Every year in October, I set aside two weekends to go out camping in the Caledonian Forest, to make the most of the opportunities to photograph the autumn colours of the trees. It’s my favourite time of year to be in the forest, especially as there are often wind-still mornings with mist or fog, which provide a wonderful atmospheric ambience to the landscapes.
This year I camped for a night at Loch Achilty, a site near the village of Contin, in the northeast of the Trees for Life Project Area for forest restoration. When I woke up at first light, I discovered that it was a perfect morning, with mirror-like reflections in the loch and mist hanging over the water.
The mist drifted slowly across the loch, alternately revealing and then hiding the trees on the far side. There was not a breath of movement in the water though, and the reflected autumnal colours brought an evocative golden glow to the landscape. It almost looked like an impressionist painting at one point, with the shapes of the trees not clearly defined, because of the mist. A small island in the loch seemed almost to float in mid-air, suspended against a background of shapes that hinted at being trees amongst the clouds …
The island itself was typical of many in Scottish lochs, in being completely covered in trees. While the land around Loch Achilty is well-wooded, in many other lochs where the surrounding land is tree-less, similar islands that are covered in trees show what the landscape would be like in so much of the Highlands with less grazing pressure from deer. Herbivores such as red deer (Cervus elaphus) don’t reach these small islands, so the vegetation is free to grow without being overgrazed.
Loch Achilty is quite a small loch, and from where I was standing it wasn’t far to both sides of it, to my left and right. After a little while, the mist began to disperse slightly, so more of the trees on both sides became visible. Some of them were bright yellow in their autumnal glory, while others were as green as they had been in mid-summer. It’s definitely a late autumn this year, due largely I suppose to the warm summer continuing on late, and even now in the middle of October it was still very mild.
Over the next half hour or so, the mist lifted fully, revealing the view out across the loch to the forest. The wind also began to pick up a little soon afterwards, and the perfect reflection of the early morning was over, for another day at least. I took the opportunity then to have some breakfast and take down my tent, as I was planning to go down to Glen Strathfarrar for the day, where I was hoping the autumn colours would be at their peak.
Driving off, I didn’t get very far though, because as I passed along the north shore of Loch Achilty, back out towards the main road, I saw that the mist had returned. There’s also a very nice patch of oak woodland on the north side of the loch, beside the road, so I stopped there for a while.
The site is managed by the Forestry Commission and is one of the most northerly areas of sessile oak (Quercus petraea) in Scotland.
It was very atmospheric this morning, with the oak trees just beginning to change colour, some of the bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) still at its most brilliant yellow before the fronds die back for the winter, and the branches of the loch-side oaks hanging low over the water in the mist. There was a magical quality in the peace and stillness that reminded me of some Japanese or Chinese landscape paintings.
While I was there by the loch-side I must have disturbed a group of mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) that had been resting close to the shore, near where I was. They began swimming away out into the loch, initially as a cohesive group, but then separating out into pairs, each of a male and female together. I quickly changed lenses, to take a few photos with my longest telephoto lens, before they moved too far out into the loch.
Leaving the shore of the loch, I crossed the road and climbed a small rise, to an area where there were some stately oak trees growing together. The trees there were not so advanced in their autumn coloration, and indeed on many of them all their leaves were still green, with no sign of yellow at all.
I spent about an hour in this area altogether, and could easily have stayed there much longer, as I didn’t really explore much of the oak woodland at all. I decided to leave that for another occasion, as I wanted to go to Glen Strathfarrar and spend most of the day there, where I anticipated the autumn colours would be more advanced. With only a little reluctance I left the Achilty oakwood, and headed for my main destination for day – that will feature as a separate blog entry.