Country diary: the strange beauty of water caught between frost and thaw

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It’s a mid-March day, and though the upper Spey valley has undergone a dramatic thaw, swinging from frozen lochs to flooding in the space of a week, there is still plenty of snow and ice high up on the Cairngorms. When the author Nan Shepherd was walking these hills in the 1940s, she once dedicated an entire day to studying the ice patterns in the burns, writing about them in The Living Mountain. A quote from it is on the Royal Bank of Scotland GBP5 note: “But the struggle between frost and the force in running water is not quickly over. The battle fluctuates, and at the point of fluctuation between the motion in water and the immobility of frost, strange and beautiful forms are evolved.”

I make my way up Allt Mor, “the big stream” that runs from the ski slopes on Cairngorm down into the Glenmore forest. A stretch of water under a bridge looks fluid until a certain angle reveals an intricate crosshatching, like the frost patterns on a window. The whole decorated surface is thin as film and blends without border into the flow.

Cairngorms ice formations in streams.

Higher up, more ice appears. It forms a shiny skin over rocks rising from the stream, tight as varnish. Climbers call it verglas and curse it, offering the counterintuitive advice to ford streams on stones just below the running water, as they will not be icy. Often, verglas sits like a cap on a rock, with its bottom edge fringed with baubles where the running water has splashed and frozen. When the glaze has thawed a little, water slides under it in runnels like shapeshifting tadpoles.

From the mossy boulders, grasses and heathers that overhang the burn, long crystals form pendulous curtains, from cloudy to clear, smooth to knobbled. Higher still, there is snow. Heaped in bridges and banks, it sometimes morphs to ice on its way to the water, forming glassy towers and spires worthy of the wildest science fiction. On a rock loosely furred with ice, the water flow is caught and released in a rhythmic pulse that makes it looks like a living creature, a beating heart of stone on the living mountain.

As Shepherd said, “There is no end to the lovely things that frost and the running of water can create between them.”

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