Solstice Sunsets

Video from the shores of Bunchrew looking over Ben Wyvis, panning from the north west to north east

The sunsets in the Highlands of Scotland are some of the best in the world when conditions are right, especially around the solstice when the setting Sun grazes just 8 degree below the northern horizon producing mesmerising night long sky glow.

On June 22nd I camped out at the Bunchrew shoreline with my daughter Violet and managed to capture some video and still images of the sunset looking north towards Ben Wyvis.  Footage captured around 10.45pm.

 

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Star Stories – Solstice at the Shielings

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Solstice celebrations up at Abriachan tonight. We had a nature walk and talk up to the Shieling above Loch Ness, with Suzann, Christine and Clelland imparting plant and flower lore at various points up the trail.  From the top we learnt all about Shieling life, dairying and got to sample some simple crofting fare.

I then presented a short talk on the Solstice and its astronomical significance, culminating in a human henge to illustrate the changing seasons, rising and setting Sun points and how the ancient Celtic people marked off their Wheel of Time.

We just managed to catch a lovely sunset from the top of the hill before making the trek back down.

The Star Stories events will be resuming in October with another event in collaboration with the Highland Archaeology Festival.  Look out for programme details as they emerge.

Happy Summer Solstice

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Happy Solstice! Official time off the solstice today is at 3.54pm GMT when the north pole of the earth is maximally inclined towards the Sun.

In the north of Scotland we currently experience over 18 hours of daylight and no true night at all, as the Sun dips a mere -8 degrees below the horizon at its lowest point at 1.20am.

Official sunset time today is 22.20pm when the Sun will be at its greatest setting extremity towards the North.  This is where the term Solstice comes from, Sol -Sistere, or Sun Standstill.  The point when the Sun reaches its maximum declination in the sky or its furthest rising and setting points north of east and west on the horizon.

The situation is reversed for out friends in the Southern hemisphere of the planet who are currently marking the winter solstice.

Clear skies if you head out to take in the setting Sun!

Summer Solstice at the Shielings

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Come and join us for an outdoor walk and talk to the Sheilings above Loch Ness. Learn about summer plant lore and old dairying activities from Abriachan’s Suzann and Christine as we walk up the hill.

Once we reach the Shieling local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh will give a talk on ancient astronomy and how many cultures would mark the solstices in days gone by.

Some traditional refreshments will be available at the top after the walk (30 mins uphill).

Meet: Friday 21st June after the Abriachan Highland Games at 8.30pm.

Park at the fank carpark NH559348. For detailed directions please advance email abriachanforest@gmail.com or call 01463 861236. All ages welcome.

Tickets available via Eventbrite.

Due to the outdoor nature of this event it may be cancelled due to very poor weather. Please check the ‘Abriachan Community ‘or ‘Highland Astronomy’ Facebook pages for details on the day. This event is part of the Star Stories Astronomy and Storytelling programme, part funded by the STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council).

Event image rights: Karl Normington.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/36266724@N06/

Night Shining Clouds

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A few weeks either side of the summer solstice is the best time to observe ‘noctilucent’ or ‘night shining’ clouds.

These wispy collections of ice crystals are the highest clouds on Earth, located in the mesosphere up to 50 miles overhead. They’re too faint to be seen in daylight and best observed when the Sun is between -6 and -12 degrees below the horizon.

At the moment at Highland latitudes this gives you an approximate window between 11.30pm and 3am in the morning.

Clear skies.

Winter Solstice Astronomy Outreach

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A captivating Clelland in full swing over the fire

Following the fantastic summer solstice  gathering last June we decided to add an astronomy themed winter solstice event to the Star Stories programme up at Abriachan.

Instead of stargazing the event was billed as a ‘Solstice and Moon night’, as I quickly realised the almost full Moon would be prominent in the sky and wash away significant views of the Milky Way and fainter galaxies and clusters.

As it was the evening was a fantastic success, with a bright mid winter Moon powering through some scattered light clouds and offering us lovely views of its surface via binoculars and video telescope.

 

 

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Before the Moon observing I presented a short indoor talk on the cultural and observational significance of the solstice, linking in various older mid winter traditions such as Saturnalia and Yuletide and outlining the folk connections with modern Christmas.

