands. I was a full-time academic, a geographer, but I decided to go feral and follow my dream of living a smaller, simpler, wilder life. I have always loved wild places. As a child I was inspired by tales of Trader Horn (my great-great-great uncle Alfred Aloysius Smith) told to me by my mother. Trader Horn spent his life wandering, mostly in Africa. I too, love stravaiging (Gaelic for wandering) and spent time in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea as a young researcher, living with tribes there. Although I spent years researching and teaching university students about environments, processes and habitats, I am discovering much, much more exploring the wilds around me. In moving away from scientific writing, I have rediscovered my wilder self and have a much deeper, truer understanding of nature than I ever had before. My work is published by Elliott & Thompson in a series of anthologies called 'Seasons' and I am currently writing a book about this extraordinary place. I continue to write academic papers with my research colleagues but I am developing new skills including landscape photography and painting. And of course, I still love to wander.
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2 Responses to Winter chills, snow and ice (and the exhilaration of geology)

  1. Beautiful writing encompassing nature, emotions, and all you love into a beautifully poetic piece of writing. Makes me miss the far north west of Scotland though I feel it never left me. Lovely


  2. peatyjen says:

    I love this account and keep re-reading it. I know you are south of the Shetlands, but you are whetting my appetite for my visit there in May. I have a sense of life on the edge.


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