Geowalks: Trip to Perthshire 21st – 23rd March 2014
with Angus Miller and Mihaela Newton

Day 1: Plate tectonics and plasticine

Leaving Edinburgh late afternoon, Hazel, Jim and I arrive in Pitlochry as the car temperature gauge begins to fall… 5C, 3C, 0.5C, and snow greets us in flurries on the A924 to Kindrogan. Ben Vrackie is away in heavy cloud, splattered with snow and icy rock falls. Still, in spite of the greyness and the slush-haze there is a melancholy beauty to the drive, emphasized all the more by the trees that envelop the driveway to Kindrogan Field Centre itself. The trees drip lichen, birds flit rapidly through the drizzle and fallow deer graze in the evening light.

A moment after stepping into the chill damp air, Angus appears to welcome us to our lodgings for the next two nights. An impressive main building, once owned by local aristocracy (as their summer lodgings, no less), we are housed in the cozy rooms of the steading buildings across the courtyard.

Once settled we begin the evening with a welcome drink in the bar, and chat to others as they arrive – nice to see some familiar faces! Dinner of soup, fish & chips, and bread & butter pudding with custard – my stomach wishes it had done a long walk beforehand to compensate!

After our meal we meet in one of the Field Centre’s classrooms for a brief introduction to Kindrogan. We are told of the pine martens who visit the log piles in the car park to feast on peanuts left by the staff. Next is a great mini-lecture by Angus and Mihaela on the plate tectonics and glaciation that formed this part of Perthshire. Not forgetting the plasticine props to simulate rock layers and the glasses of wine with which to wash it all down.

Day 2: Snow and Schiehallion

Wake to a beautiful dusting of snow, red squirrels on the feeders outside the window and all manner of birds flitting in the trees. I discover I’m not the only member of our group to be out before breakfast, taking photos of the snowdrops in the frost. The focus for today is the local geology, hidden somewhere under the fresh snowfall and some miles from Kindrogan. Following a hearty breakfast and armed with sandwiches our group sets out for the day.

Past Bruar and out the wee back road towards Kinloch Rannnoch, we stop by Glen Errochty hydro station and slip-slide our way up the slushy road to walk out along the valley side. This is Dalradian rock country – the jury is out on the age of the rocks (somewhere between 600 and 720 million years old). In spite of the snow’s best efforts we see examples of a sequence ‘smear’, oldest rocks to youngest, across the glen floor. Part of a larger syncline, the rocks have been folded up and over on themselves as well as being smeared out in a thin slice across this particular glen – or “when folds went wrong” as Angus puts it.

Limestone of a shallow, warm sea is first, slightly metamorphosed in the compress and squeeze of collision. A walk over woodland floor takes us to the Schiehallion boulder beds, full of pink granite boulders and pebbles, not local, likely dumped in an ice-age millions of years ago. The same layers extend across Scotland, and ripple marks have been found in the rock surrounding the boulders, where a stone has fallen from a height to hit the clay, perhaps where a glacier met the sea. Next we find beautiful, stable quartzite, sandy yellow in colour and crystalline in the sunshine. Finally we meet highland schists, and a few volcanic intrusions carrying garnets. The track we walk along back to the cars provides many lovely examples of recently exposed local rocks, and a lot of mica glitters in the sun between snow showers.

Although our main focus is the rocks, our next stop on the road to Kinloch Rannoch is an example of glacial till, with Rannoch granite erratics to boot. Mihaela tells us a little of the basics behind glacier build-up and movement, and points out the lack of sediment sorting in the till which suggests a pile left after a glacier had melted, rather than a melt-water deposit.

We drive down into Kinloch Rannoch in the shadow of a snow-covered Schiehallion for a quiet lunch next to the church. A short drive towards Schiehallion takes us alongside a conifer plantation where we stop, scale the fence and walk up the slope to see the same rocks as Errochty, this time as an upside-down anticline tipped on its side, or a synformal anticline in geo-speak! So here again is the limestone, triggering debate – D2 ‘to fold or not to fold’ - or is it all just weathering? Deer on the high hills stand still and watch, on alert.

