Tuesday 5 December 2023

Six Days In The Life Of A Birch Tree: Photo-Essay

After the first light snowfall. November 29.

In the field outside our house there's a lone birch tree growing in the remnants of a tumbledown stone wall. We've watched it slowly grow for over thirty years and I've photographed it many times as it changes with the seasons. Usually the changes are slow, buds changing to leaves in the early spring, leaves slowly opening as spring progresses, leaves darkening at the height of summer, leaves slowly turning gold in the autumn, leaves falling. Then a long period of winter stasis for three months, a stasis only broken by snowfall and frost. But when the latter come the birch can change appearance extremely fast and take on a magical look it never has otherwise.

During heavier snow. November 30.

This was the case over six days as November ended and December began. The first snowfall of the winter transformed the birch tree over six days from a dark silhouette to an enchanted snow-draped whiteness. As the snow and frost accumulated the tree grew in size and changed shape as the branches drooped under the weight. 

After the snow. December 2.

The snow builds up. December 2.

On the day when this reached its magnificent maximum I walked round the birch, entanced by its ethereal beauty.

December 3.

December 3.

December 3.

December 3.

Then overnight it was all gone. A slight rise in temperature, though it stayed below freezing, a slight breeze and the tree returned to how it been just six days earlier. The ephemeral magic was over. Never again will the tree look exactly like did for these few days.

December 4

Monday 4 December 2023

A Look At The January Issue Of The Great Outdoors & A TGO Video Review

The next issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. I have three reviews inside - Keen WK400 Walking Shoes, Columbia Mazama Trail Waterproof Jacket, and Shokz OpenFit Ear Buds. 

Also in the gear pages Kirsty Pallas and James Roddie each review four winter sleeping bags, and Fiona Russell and Peter Macfarlane each review three pairs of winter gloves. 

There are two big features on bothies. Juls Stobel writes about spending a night in each of the 104 shelters maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association while James Forrest and Jessie Leong spend a night in Warnscale Head Bothy in the Lake District.

In a superb photo-essay David Lintern shares a selection of a decade of images of winter in the Cairngorms National Park.

Far from the cold and the snow Ian Battersby describes a traverse of the length of the subtropical island of Madeira with his two sons. 

Creator of the Month is Phoebe Sleath, an artist and mountain leader who studies the language of landscape through field paintings. The Opinion column is by Jon Moses, organiser of the Right to Roam campaign, who argues that the right to roam can benefit everyone including rural communities. On the New Books page Kirsty Pallas reviews Mike Raine's The Mountain Leader. Jim Perrin's Mountain Portrait is about Yr Eifl in Eryri. 

In the Skills section Fell Foodie Harrison Ward gives advice on how to cook better backpacking meals.

In Scotland Wild Walks sees Richard Hartfield visiting MacCulloch's Fossil Tree on the Isle of Mull, Roger Butler using historic stalkers' paths on Sgorr a' Mhaoraich in the North-West Highlands, and Alex Roddie having day on Kinperney Hill in Angus. In Cumbria Ian Battersby visits High Cup Nick and in the Lake District Ronald Turnbull takes the boat to Aira Force for an ascent of Helvellyn, and Vivienne Crow walks the Scandale Round. In North Yorkshire Ian Battersby finds snow and relics of a bygone age on Fremington Edge and Calver Hill. In Eryri/Snowdonia Andrew Galloway finds a tale of murder in the Dyfi Forest while down on Dartmoor Tom Gent ponders another troubling event from the past on the Liberty Walk. Fiona Barltrop also steps back in time on a walk over Blackcap & Mount Harry Beacon on the South Downs.

I also have a review that isn't in the print magazine - because it's a video. This is the one I made with videographer Jordan Tiernan at the end of October. I wrote about the trip in this post.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Meall a' Bhuchaille in the snow on the first day of December

View to Cairn Gorm & The Northern Corries

December begins and the land is white. After the snow that fell at the end of November the temperature dropped and it’s been below freezing ever since. Winter is here. Dense fog sometimes fills the air. Sometimes the sun shines bright, casting an illusion of warmth.

