Large chunks of ice seem to have been falling from the sky for centuries. The star of these reports is a solid mass of ice weighing nearly a ton that fell during a thunderstorm on July 30, 1849, near Balvullich (or Balavulich), a farm about ten miles west of Inverness, Scotland. The Guinness Book of World Records (2016) called it the “Largest Piece of Fallen Ice” and suggested that it was composed of hailstones fused together by lightning.
The initial newspaper report of the fall was edited and reprinted widely in British newspapers. It even found its way into Scientific American, where, decades later, it was noticed by Charles Fort, the archivist of the unexplained. Fort (1972, 217) called it “one of our best expressions of external origins” and hinted that it had dropped from some hidden land in the sky. Another eccentric theorist couldn’t decide whether it had fallen from an alien spacecraft or if it had been blasted into orbit when the lost continent of Mu was destroyed by an ancient nuclear war (Jessup 2003). At the other end of the spectrum, Arthur C. Clarke (1980) noted that the thunderous booms that heralded the fall “were like the sonic booms of our re-entering spacecraft” and wondered if it might have been a piece of a comet.
These days, when lumps of ice break car windshields or punch holes though the roofs of houses, some experts think of oversized hail (Martinez-Frias et al. 2005) while others suspect aircraft toilet leaks or wing icing (Davidson 2006). The ice fall at Balvullich is particularly intriguing because there were no modern aircraft in 1849 (Clarke 1980).
Contemporary reports of the event, including weather reports, which are available from britishnewspaperarchives.co.uk, modern science and Ordnance Survey maps can tell us much about this singular event.
The First Report
A witness to the ice fall wrote to his local newspaper. In those days correspondents’ names were not revealed; let’s call him John. His letter reads, in part:
Immediately after one of the loudest peals of thunder we ever heard, a large and irregular shaped mass of ice reckoned to be nearly twenty feet in circumference, and of a proportionate thickness, fell near the farm-house. It had a beautiful crystalline appearance, being nearly all quite transparent, if we except a small portion of it which consisted of hailstones of uncommon size fixed together. It was principally composed of small squares—diamond shaped—of from one to three inches in size, all firmly congealed together. (Ross-shire Advertiser 1849)
John was evidently at the farm when the ice fell, for he used the pronoun “we” when describing the thunder that heralded its arrival. The writer might have been John Moffat Sr., who rented Balvullich from Thomas Mackenzie, the eighth Laird of the estate at Ord. John Moffat Sr. was a middle-class farmer, a tacksman on the Ord estate, a respected member of the community, and a leader in his church (Inverness Courier 1855). In 1849, John and his wife, Janet, were both forty-eight years old. Five of their seven children between the ages of ten and twenty-five were still living with them in the croft house during the 1851 census. It was an unusual double-length croft house having a second apartment where five tenants or employees lived in 1851. It still stands, next to the original barn (Figure 1). An 1872 map shows it connected to the barn, which opened on its east side.
A Huge Hailstone
In September, the Inverness Courier published two letters on the Balvullich ice fall under the title “A Huge Hailstone” (Inverness Courier 1849a; see Figure 2). The editor retold most of the story of the first letter in his own words. The few lines that were quoted indicate that the correspondent was educated and literate in both English and French, if not actually scholarly. He might have been Thomas Mackenzie, who would likely have taken an interest in a “crash site” on his land. Let’s call him Thomas.
John reported that the ice had fallen “near the farm-house,” but Thomas appears to have followed its track uphill until he found where it had hit the upper field. Inconsistencies suggest that the editor might have confused the order of events when he restated Thomas’s letter. At first, he says that the ice fell “on an elevated part of the farm,” probably in the upper field. After describing the ice mass, he states that it fell into “a gully” at the mouth of a barn; later he changes this to “a hole.” He notes that the ice hit a stone wall that it had dashed violently down a gully. If Thomas’s original letter had described the track of the ice as it was discovered by backtracking it across the fields, the ice might have gouged its way down the gully before it glanced off the stone wall, not afterward. It makes no sense to have a gully across a level field or leading to the barn.
There is no such gully today, and probably, there never was, for it would have ensured that the farmstead flooded every time it rained heavily. However, there is a natural drainage channel or swale above the farm that might be the “gully” in question. Deep natural ravines running down the sides of Scottish mountains were sometimes called gullies. The gully on the elevated land above Balvullich was much smaller, which might explain the editor’s use of italics.
Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain
Thomas’s account was followed by comments from someone using the pen name “Peat Reek” (i.e., peat smoke), whom the editor considered qualified to provide a scientific opinion. Reek had read John’s letter but not Thomas’s. His blustery rant seems to have been printed as received.
Mr. Reek dismissed John’s statement as “not only exaggerated but wholly unworthy of belief” (Reek 1849). His chief objection, a good one in my opinion, was that it was “preposterous” to believe that a piece of brittle ice weighing nearly a ton could fall from a height of over a mile in the sky (above the freezing level) and hit the ground without being “dashed to pieces.”
