Updated on 14 January 2014 with video footage at the end of the blog.
On a Sunday in mid-October, after a beautiful, still and misty morning at Loch Achilty, I drove to Glen Strathfarrar, where I was hoping to catch the autumn colours of the trees in their prime. Strathfarrar contains one of the best remnants of the original Caledonian Forest, with a large expanse of native pinewood, which rivals that of the much better known Glen Affric. It is therefore something of a hidden secret in the Highlands, and it is at its best in autumn, when the leaves on the broadleaved trees change colour before being shed.
When I arrived in the glen I was delighted to see that there was still some mist there, as that brings a special atmospheric quality to the landscape, and also tends to accentuate the colours. However, at the eastern end of the glen, the trees were mostly still green, with only a hint of yellow on some of the birches. Autumn is definitely later this year than usual, probably due to the mild weather we had in September and the first half of October – it’s been a real ‘Indian summer’ in the Highlands in 2013.
As I drove a little further west in the glen, there was some more yellow on the birch trees. This is a typical pattern in the glens in the area where Trees for Life works, west of Loch Ness and Inverness. The further west you go, the more mountainous it becomes, and it gets wetter, and, where the ground rises, colder as well. As a result, autumn tends to arrive earlier in the west of glens such as Strathfarrar, and the colour change advances from there eastwards.
In the eastern part of Strathfarrar, the north side of the glen is dominated by birchwoods, whereas on the south it’s mainly old Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris), with some birches interspersed amongst them. I was hoping to get some good shots of the combination of bright yellow birches in amongst the slightly bluish-green canopy of the pines – the contrast between the two species is especially attractive in the autumn.
In one place I stood and watched the mist drifting across the pines on the hillside for a while. The view was changing constantly, with the mist alternately hiding and revealing the different sections of forest on the slope above me. It was as though the clouds were caressing the tops of the trees, depositing tiny droplets of their water on every leaf and needle as they passed. It appeared almost sensuous to me, and I wondered what the trees’ experience of these conditions is like?
Every few minutes, the sun would penetrate through a gap in the mist, and would briefly illuminate small groups of trees in the forest. In many cases, this happened too quickly for me to set up my camera and take some photographs, as the illumination was very ephemeral, lasting only for a few seconds. However, in some cases the sunshine persisted for a few minutes, providing some of my favourite lighting for forest photography – brightly lit trees against a darker background of clouds (or in this case mist).
After a while I moved a little further west in the glen, to where the road more closely approaches the steep slopes on the south side, which are clothed mainly in mature woodland of old Scots pines. There are still some birches in amongst the pines, and the mist was also there, although it had lifted a little, and was just brushing the tops of the trees high up on the hillside.
There was one place in particular, where there was a slight dip in the ridge, where the mist seemed to linger more than anywhere else. Even though it passed over most of the forest canopy, drifting in the gentle breeze, in this one place it always seemed to accumulate. I watched it for a while and I surmised that this phenomenon must have been due to the particular topography on that part of the slope, causing the mist to get caught there in effect, in the same way that foam gets caught in a backwater eddy in an otherwise fast-flowing watercourse.
Although I’d been looking up the hillside, to where the mist was hanging in the canopy of the pines, the view in front of me was also very beautiful, as I was standing overlooking Loch Beannacharan, which was created by a small hydro-electric dam in this part of Strathfarrar.
The loch is actually very small, but the pines come down to the shore on the south side, while the birches on the north side, where I was, were brilliant in their autumn colours. It was a very tranquil scene, which seemed to me to express the essence of a Highland autumn landscape – the contrasting colours of the pines and birches, the dark, tannin-stained waters of the loch, and the land rising up into the clouds.
Downstream from the dam, the Farrar River passes through a narrow gorge, and this is a particularly attractive section of the glen. On the steep slopes, a few pines reach above the canopy of the birches, and there are some aspen trees (Populus tremula) here as well. On an autumn day like this, the dark, tannin-stained water creates an aesthetically-pleasing contrast with the yellow colours of the birches and aspens.
There are a few rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) saplings under the old Scots pines, growing from seeds that would have germinated in the droppings of birds that had eaten rowan berries and then perched on the pines’ branches, where they defecated.
A little further downstream, on the south side of the river, is a very large aspen that’s one of my favourites in Glen Strathfarrar – I’ve photographed it on previous autumn trips in the glen. The light was beginning to fade, and I would have to leave the glen soon, but there was just enough time to hike down there, as I was hoping the tree would be at about the peak of its autumn colour… and indeed it was …
Because of its location, this particular aspen is quite hard to photograph, and I need to spend more time there with it, to see if I can find a better position, to do more justice to its impressive character. However, there wasn’t enough time for that this day, so I took a few quick images as I appreciated the brilliance of its autumnal display from a distance, before heading out of the glen.
My quest for the optimal photograph of this beautiful aspen will have to resume in autumns to come, but I left well-satisfied with my day, which had begun so peacefully at Loch Achilty, and then had been characterised by the colours and constant mist all day in Strathfarrar. I couldn’t have asked for a better day for autumn photography in the Caledonian Forest …
Added on 14th January 2014: here’s some video footage from the day as well. The animal sounds part-way through are the roaring of stags in their annual rut, to determine which of them is successful in mating with the hinds.
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