Dark Skies & Northern Lights

31 January 2017

 croft 23

Photo: The Northern Lights from Croft 23

Scotland has an enviable reputation as having some of the most spectacular landscapes anywhere in the world but as the sun sets and the day ends this is only beginning. Some of the most fascinating things to see are only visible after dark. Due to its relatively low levels of light pollution Scotland has been quietly establishing itself as one of the world’s foremost stargazing destinations. All over the country organisations and clubs have been set up to take advantage of the perfect conditions and the increased interest in the night sky.

A Dark Sky Park is a place with exceptionally dark night skies, a place where people have committed to keeping those skies dark, by controlling light pollution. In November 2009, the International Dark-sky Association designated Galloway Forest Park as only the fourth such park in the world and the first in the UK. Since this designation interest in stargazing and visiting the park at night has surged with a regular series of events to cater for the curious. Craigie Knowes lies just south of the park boundary, it is well worth packing your binoculars for an evening visit or to swing by The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Dalmellington.

The Dark Skye initiative has attempted to do something similar on the Isle of Skye. Local enthusiasts have mapped and recorded nine different locations where the inky black skies best present the heavens in all their spectacular beauty. These locations throughout the island all enjoy good access, with firm ground for wheelchairs, and promise an unforgettable experience on a clear night. One of the sites recommended is the field just next to the Clan Donald centre, easily accessible from Teangue House, just a few miles away. The wonders of Skye do not cease when the sun goes down.

The Northern Lights must surely be one of the natural world’s most amazing sights with its elusive nature only adding to its attraction. Although you can never guarantee a sighting it is possible to maximise your chances, an aurora watch app can notify you if the prevailing conditions are conducive to a sighting and the further north and remote you are the better your chances. Croft 23 near Gairloch has an amazing architect designed glass atrium that floods with light during the day and is perfect for stargazing in comfort at night. The nearest street lights are miles away so when sightings of the Aurora occur, as they do every year, then they tend to be spectacular.

St Andrews has many famous attractions, chiefly the amazing beach and historic golf course but few people realise it is also home to the largest working telescope in the country located in the department of astronomy at the University. Throughout the year there are regular open nights hosted by the university’s astronomers and events where telescopes are set up for visitors to observe the night skies. It’s just a short walk to the campus from Balfour House, and on a winter evening, when the sky is clear, it makes for a fascinating distraction for a few hours after dinner.

West Kintyre Stargazers are a highly active group of enthusiasts based on the Kintyre peninsula. This area has been awarded “Milky Way Class” as recognition of the clarity of the night sky here and over the years the group have managed to promote the area with talks, lectures and observation events. The premier location here is on the west coast, with open views across the Atlantic, mainly because the main land mass of the Kintyre Peninsula and the Isle of Arran to the east shields the area from the light pollution that spills out from Glasgow and the Ayrshire coast. This makes this location ideal for astronomy and astro photography, with clear un-polluted air and truly black skies. What can be seen with just a pair of binoculars is inspiring, and if you then view the night sky through a telescope, you will be richly rewarded with crisp images of neighbouring planets and even deeper space objects. Kirkland House lies just a few miles up the coast, family friendly with a walled garden it is also an easy walk to the beach.