Reek noted that even “common observers” knew that August was a prime month for meteoric phenomena and slyly added that if Mr. Moffat had examined the ice more closely he would have seen that it was actually “a gigantic wedding cake studded with bon-bons and sugar plums!” (Reek 1849). He clearly thought it a hoax.
Did It Fall from Space?
Whether ice can survive a plunge from space to reach the ground has recently become a matter of some interest. Mathematical models of the fiery flight of meteors (Beech 2006; Baldwin and Sheafer 1971) indicate that even very large chunks of ice hitting the atmosphere have little more chance of reaching the ground than the proverbial snowball. Beech (2006) concluded that “just maybe” an ice-meteoroid of a few pounds might reach the ground. When extrapolated, his chart of initial and final mass comparisons suggests that if the ice at Balvullich had fallen from space it must have started out as a cometary fragment weighing about 80 million pounds. That is four times the mass of the Tunguska object, which created a huge fireball and blast wave that scorched and flattened 800 square miles of Siberian forest in 1908. No forests were flattened in Scotland in 1849, and no fireball or blast wave was reported, just a sound like thunder.
The date of the fall coincides with the peak of the recently discovered annual α-Capricornis meteor shower (Lundsford 2009). The parent body of this shower is a comet that partially broke up millennia ago. However, as even the largest fragment of comet ice would have evaporated after just a decade or two (Beech 2006), there would have been no ice left to fall on Balvullich in 1849—just dust.
Atmospheric Ice or Ground Water?
Thomas’s letter says that the ice was composed “apparently” of hailstones the size of peas, which is clearly a guess (either by Thomas or the editor). John, who had actually seen the ice, reported that it was crystalline and transparent and was easily distinguishable from the hail that composed a small part of it. Hailstones are white because they contain tiny bubbles that reflect light. Ice that freezes slowly, as in a lake or pond, can often be crystal clear. Thomas noted that the ice tasted “saltish.” Atmospheric ice shouldn’t taste salty because it is pure water vapor that has condensed in the air; however, ground water might.
If Reek had seen a topographical map of the area, he might have been less dismissive of John’s story, but there were no such maps until 1856. Modern maps show a round bald hill behind Balvullich called Cnoc Croit na Maoile. The elevated part of the farm, where the track of the ice seemed to start, is on the lower slope of this hill. It is now covered by a mature forest (Wilson 2015). There is a spring on the hillside about 150 feet higher than the farm house. Close to the spring is an ancient ruined farm house (Historic Environment Scotland 2018) where a small dam and pond for watering livestock might once have existed. The wide bench 425 feet above the farm is boggy in spots and might once have held a pond or spring.
As Sherlock Holmes might put it, having eliminated the impossible, we must concentrate on whatever is left. If it didn’t fall from the sky and it tasted salty, we can assume that the ice had a terrestrial origin, however improbable that might seem in midsummer. There are two hurdles to overcome in a terrestrial hypothesis: how the ice failed to melt before August and how it got to the farmstead of Balvullich if it didn’t freeze there.
The Long Winter of 1849
The winter of 1849 was one of the last of the Little Ice Age. After a false spring in February, it returned with a vengeance more than once. Deep snow fell at the end of that month and again in March (Stirling Observer 1849a). In April, a storm brought a “hurricane of snow and drift such as has not been experienced in this quarter at the same season for very many years” (Inverness Courier 1849b).
The first half of June was said to be the coldest in living memory. One Scottish newspaper compared those first two weeks to December; another to January (Elgin and Morayshire Courier 1849). Ice on pools was “as thick as a shilling” on June 11 (Stirling Observer 1849b) and snow was reported in Banffshire and on the Grampian Hills in the second week of June with damaging frosts (Elgin and Morayshire Courier 1849). Snow fell at Manchester, England, on June 14, where hoar frost was reported on hedges (Perthshire Advertiser 1849). July was described as fine, genial, and even excellent for crops, with daytime temperatures sometimes rising into the seventies but lacking the heat of a normal summer.
Many Victorians managed to keep ice through the summer in ice houses by covering it with vegetation or saw dust. Dry peat is a surprisingly good insulator (Ballantyne 2018). Given the unusually cold weather that year, buried ice in a shaded swale on the northeast side of a hill might have lasted through July.
We are left with the puzzle of how the ice could have traveled more than half a mile down a moderate slope and then ploughed across a level field to the barn if it didn’t have a high velocity from a sky fall. The answer might lie in its shape.
