Milky Way

In the Scottish Highlands we’re blessed with many dark locations from which to view the Milky Way, the band of diffuse light revealing our place within a giant spiral galaxy.

Even if you live in a busy city like Inverness, a short drive is all that’s needed to escape to relatively dark skies. Regrettably, in many parts of the UK and central Europe this important connection with our home galaxy has been rubbed out due to light pollution.

Looking up at the Milky Way lets us connect with something vast and far bigger than ourselves – an important check on our own sense of self importance.

More needs to be done to curtail unnecessary outdoor lighting and to educate people on the basics of dark sky preservation.  Retaining access to our night skies needn’t be an economically crippling ideal.  There are simple practical steps people can take that make dramatic differences.  Please see this excellent guide on the International Dark Sky Association website for tips on how you can help.

I’ve made a short video celebrating our views of the Milky Way and how overwhelmed our position is amidst an estimated two trillion other galaxies in the observable universe.

The Winter Sun at Clava Cairns

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Looking south west from inside the north east cairn at Clava

As a family we have a yearly tradition of heading out for a longish walk on Christmas Eve.  We usually park up somewhere remote in the van, make some bacon rolls then head out along a forest trail or up a local hill.  This year we decided to see if we could catch the setting Sun at Clava Cairns, a beautiful bronze age site located only a mile or so from Culloden battlefield near Inverness.

During my astronomy outreach I’ve given quite a few talks referencing Clava Cairns in relation to the fascinating subject of ancient astronomy.  Often wild speculations are made about many prehistoric sites, in particular Stonehenge, with dubious claims of alignments to stellar constellations or complex planetary cycles.  But one thing is almost universally agreed by archaeologists and astronomers alike, that many of these ancient structures were configured to mark the passage of the solar year.

In Clava’s case, both main passage cairns have mid winter setting sun alignments facing towards the south west, such that for several days either end of the shortest day, the light from the setting Sun will shine down the central passage and light up the interior of the structure.

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Sun rays striking the winter solstice aligned passage.

Of course it’s one thing to read second hand accounts of this phenomena, and quite another to experience them first hand.  As luck would have it, when we approached the site around 3.30pm the Sun was clearly visible and just setting in the south west, allowing us to witness this amazing spectacle and to capture some photographs.

From inside the north east cairn, closest to the main entrance of the site, the passage was already brightly washed over with sunlight.  I was curious to determine if the sun’s position was low enough to light the passage when it was originally covered over (several thousand years ago), so crouched down within the passage to take some of my shots.  Sure enough, the rays of the Sun could be directly sighted down the camera lens.

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My daughter Violet standing in the sunlight directed down the main passage of the north east cairn.

The motivation for the astronomical alignment of these structures is still the topic of heated debate amongst historians and archaeologists, but one thing residents of the north of Scotland can appreciate first hand is the depressingly short days and long hard winters we experience at this time of year.  Some sort of large scale and perhaps communal confirmation that the south westerly extreme of the winter sunset (and its associated low midday elevation) had been reached would have been very reassuring to early agricultural societies.

It’s this concept of the Sun both halting its low elevation in the south at midday and the most southern extreme of its setting and rising positions that gives rise to the word Solstice – ‘sol ‘ sistere’ meaning Sun standstill.  The reverse applies during mid summer when the sun rises and sets at its most extreme positions to the north of east and west, and reaches its highest elevation at midday.

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The two main passage cairns at Clava have south westerly mid winter sunset alignments.

There are some researchers who go much further, and point to alignments between the stones at Clava Cairns with the Celtic cross quarter days and the more complex dynamics of major and minor lunar standstills.  Whilst these may be true it should also be remembered that it only takes two points to make a straight line!  As ever we need to be cautious with our wish to believe, and back everything up, where possible, with evidence.

Scapa Festival 2019

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I’m very happy to confirm I’ll be providing more stargazing and astronomy walks and talks at the 2019 Scapa Festival.  Details on my stargazing itinerary at the festival can be found here.

Last years’s festival was fantastic.  Very chilled, friendly and suited to a wide demographic, from families all the way to solo travellers.