We also examined the importance of mid winter markers for the ancient settlers of high northern latitudes, where pitifully short days and long winters no doubt motivated a collective and religious celebration of the ‘turning point’ of the Sun’s midday altitude and its rising and setting points.  We followed this with a look at various solar aligned prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge and, much closer to home, the wonderful Clava Cairns which I visited recently with my family on Christmas Eve.

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Presenting my solstice talk before we stepped outside to observe the Moon

After the talk we moved outside to observe the Moon in binoculars and video telescope, with the aid of an outdoor projector and screen I had setup earlier.  The giant screen allowed everyone to see some of the striking features on the lunar surface up close and personal, like Tycho’s crater, the Apennine Mountains and various seas including the famous Sea of Tranquility where the first Apollo astronauts landed.

Meanwhile, Clelland took the second group into the forest for some dramatic campfire storytelling.  This evening he told a solstice inspired Celtic tale involving the mythological hero figure King Arthur, who some think may be connected with Welsh folk legend.  Participants also gathered up and tied together clumps of herbs to burn in the fire as they made new year wishes, another old winter tradition practiced in the Highlands and further afield.

 

 

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Feedback on this one has been great and we may well followup with a March Equinox event.  We’re also seeing many returning families and enthusiastic youngsters, which is fantastic.  Going forward Suzann and I will endeavour to capture some film interviews from some of the keenest young astronomers, recording their thoughts and feedback on their learning experience for future dissemination.

All pictures in this piece (aside from the Moon picture) are courtesy Abriachan Forest Trust.

Marking the Solstice

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The setting Solstice Sun – Image courtesy of Abriachan Forest Trust

We had a fantastic summer solstice event up at Abriachan last Thursday evening.  Despite being a mid week evening the event sold out and we had a lovely gathering of people joining us to learn all about the solstice and why it was such an important cultural and astronomical marker.

The evening started with a round of Sunset Mocktails, crafted by my wife Judith from a wild fruit concentrate, orange juice and lemonade.  We were also blessed with a lovely sunny evening and enough wind to keep the midges at bay, allowing everyone to mingle and chat outdoors.

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A Sunset Mocktail

After waiting for some late arrivals I took the adults and older children into the forest classroom for a talk on the solstice and ancient astronomy, whilst the very young children made flower crowns and Sun mandalas in the greenhouse.

To kick things off I presented a quick ‘what’s up’ guide to June’s night skies and the fantastic collection of planets visible over the next few months – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Vesta, the second largest body in the main asteroid belt.

The talk then progressed onto the observational dynamics of the Sun in the sky – its elevation, setting and rising points and the resulting shape the Sun will make when photographed at the same time each day for a year – an Analemma.  We then looked at the reason behind these dynamics (the Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt) and compared our seasons to that of Mars, a world whose 25 degree tilt and highly eccentric orbit produces some of the most extreme seasonal changes of all the planets.

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This is the shape the Sun makes in the sky if photographed at the same time over a year.  Ancient people probably knew about this by instead looking at the shadow projected from a straight object.  Was this shape tied to the mathematical symbol for infinity, or even Pictish and Celtic knot art?

From there we covered the construction of a primitive wooden solar calendar and looked at various examples of ancient solar markers from across the word, including many of Scotland’s mid winter aligned covered cairns (for example Clava Cairns in Culloden).

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The cairns in Clava have an obvious mid winter sunset alignment and an interesting array of  surrounding stones which raise in elevation towards the South West.

After the talk we broke for more refreshments and it was then over to Clelland for the rest of the evening.

Clelland stared off with a walk and talk describing the various plants which were important during the mid summer months and how the Sun was believed to lend magical power to the plant lore in olden times – boosting their healing and nutritional value.  Everyone then gathered in the green shelter around an open fire as Clelland told a local story to illustrate the way fact and legend are intermingled and passed down through the generations.

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As a final gesture towards the setting sun on the longest day folks were asked to write a wish on paper, set it alight and place it in the loch – a reenactment of an old Scots tradition of sending your wishes tumbling into the loch in burning balls of hay!

Feedback on the event has been great and we’ll almost certainly do something again next year. A big thanks as ever to Suzann, Ronnie and the staff at Abriachan for helping make the event so successful.

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Making a Solstice wish