Dawn on Rannoch

D.Y. Cameron, Dawn on Rannoch, c. 1885-1945, oil on canvas, 35.6 cm x 48.3 cm, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, Glasgow. Image: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/  

In Dawn on Rannoch, David Young Cameron has captured a snapshot of the timeless atmosphere of an ice age landscape. Rannoch Moor is a grand plateau that was once covered by an ice cap that extended over much of western Scotland during the final stages of the end of the last ice age. This final cold stage is called the Younger Dryas Stadial (also known as the Loch Lomond Stadial)[1]. A stadial is a particularly cold phase within an ice age period. The Younger Dryas was an abrupt period of cool temperatures that occurred very rapidly between 12,900 and 11,700 years ago, which saw the regrowth of glaciers across much of upland Britain, including on Rannoch Moor. The ice covering the plateau is known as the Younger Dryas West Highland Icefield. 

Although the date of the ice cap’s deglaciation is contested, it is suggested that approximately 12,000 years ago, when the climate began to change and temperatures rose, the ice melted and carved out the landscape.[2] Since there is impermeable granite underneath Rannoch Moor, water easily collects in pools within the landscape. This allowed for cold and wet conditions on the plateau, with the persistent dampness providing the ideal environment for peat formation. As wetlands developed – first as kettle lakes and then as peatlands, they trapped within their layers their own environmental history.  

We have a detailed record of the early and mid post-glacial landscape from pollen grains trapped within these sediments, thanks to the work of Quaternary scientists Mike Walker and John Lowe. [3]

The pollen record shows that once the ice sheets retreated, dwarf shrubs heaths of Crowberry (Empetrum) and Juniper scrub became established, which was then replaced by Birch, then Birch-Hazel woodland and then forests of Pine-Birch and Pine and Alder.  An example of Birch pollen can be found in Figure 1. Deteriorating climatic conditions resulted in the growth of blanket peat, waterlogging and a gradual decline of trees, leading to the present-day landscape blanket peat and heather moor.

Figure 1: Betula (birch) pollen grain. Image: Gill Plunkett, Queen’s University Belfast, with permission. 

Over time, as the peat spread across the plateau, it ultimately formed the largest area of blanket bog in Britain, with Rannoch Moor being 82% water or bog.[4] The grand upland landscape is therefore not an unsurprising subject for Cameron to portray in his mystical scene. 

Whereas Cameron may not have directly intended to emphasise a post-glacial landscape, he has certainly captured the conditions that are indicative of an early-Holocene tundra environment, as the landscape appears cold and lacking in vegetation. Having studied at the Glasgow School of Art and the Edinburgh College of Art in the late nineteenth century, Cameron had witnessed the respected tradition of landscape painting in Scotland and would have been very familiar with the celebrated paintings of JMW Turner and Horatio McCulloch. Dawn on Rannoch, however, differs from traditional romantic scenes of dramatic landscapes and severe weather, as it captures a unique ambiance of the space. The bright sunrise in this painting casts a shadow over the hills, which is not theatrical but instead candid, and the restrained colour palette suggests the stillness of dawn. Cameron has captured a snapshot of Rannoch Moor within a specific moment in time, creating a unique and atmospheric portrayal of this great peatland landscape. The photograph shown in Fig 2, taken at Moonrise captures a similar evocative feel, whilst Fig 3 provides a sense of majesty of this iconic landscape. 

Holly Mullins and Nicki Whitehouse

Figure 2: Moonrise, Rannoch Moor, Scotland. “Moonrise ~ Rannoch Moor, Scotland” by Martin Sojka .. www.VisualEscap.es is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
Figure 3: Blackmount, Rannoch Moor, Scotland. “Blackmount – Rannoch Moor – Scotland” by Bill Higham is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

[1] An excellent source on the Younger Dryas may be found here: http://www.antarcticglaciers.org/glacial-geology/british-irish-ice-sheet/younger-dryas-loch-lomond-stadial/

[2] J.D. Peacock & J. Rose, “Was the Younger Dryas (Loch Lomond Stadial) icefield on Rannoch Moor, western Scotland, deglaciated as early as c.12.5 cal ka BP?,” Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 128, no. 2 (2017). 173-179. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016787817300238#fig0005

[3] M.J.C. Walker and J.J.Lowe, “Postglacial environmental history of Rannoch Moor, Scotland. I. Three Pollen diagrams from the Kingshouse Area. Journal of Biogeography 4, no. 4 (1977), 333-351.

[4] Helen Rawling, “Rannoch Moor Viewpoint,” Discovering Britain (2016). https://www.discoveringbritain.org/content/discoveringbritain/viewpoint%20pdfs/Rannoch%20Moor%20viewpoint.pdf.