As a family we’ve visited the Western Isles of Scotland during the warmer summer months, attracted by the wild open spaces, stunning beaches and abundant locations for camping. Unfortunately the long summer days and short nights are too bright to stargaze, so I’ve never had the opportunity to sample the fantastic dark skies the island has to offer. I therefore jumped at the opportunity of participating in this year’s Hebridean Dark Sky Festival, organised by An Lanntair and programmed by Andrew Eaton-Lewis.
My outreach involved delivering astronomy talks and stargazing events at community hubs across the island of Lewis. Over three nights on the island I visited communities at Balallan, Comunn Eachdraidh Nis in North Lewis and the aptly named Edge Cafe over in the west at Aird Uig.
Despite some very wild weather both before and during the festival the three events were a big success, with starry skies materialising in some form at each session. Skies, when clear, were astonishingly dark, with star clusters and galaxies clearly visible with the naked eye and a glorious sweep of Milky Way evident between the fast moving weather.
When presenting my stargazing talks in Scotland I always try to persuade people of the merits of binocular and naked eye observing over telescopes when weather conditions are changeable. This mantra was well demonstrated during these events, with the agility of binocular observing allowing us to quickly head in and out when breaks in the sky presented themselves.
Travelling to each event in my camper van and sleeping out in the wilds was also a memorable experience. Wind, sleet, rain and hail all assailed me at various points during my wild camps, but I was always rewarded with frequent starry skies opening above me when I headed out for fresh air.
The people of the island are also some of the friendliest folk you could meet, with Highland hospitality well in evidence wherever I went. Bounteous servings of tea and cake were never far away!
I very much look forward to participating in the festival again and encourage anyone with an interest in stargazing to consider the Outer Hebrides as a viable winter destination, particularly if you’re seeking some of the very best dark skies available.