Can you remember the time you first looked up at the sky and were just amazed at the number of stars ? I’m not talking about seeing a few dazzling stars on a cloudless night but about a star-studded panorama of the Milky Way that seems to reach right down to ground level. In a really dark sky we could see as many as 7,000 stars – but this is just a small fraction of the 70 thousand million million million stars in the universe ! Today, we sadly experience this all too infrequently: it’s estimated that 85% of the UK population has never experienced a truly dark sky.
Awareness of the importance of dark skies is higher than it’s ever been, led by the successful campaigns of the Commission for Dark Skies and the International Dark Sky Association. Light pollution has increased so much over recent decades such that skyglow, the glare that comes from urban artificial lighting, affects around 80% of the world’s population – and up 99% of people in the US and Europe. So much light energy is wasted, never reaching the ground, and much of it is far too bright and unnecessary. (Read more about the misconceptions associated with lighting here). Light pollution isn’t just a problem for astronomers but it affects the nocturnal habits of wildlife – as well as the generations of people growing up without developing a rich interest and understanding of our place in the universe.
Where can I go to experience dark skies in Scotland ?
To get a sense of the light pollution where you live look at this interactive map or view the NASA Blue Marble Navigator map. Google Earth users can download an overlay also created from the World Atlas of light pollution.
There are now several UK locations recognised by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and you can identify the best places to go stargazing in the UK on this map:
- Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park
- Tomintoul and Glenlivet – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park
- Sark Dark Sky Island
- Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve
- Bodmin Moor Dark Sky Landscape
- Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve
- Northumberland Dark Sky Park
- Coll Dark Sky Island
- Elan Valley Dark Sky Park
- Snowdonia Dark Sky Reserve
- Moore’s Reserve (South Downs).
Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park was designated first, back in 2009, and scored 23.6 on the IDA’s scale of darkness (out of 25), later joined by Coll. (For comparison, the readings in Glasgow and Edinburgh city centres are around 8 and a photographer’s darkroom is 24). Tomintoul and Glenlivet – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park has now also been awarded Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status by the IDA, its highest accolade.
You might want to take a visit to an observatory or attend one of the many events they host throughout the year:
- This leaflet provides a good overview of where to view the night sky and what stars and constellations to look for in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre has good views and facilities but there are panoramic viewing points at other locations within the Park. A range of public events are also organised.
- The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory is located at Loch Doon, near Dalmellington. This new observatory is open to the public and includes a 20” Corrected Dall Kirkham telescope in a 5 metre dome and a 14″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for a more hands-on, open air observing experience. Advanced booking for evening events is recommended.
- Coll Dark Sky Island is blissfully remote from artificial light but still only a ferry ride away. You can even visit for Coll and the Cosmos stargazing weekends, staying at the Coll Bunkhouse.
- Moffat is the first Dark Sky Town to be designated by the IDA in Europe
- Kielder Observatory is the best place to visit in Northumberland International Dark Sky Park. However, there are a number of other Dark Sky Discovery Sites (listed here) with off-road car parking, toilets and nearby refreshments at Walltown, Cawfields and Stonehaugh’s Stargazing Pavilion. There’s also an observatory at the Battlesteads Hotel and Restaurant in Wark which organises a regular programme of events
- Tomintoul and Glenlivet – Cairngorms Dark Sky Park officially became the world’s most northerly Dark Sky Park in late 2018. You can find information about the recommended viewing sites on their website and in the Dark Sky Park’s leaflet. There are three main viewing locations with car parking, and events organised by Cairngorms Astronomy Club.
What else do I need to know before I go out stargazing?
It’s well worth checking the phase of the moon before you make any plans since even Dark Sky Parks aren’t dark when there’s a full moon. The lunar calendar will help you plan your visit at the right time.
If you want to learn a bit more about the night sky why not attend a stargazing event? There are events held every weekend at observatories but also including star camps and star festivals.
Stargazing tends to involve a lot of time standing or sitting about and so it makes sense to dress up warm. Wear layers – fleeces, hats, gloves and so on – to regulate your body temperature. Take a flask to help warm up on colder nights. And rather than take a normal torch, take one with a red beam (many headtorches have these) which allows your eyes to readjust more quickly than normal white light.