Top 5 places to enjoy the night sky

Photograph: Flame & Horsehead, taken in Galloway by Steve Foy

Photograph: Flame & Horsehead, taken in Galloway by Steve Foy

The dark sky ‘movement’ is gathering pace in Scotland, with a host of sites now recognised as offering particularly impressive views of the night sky. Here are five of the best.

1 Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, Dumfries & Galloway

Wild, remote and, crucially, very dark, Galloway Forest Park was designated as the UK’s first Dark Sky Park in 2009. Since then, the area has built on its reputation as a top astronomy spot with a range of events from impromptu star-gazing for beginners, to more formal evenings with guest speakers covering specific astrological topics together with guided observations of the
night sky.
The recent opening of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory at Loch Doon – the world’s only public-use observatory in a Dark Sky Park – plus the many star-gazing weekends now offered by local accommodation providers highlights just how big the night sky has become in this part of Scotland.
And there’s plenty to get excited about. The skies are so free of light pollution that it is possible to see the ‘dust lanes’ within the Milky Way, a variety of constellations and Andromeda, the most distant object visible with the naked eye and our nearest neighbouring galaxy at 2.5 million light years away. With a little instruction and the right equipment, it is also possible to observe nebulas – where stars are born – pulsars, comets and even asteroids.

2 Moray coast and beyond

Amateur astronomers are spoilt for choice in Moray, with the area’s dark skies providing a host of sites for members of SIGMA, Moray’s Astronomy Club, to gather. The club, which aims to make astronomy accessible to anyone with an interest in the night sky, has its own bothy and dark site at Easterton Airfield near Birnie (home of the Highland Gliding Club). However, with its clear, dark, northern horizons, the Moray coast offers a variety of sites that are ideal for Aurora watching or just general star-gazing.
With assistance from SIGMA, star-gazing is one of the tools being used by the Cabrach Community Enterprise (CCE) at its Acorn site – formerly Cabrach Primary School – which is now an official Dark Sky Discovery Site. Such sites often require a bit more effort to access, but the payback comes in rugged landscapes and wonderful star-gazing opportunities. Both Sigma and CCE offer a variety of talks and public events throughout the winter months.

3 Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides

The Isle of Skye could well become Scotland’s latest star-gazing hot-spot following the launch in March by Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor John Brown, of ‘Dark Skye’ – a project that plans to build on the recent accreditation of nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites across the island. Three are found in the northwest around Waternish, one near Broadford, another two at Kylerhea and Kinloch Forest, with the remaining three sites on Clan Donald land at Armadale in the southwest of the island. With limited light pollution, much of Skye offers good scope for star-gazing, but the nine sites have been assessed as being particularly ideal spots for viewing the wonders of the night sky. All are well marked, have car parking and are wheelchair accessible. Further potential sites are being explored on Raasay and Lochalsh.

4 Glen Nevis, Lochaber

Another designated Dark Sky Discovery Site, Glen Nevis offers a perfect opportunity to experience the night sky within easy reach of a major town centre. The lower reaches of the glen are accessible on foot from Fort William, although it obviously gets darker further in and away from the lights of the town. Facilities are good, with a visitor centre, plentiful car parking and periodic star-gazing events. The whole glen has been designated, although there are particularly good spots to concentrate on. Try the car park by the visitor centre or Lower Falls further along the glen, while the more intrepid could head up the forestry track towards the summit of Dun Deardail. The elevation adds to the experience – as do the sounds of a forest at night. The Highland Council’s countryside rangers at Glen Nevis Visitor Centre can offer further advice. Tel. 01397 705922.

5 Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

Although not an out-in-the-wilds experience, the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE), Scotland’s flagship centre for astronomy, is a great starting point for anyone looking to learn more about our night sky. One of the UK’s leading centres of astronomical research – and the driving force behind the Dark Sky Scotland initiative – ROE also has a recently-renovated visitor centre that offers an ideal introduction to astronomy.
Particularly popular (booking recommended) are the public astronomy evenings held every Friday night from October to April that are designed to equip even complete novices with the knowledge to find their way around the night sky. When conditions allow, visitors use the observatory’s telescopes and are given a naked-eye guide to the main constellations. The evening also includes a tour of the observatory’s Victorian telescope dome, a presentation on the work of ROE and – perhaps best of all – a meteorite handling session.

This article first appeared in issue 18 of Scotland Outdoors magazine

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