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

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

Cairngorms, Highlands: Author Nan Shepherd walked these hills and wrote about the ice patterns in The Living Mountain

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 £5 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.

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