Bagpipes, tartan, fiddle tunes, whisky, Outlander, the Loch Ness Monster, Sir Walter Scott, Andy Murray — Scotland is known for many reasons. It is also one of the best places to see the night sky, to observe the Milky Way, and to look for the northern lights.
Galloway Forest Park in the southwest of Scotland offers much to like if you explore its three hundred or so square miles during the day. The park, which was established in 1947, is nicknamed the Highlands in the Lowlands for its varied landscape. After the sun sets, there’s much more to explore in the park, which is is recognized by the International Dark Sky Association International Dark Sky Association for the quality of the stargazing experiences you can have and for the commitment of the Forestry Commission’s staff to keeping those experiences ongoing. There are three visitors’ centers in the park. The one at Clatteringshaws overlooks the darkest part of the forest. There are information points and signs at various points in the park to help you identify what you might see in the sky. No doubt you’ll not need signs to help you recognize one of the sky features you can often see clearly at Galloway: the Milky Way.
The isle of Coll, off the coast of Argyll, is recognized for the quality of its night skies, and the two hundred or so people who live there have taken steps to put in place night time lighting practices that help with this. There are no streetlights on Coll, and dark night is part of the life the islanders are used to and choose to continue.
There’s a dark sky town in Scotland too: Moffat, which like Galloway Forest Park, is in southwestern Scotland. There’s dark sky friendly lighting in the town, which town representatives say will enhance the town’s appeal to stargazing visitors.
There are many other places where you can seek out dark skies and ways to view the Milky Way and other stars. Glen Nevis near Fort William, about three hours north of Glasgow, is one such place. The mountains of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor, nearby, lend themselves to little light pollution, dark skies and stargazing. In the CairnGorm Mountains toward the north center of the country there are many places for dark nights, as well.
–>Update: The International Dark Sky Association has now designated the Glenlivet and Totmintoul area of the Cairngorms as an International Dark Sky Park. At this writing, it is the most northerly such park in the world. Communities, businesses, the parks agency, individuals, and schools in the area are working together to preserve the area’s dark skies.
In the far northeast of Scotland, quite a bit of the landscape is actually sea scape. While there are lights from oil rigs and ships plying the waters, and from the ports they seek from Peterhead to Aberdeen, there are expanses of dark sky as well.
The island of Skye itself, to the west, is the location of nine dark sky discovery points and home to some of the darkest skies in Europe. From Armadale in the south of Skye to Dunvegan in the north, these discovery points offer good access, and Skye’s resident dark sky expert offers to answer you questions by email, too.
–>Update: An Lanntair, the arts center in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles, is host to Hebridean Dark Skies Festival in Stornoway and across the isle of Lewis. It happens in February in and includes stargazing events, walks, talks, films, music, and more. Follow that link above to the festival’s name for all sorts of information. Lewis has some of the darkest skies in Scotland — and An Lanntair’s name is Gaelic for The Lantern.
The Western Isles have their own attractions when in comes to stargazing. People have been watching the stars in Scotland since well before the birth of Christ, and some scholars think the standing stones of Callanais on the isle of Lewis, set in place more than five thousand years ago, were at one time an astronomical or lunar calendar. For a glimpse of what you might see in the dark skies over the isle of North Uist, take a look at this time lapse film shot by Julie Mitchell:
The far north of mainland Scotland and, north of that, the northern isles of Shetland and Orkney are also fine places to look for stars, and for ancient standing stones which may have been meant to interpret their movements. These are also fine place to look for the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.
It’s possible, actually, to see the aurora almost all across Scotland, even above the city lights of Edinburgh if weather conditions are in your favor. Everywhere you can see the lights, from Canada to Iceland to Finland to Alaska to Russia to Northern Ireland, they take on their own quality, and they are not as predictable as weather alerts might make it seem. That said, the north of Scotland is a very good place to look. While you are out stargazing, especially in autumn and winter, you may chance upon these dancing lights, as well.
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