Thomas said the ice was seven feet in diameter and estimated its mass at “12 to 15 cwt.” A hundred weight (cwt) is 112 pounds, so he estimated it weighed between 1,330 and 1,670 pounds. Clearly it wasn’t a sphere, as one might imagine a giant hailstone to be, because a seven-foot-diameter sphere of ice would have weighed more than 10,000 pounds. Using Thomas’s upper limit of 1,670 pounds and a density of 57 pounds per cubic foot, we can calculate its volume at 29 cubic feet. A disk that is seven feet in diameter need only be nine inches thick to weigh 1,670 lbs; eleven inches if its diameter is 6.4 feet (i.e., 20/π). Perhaps it was a disk.
John, an eyewitness, said it was “irregular,” but his use of the word circumference suggests roundness. He didn’t estimate its weight but noted that after it had melted for a day it took “two stout grown up lads to overturn it.” They didn’t roll it; they overturned it, which seems to confirm that it was more flat than spherical. John added that it had “a proportionate thickness,” but what does that mean? Clearly, John had some familiar object in mind—one that had similar proportions but a different circumference. He didn’t say what that was, but I can guess. I imagine that when he first saw it, illuminated by a flash of lightning in a fog-filled hollow by his barn, a man like John Moffat Sr. might have been reminded of Revelations 18:21: “And a mighty angel picked up a stone like a great millstone and cast it into the sea.”
The old millstone in Figure 3 is typical for New York’s Hudson Valley (Schimmrich 2014). It has a diameter to thickness ratio of 6.6. If it had a circumference of twenty feet, it’d be 11.6 inches thick; 12.7 inches if it were seven feet in diameter. These proportions are in the same ballpark as those calculated for the object that John and Thomas described. It appears that the “Huge Hailstone” that fell at Balvullich was shaped something like a millstone. This new information undermines any suggestion that the report was a hoax, for who would have imagined a giant hailstone or ice meteorite as a wheel of ice?
I had a revelation of my own after watching slabs of ice slide off the roof of my house one spring day. I’d noticed some narrow, dashed trails in the crusted snow that covered the lower roof and wondered how they’d been created. I watched a few slabs slide down the snow-covered shingles on the more steeply pitched roof above, but none made it past a zone of bare shingles above the eaves. One began to rotate as it slid. It stopped for an instant when it hit the bare shingles, but its momentum made it flip up onto its leading edge, and its rotation made it pirouette around the point of contact. It then began to roll on its rim across bare shingles, right off the upper roof.
Still spinning, it dropped about ten feet onto the lower roof and then bounced and wheeled down it, leaving a dashed trail in the icy snow. Sometime later, it dawned on me that the disk-shaped ice mass that had “dashed” down a gully at Balvullich might have had gone as far as it did because it was rolling on its rim. Rounded natural objects often get their shape by rolling, and once they get going, the heavier they are the farther they roll (Bejan 2016).
How Ice Might Have ‘Fallen’ on Balvullich in Summer
During the temporary warm spell in February, a frozen pond in a drainage channel on or near a wide bench partway up Cnoc Croit na Maoli was buried by an avalanche of heavy snow, peaty soil, and vegetation from the steep upper slope (Figure 4). Like ice in an icehouse, the insulating vegetation kept the pond frozen through the coldest, snowiest spring in living memory, until the end of July—cold enough that wet hail froze to it during a hailstorm.
The heavy thunderstorm at the end of July produced a powerful flood that washed away the insulating cover, dislodged a large piece of the pond’s thick covering of ice, and washed it down the slope, rotating in the flood. At some point, it grounded, tipped up on edge, and started rolling downhill on its rim. It wheeled and bounced down the hill, accelerating until it reached the bottom of the slope, losing corners as it went.
A sound like thunder shook the Moffat family home as the unbalanced wheel of ice roared down the hillside. The stone wall at the foot of the upper field both deflected and slowed it. It lost more speed as it thundered across the level field, throwing up a spray of mud and water. Fortunately, it missed the house and wobbled into a hollow on the open side of the barn, fell on its side with a thump, and ground to a halt.
This scenario seems to fit the contemporary reports, the topography, and the weather in 1849. It can be tested and used to make predictions, which takes it two steps closer to being science than any previous solution. No hypothesis is useful or scientific if there is no test that might disprove it. Mathematical modeling might answer some questions, but the issue of whether a three-quarter-ton wheel of ice can actually roll 1,200 yards down a 12 percent grade and then runout almost 400 more on level ground might require a full-scale experiment.
The ice-wheel model of the 1849 “fall” predicts that unless it was precipitated by some unique factor, such as the breaking of a small dam that had created the pond, it could happen again. However, it is unlikely to, as long as the forest that grows on the lower slopes of Cnoc Croit na Maoile stands. Before this forest is harvested though, it might be wise to ensure that water cannot pond on the lower slopes of the big hill behind Balvullich.
I thank Shawn Jason, a Fortean researcher specializing in ice fall reports and the founder of Megacryometeors.org, for sharing the original newspaper report of the fall and for bringing Arthur C. Clarke’s musings to my attention.
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