I travelled with my family last year in the camper-van and we had a great time, despite none of us particularly being yoga people.  There were so many other great things to do, like bushcraft, nature walks and foraging workshops.  But probably the best time we had was just hanging out in the huge gardens, letting the wee ones play.

To find out more about Scapa please visit their website here or facebook.

World Class Darkness at The Torridon

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The Plough facing north from the grounds of the Torridon Resort

I had a great time with hotel guests at the Torridon Resort this weekend, stargazing under Bortle 1 class dark skies. We were clouded out on Friday evening but had spectacular skies on the Saturday, with galaxies in particular brighter than I’ve seen them before.

The Torridon Resort was the base of operations for this luxury astronomy break.  It’s situated in one of the most remote extremities of the Western Highlands, well within the Bortle 1 and 2 classifications for darkness.

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Stars appear at twilight, facing south from the grounds of the Torridon Resort

Our main excursions took us high above the hotel on the slopes overlooking loch Torridon, near Balgy.  On a previous scouting mission to find good observing locations I bumped into a nice chap called Nigel who owns self catering cottages in the vicinity, at ‘Baden Mhugaidh’.  He had kindly invited me to take the stargazing party onto his land over the weekend, and as we pulled the van up he joined us for some dark sky observing.

Although there were some thin clouds in the north and on the eastern horizon, overall sky quality and seeing was spectacular with the bright band of the Milky way on display overhead and vivid depth evident in the Cygnus region of the galaxy near Deneb and Vega.

Galaxies were popping with brilliant vibrancy in binocular views, with Andromeda showing bright lane detail and Bodes galaxy in Ursa Major clearer than I’ve ever seen it in field glasses.

We took in a tour of the main constellations, including the beautiful clusters in Perseus, the Pleiades and even some double stars, including Alberio which was easily split in the larger set of binoculars.

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M82 and M83 in Ursa Major were the brightest I’ve seen them in binoculars.  They popped into view when scanning the star fields, like two nebulous lanterns

Good views were also possible back at the hotel grounds, and the staff kindly accommodated my request to kill the driveway lights a few times.  The hotel also let us commandeer the library for our meals, allowing me to present some power point talks during dinner on Friday and Saturday evening.  My guests were very friendly and interesting company, with questions and conversation flowing easily.

Unfortunately, I neglected to take my camera into the field, so only took a few snaps from the hotel grounds at sundown. Look out for more Torridon dates in the future.

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The Torridon is situated under some of the darkest skies on earth.

South Loch Ness Tourist Guide

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Starry Skies over Loch Ness by Claire Rehr

Here’s a small piece I wrote for the South Loch Ness tourist website on stargazing in the Highlands.

South Loch Ness Tourist Site – Night Sky

Excerpts:

“For me stargazing is about reconnecting people with the night sky, not just the raw science which is fascinating enough, but also the star lore, mythology and human connections with it.  That’s something we’ve undoubtedly lost in recent times not only in terms of light pollution but also our tendency to inhabit virtual spaces within our phones and gadgets.  As a people we seem to be increasingly looking down rather than up! 

 ‘In the Highlands we’re still fortunate to have access to some of the darkest skies in Europe, and it’s something I hope we’ll do our best to preserve for future generations.  Visitors from populated areas of England and the central belt of Scotland are always blown away by what they can when they get into the wilds under a moonless sky.  Under the right conditions you can see over 5000 stars out here, compared to just a few hundred from urban areas. ”

 “For visitors to the South Loch Ness area I recommend just heading out to some high vantage points, killing your lights and letting your eyes dark adapt.  You’ll be amazed when you look up.  You can also head up to Abriachan where there’s good access and parking for larger groups of stargazers”.  “When the moon is new you can see breathtaking views of the Milky Way galaxy soaring overhead – a humbling reminder that we’re just a tiny part of a giant spiral galaxy surrounded by billions of other stellar companions.” 

 “Because of our northerly latitude (57 degrees north) we also have the privilege of witnessing many circumpolar constellations – stars that are always above the horizon.  This lets us become more familiar with specific groupings like the two bears Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and rich constellations like Perseus, Draco, Auriga and Cassiopeia.  During the winter months the shorter days up here also lend themselves to extended opportunities for observing.  It’s a rewarding pastime that makes the cold and long winter nights much more inviting.’

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