Mihaela ponders the run-off valley we are in, unsure as to its origins but possibly a melt-water channel. Up the slope opposite are the boulder beds, but with snow starting to fall more seriously we opt to go back to the cars and on to the car park at Foss. Arriving as most people are coming down from the mountain, we take a short and rather snowy walk up the first layer or two of bedrock. The weather closes in and we can no longer see the views we hoped for, so we call it a (good!) day and head back to Kindrogan to warm our toes. A final stop a few miles down the road at a barites mine: barium sulphates incorporating fool’s gold – tilted cubic pyrites that gleam on the darker layers of the barite rocks.

Gin and tonic in the bar before dinner, and Angus tells us we are to have another lecture after the meal, entitled “when folds go wrong”, naturally! Dinner is soup, pasta with meatballs, and apple crumble. The after-dinner talk tonight is brief, but covers more rock (and paper!) folding, and the tale of Maskelyne, the astronomer royal who used Schiehallion to estimate the density of the Earth via complex equations, the stars and pendulums. He wasn’t too far wrong either! Discussions on all topics abound for pretty much the rest of the evening in the bar, with Scottish independence, religion and wind turbines all under debate.

We walk back to our rooms under a sky peppered with thousands of stars. Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, Capella, the Plough, the Milky Way and at least one planet keep me out long after everyone else has gone to bed. Not a pine marten to be seen, however.

Day 3: Garnets and Glaciations

A brisk, blue-skied morning greets me as I open my curtains, and the north wind fresh from the snow fields certainly wakes everyone up on the way to breakfast. All packed up after a fry-up and ready to face that wind, Mihaela begins the morning by giving us a brief overview of the day’s plan. Two longer walks exploring the glacial geomorphology near Kindrogan. And what a stunning day it is too! A quick drive of a few miles places us neatly in the regional ice flow valley in which Kindrogan sits.

We walk up and along very clearly defined lateral moraines, with a great view over the finely-sorted sediment of the valley floor, once a melt-water lake. A misfit stream now meanders through. In the blast of a heavy snow shower, we turn north into a melt-water channel, carved by water rather than ice, and find a fantastic example of an erratic boulder. Granite, original source Ben Vuirich a few kilometres to the north, has been beautifully shaped by the ice. A very unusual form of granite in itself, it predates most other Highland granites at 590 million years old and has been slightly metamorphosed during the Caledonian Orogeny. Up the valley sides are tilted bedrocks, with veins of white quartz crystals running through. As the sun returns, we head up the valley side to the top of the slope, with a beautifully snowy Ben Vrackie to the West. A chance encounter with a loose block of metamophic rock covered in fresh garnet crystals keeps us all intrigued for some time, as Mihaela explains how the rock has been ‘eroded by the elephants’… or elements, perhaps?!

Another erratic in the next field, and another lovely view, this time we are looking down on a kettle-hole lake. Back to the cars to pick up lunch before walking along the road past the local primary school and up a perfectly formed glen, this time gouged out by a local glacier. Moraines aplenty, sunshine aplenty, pretty sparkling metamorphic rocks aplenty… what more could we want? In a lovely walk of 2-3 hours we see evidence of glaciers all around; melt-water channels, benches and terraces, and the snow on the hills to the North is enticing enough to keep us all walking to the top end of the glen. We are rewarded with a stunning view, looking out over spin-drift and a possible eagle flying in the distance.

We stop in Pitlochry for the obligatory, well-earned cake and coffee in a cozy café, before saying goodbye in the hope we will all meet up again on a Geowalk in the not-too-distant future. A lovely ending to a very interesting weekend, with many thanks to Angus and Mihaela for leading us and answering all our questions!

Lara Reid, March 2014


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