My recuperation from the operation (non-serious but essential) in early November I decided on a longer hill walk than the short local one I did ten days ago. Since then I have stuck to little walks without a pack in the fields and woods by my house. A long winter day out with a full winter pack was probably unwise so I decided on an afternoon walk through Ryvoan Pass and over Meall a’Bhuachaille. I never need an excuse to do this lovely walk!

After sunset on Meall a' Bhuachaille

With snow down to glen level I still took an ice axe along with micro spikes rather than heavier crampons. The snow shovel stayed at home too. My pack still weighed 8kg. I hoped it wasn’t too much.

An Lochan Uaine

Last time I did this walk, back in October, the autumn colours were at their height. Now the trees are thick with snow. As there’s been no wind it has stuck to the trees, bending the branches and creating weird and wonderful ethereal shapes. An Lochan Uaine (the Green Lochan) was blue rather than green, reflecting the sky. Many people were here, enjoying the winter beauty. The air was cold but calm.

Approaching the summit

Beyond the lochan I met few others. Once I started up Meall a’Bhuachaille I met no-one until the summit, where a solitary walker was enjoying the sunset.

Mist fills Strathspey

Across Glenmore Cairn Gorm and the Northern Corries were catching the last of the setting sun. Drifting clouds were turning pink and orange. Looking the other way I could see mist filling Strathspey. From up here it looked impressive. Driving home slowly through it later on it didn’t seem so attractive.

Keeping warm

The summit was bitterly cold, a light breeze numbing exposed skin. I was very glad of the down jacket I’d brought. Out to the west I could see mist beginning to form in the glens.

Loch Morlich

Across silvery Loch Morlich the silent woods and hills were pale and grey below the orange horizon. On the descent I was glad of my trekking poles as the snow was slippery in places, especially lower down where it was thinner and slid easily off the stone steps of the path. I didn’t need my micro spikes or ice axe but I might have done.


I reached the forest as the bright spot of the planet Jupiter appeared above the shoulder of Meall a’Bhuachaille. The last light had gone now and I finished the walk by the light of my headlamp in the dark forest. It had been a glorious walk.

Thursday 30 November 2023

November Ends In Snow

The last two days of November have seen the first low level snow of the winter. Thick snow turning the land white and plastering the trees. A great change in what has been a mild autumn so far. Usually there's at least a dusting of snow long before now.

The first snow fell overnight and into the morning and then faded into occasional light showers. Underfoot the crisp snow crunched. Bands of snow-heavy clouds swept across the sky. Bands of mist drifted over the forests. The trees were lightly and delicately decorated with thin snow.The air was sharp and cold, below freezing. 

The last day of the month the snow was heavier, wetter and stickier, lying thickly on the trees. My boots no longer crunched but sank silently into the soft whiteness. 

On both days there was little colour in the landscape. The world was grey and white. Looking closely at some of the trees the last leaves glowed gold and lichen on the branches seemed startlingly green. Move away and this colour soon dissolved into the greyness. 

Heading up a field as more snow began to fall I caught a glimpse of brightness up ahead. The sun appeared hazily through the storm, turning the clouds round it a soft orange. I hurried up the field as quickly as I could (which wasn't very fast on the snow-covered rough ground) for a better view of this unexpected light. Within a minute it had gone, a final brief touch of sunset to end November. 

I returned home in a blizzard. Out in the middle of a big field it was almost a white-out, distant woods just visible as dark strips. Winter is here.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Winter Hillwalking Video .... again!


Winter has really begun in the Scottish Highlands with snow down to glen level so I'd thought I'd post this video about the gear I use for winter hillwalking again. It's now four years old but if I made it now it'd be much the same. 

I deliberately avoided brand names so that it wouldn't date too quickly. In fact many of the items or very similar ones are still available. 

Not mentioning brand names was wise as one of the few I do mention, Viewranger, is no more, I now use Topo GPS. 

I also say this is the first in a series of videos. I just haven't got round to making the next ones yet! This winter I promise I will. Honestly!

Monday 27 November 2023

November Sunset

November is unsettled and so am I. In the month’s case it’s the weather, rolling from mild to frosty, calm to windy, and rain and mist to, just occasionally and briefly, sunshine. In my case it’s the continuing recuperation from an operation that seems long ago but is actually only two weeks ago and in particular the injunction not to lift anything heavy. What is heavy? A day pack? Maybe not. A day pack with ice axe and crampons? Maybe. An overnight pack full of winter gear? Almost certainly.

