Stargazing on the Small Isles
Have you ever taken a night swim under a twinkling sky and watched shooting stars overhead as you warm up by the bonfire? It's a favourite activity of Fiona Hutton, a Canna resident and night sky enthusiast who unsurprisingly goes onto say "There is a magic here I haven't found anywhere else".
The Small Isles have very dark skies, Class 1 on the Bortle scale for those with an interest. Equipped with binoculars or a telescope and the right weather conditions, celestial delights including shooting stars, constellations, planets, the International Space Station, the milky way and other galaxies, can all be viewed with incredible clarity. This viewing quality is behind two of the island's decisions to apply for International Dark Sky status. Canna and Rum are both progressing with applications and hope that accreditation will allow them to build upon existing protections and further safeguard the sky above them. Alex Mumford, Isle of Rum Community, says "With Rum being mainly a National Nature Reserve, we are naturally set up to protect our beautiful skies. We already had minimal electricity on the island with low levels of light ( there are no lights on Rum National Nature Reserve) prior to our decision to apply for the Dark Sky Status. With a focus on conservation, this just seems like a natural step for our community to undertake".
Both communities are planning further education and outreach events about the night sky and hope to bring a Dark Skies festival to the Small Isles at some point in the not too distant future. The hope is that the tourist season will extend into autumn and winter when stargazing is at its best and introduce people to all that makes the islands special throughout these months.
In the meantime, visitors to the isles can enjoy these delights themselves, perhaps igniting a new passion for all things celestial. The best viewing opportunities are through autumn/winter however summer stargazers can also enjoy observing the milky way ( mid Aug onwards is the best time) and with a bit of luck - noctilucent clouds. These rare ice clouds can only be seen at certain latitudes and only through the summer months (end of May - start of Aug). Head outside and look north around midnight for the best viewing opportunity. Keep an eye out for the Perseid meteor shower, the peak of which is around the 12-13th August.
In autumn and winter, wrap up warm and head outside for the last stage of dusk (known as astronomical twilight). Allow at least 20 mins for your eyes to fully adjust to the night sky. Virtually everywhere on the Small Isles is dark sky friendly but you might like to head to the highest point on each of the islands for a completely unobstructed view or to one of the beaches where you can listen to the water lapping as you observe. Download a free app to help you pinpoint what's what. You can find a comprehensive list here. Around the 21st - 22nd Oct look out for the Orionids meteor shower and in December, the Geminids meteor shower (peaking around the 14-15th). Track the International Space Station and sign up to an aurora app for the best chance of viewing the northern lights.
With thanks to Fiona Hutton, Isle of Canna Community and Alex Mumford, Isle of Rum Community.