Rock-slope failure scars on sandstone mountains in NW Scotland

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Amongst the most neglected landforms in formerly glaciated mountain environments are the scars of major rock-slope failures where the displaced rock or runout debris has been removed by glacial erosion. The characteristics of 33 such debris-free failure scars (DFFSs) on Torridonian sandstone terrain were analysed. These range from 0.011 to 0.183 km2 in ground area, and scar volume implies removal of ~0.4–9.9 Mt of rock. Failure planes are planar or stepped at gradients of 37–50°, implying failure as ‘rough’ translational slides; most probably represent former rock avalanches or fragmented rockslides where shear through bedding planes resulted in runout fragmentation. Extension of 85 % to the slope crest is consistent with coseismic triggering during periods of glacio-isostatic crustal uplift. At least ten DFFSs demonstrably pre-date expansion of the last ice sheet at ~35 ka, and at least five probably represent failure that occurred in the Lateglacial interval of ~16–11.7 ka. Fourteen are located within cirques, confirming the importance of RSFs in cirque extension during ice-free interglacials or interstades; others have contributed to trough widening and the formation of arêtes. Older upper-slope cavities in Torridonian mountains are probably also the results of (possibly recurrent) rock-slope failures. It is concluded that the large-scale morphology of the Torridonian sandstone mountains reflects a long-term synergic relationship between alternating episodes of glacial erosion and rock-slope failure: reduction of rock-slope stability during each glacial-deglacial cycle has predisposed slopes to eventual failure, with subsequent glacial removal of displaced blocks and runout debris.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the Geologists' Association
VolumeIn Press
Early online date31 May 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 May 2024


  • Debris-free failure scars
  • Cirques
  • Glacial erosion
  • Rock avalanches
  • Rock-slope failure
  • Torridonian sandstone


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