My venture up my local little hill last week was with a very light daypack and only took two hours. Probably pushing the limits though so I’ve stuck to strolls in local woods and fields with just a camera since then. Some days I’ve taken no pictures, the flat grey light uninspiring for photography though the trees and wildlife were just as wonderful as ever. One day I did take a single photograph, showing fresh snow on the Cromdale Hills. Mostly the hills have been hidden in the clouds.

Yesterday though (November 26) started grey and frosty but expanded into brightness and colour in the late afternoon – which at this time of year means after 3pm. The solid, thick, and heavy greyness began to break revealing layers of clouds in different shapes and shades. The low sun streaked them orange. The upper clouds were dappled, the sky blue behind them. Suddenly the world was alight with beauty.

The setting sun lit up the trees, the old goat willow glowing in the last light. Then the trees turned to silhouettes and I watched the last orange clouds fading away behind the black outlines of leafless birches.I headed home relaxed and at peace.

In a few days I’ll venture a little further and a little higher and see how I get on.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Wild land in Scotland threatened by a blight of communications masts

The wild north side of Liathach. A mast is proposed for this area.

The latest threat to our mountains comes from communication masts, many of which are planned for remote areas in the Scottish hills where there are no communities or houses for them to service, just wild land to sully and spoil.

Why does this crazy scheme exist? Why is time and money being spent to build masts where they will benefit nobody?

The reason is that the UK government has a set a target to bring 4G mobile network coverage to 95% of the geographical UK. Not 95% of people, 95% of land, even if there are no people there.

As concerns for the effects of this on our wild land grow a coalition of Mountaineering Scotland, the John Muir Trust and the Knoydart Foundation has written to Ofcom Scotland and the UK Government’s Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure. The coalition asks anyone concerned to write to the Minister too.  (Sir John Whittingdale – john.whittingdale.mp@parliament.uk). There is more information about the coalition and its campaign on the Mountaineering Scotland website and on the John Muir Trust website.

I think it’s also worthwhile writing to MPs for the areas concerned whether you are their constituent or not, but especially if one is your MP (MPs not MSPs as this is a UK scheme, not one devolved to Scotland). My MP is Drew Hendry, MP for inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. He will be getting a letter!

The coalition members make it clear that they support digital connectivity for people and communities but for that the masts needs to be in the right places. David Black, Mountaineering Scotland’s Access and Conservation Officer, says “We want to ensure digital connectivity is achieved while protecting Scotland’s last wild landscapes”. Mike Daniels, Head of Policy at the John Muir Trust, says “We want 100% digital connectivity for people and communities in rural Scotland, rather than 95% coverage on a map. That is why we are asking the UK Government, Ofcom and the operators to prioritise proposals where the mast signal would provide coverage and associated connectivity benefits for rural residents’ homes and business premises, and gaps along the road network.”

Nick Kempe and George Allan have looked at many of the proposals and reveal just how intrusive they will be in a series of posts on Parkswatch Scotland.

In two posts they give details of specific schemes which really show how bad and ill-thought-out they are. The first is in the heart of Torridon, in the remote area between Liathach and Beinn Dearg. This is National Trust for Scotland land and also a National Scenic Area and a Wild Land Area. The magnificent walk round the back of Liathach goes right past the proposed site. A mast here is completely inappropriate and unacceptable. It would not serve any local people.

Luibeg Bridge

The second scheme is in the Cairngorms by the Luibeg Bridge in the area between the Lairig Ghru and Glen Derry. This is deep in the hills and again would not serve anybody. Thankfully it has been called in by the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

In these cases the authors suggest objecting to the plans and give details how to do so. However whilst it doesn’t take long to do so there are so many other mast applications it could take a while to cover them all. What’s needed is an organised campaign against the proposals in general. The coalition mentioned above is a start but other organisations like the National Trust for Scotland need to be involved and there needs to be far more publicity (hence this post). We need to shout about this on social media and in emails and letters to MPs and the Minister.