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April 09, 2021 5 min read
This week at Meander we’re celebrating National Parks Fortnight and National Dark Skies Week. As some of the largest stretches of dark sky in Europe are located right here in Scotland’s national parks we thought it only fitting that we talk about stargazing.
Whether you are an aspiring astronomer or astrophotographer or just in it to be one of the few to see our Milky Way with your own eyes, we’ve got some top tips to get you started.
Stargazing is an incredibly unique experience where you are quite literally staring back in time. The light from the stars we see in the night sky are much older than you think. Take the North Star for example or ‘Polaris’ if we are getting technical! It’s starlight has been travelling for 700 years by the time you lay eyes on it. Even the closest star to us, Alpha Centauri, takes around 4 years to reach us.
If you look closely you can see not all stars are twinkling white, they can be bluish white or red/ yellow and the star's colour indicates its age and temperature. White and blue stars are the youngest as they are burning the hottest and brightest. Red and yellow stars are older and not burning as hot.
Where to go Stargazing?
There are three locations in Scotland named as ‘International Dark Sky Places’ that are recognised by the International Dark Skies Association for their exceptional night skyscapes. Two International Dark Skies Parks and an International Dark Skies Community.
Galloway Forest Park
Situated in Dumfries and Galloway it was home to the first Dark Sky Park in the UK and fourth in the world. It has been awarded a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park due to its exceptional sky quality ranking, making it one of the closest in the world to total darkness.
The park boasts great dark skyscapes from each of its three visitor centers as well as seven other mapped locations, these can be found here.
Located within the Galloway Forest Park near Loch Doon is the Scottish Dark Observatory. It is the only publicly accessible Observatory in Scotland that is situated in a dark sky park. The observatory itself has two large telescopes, a roof that opens fully to enjoy a great view of the night sky and an outdoor viewing platform. It’s recommended to book ahead to access the observatory and there are plenty of events and observing sessions run from it.
The Cairngorms National Park
A ‘hidden gem’ within the Cairngorms national park is Tomintoul and Glenlivet, the furthest north Dark Sky Park in the world. In 2018 it was awarded gold tier status by the IDSA. Being surrounded by hills the park is naturally shielded from light pollution from the surrounding areas helping it remain one of the best there is!
There are three dark sky discovery sites within Tomintoul and Glenlivet, the Field of Hope by Tomintoul, Blairfindy moor and The Carrachs are situated in the Braes of Glenlivet. The Cairngorms Astronomy Group run year round dark sky events to allow everyone to discover the fascinating history and cultural heritage of our stars.
Isle of Coll
The Island has been an International Dark Skies Community since 2013. It was the 2nd Dark Sky Place to be designated in Scotland and only the 22nd in the world.
On the Isle of Coll you are more likely to get clear skies than anywhere on the mainland as there are no mountains to attract cloud cover. As a community, Coll’s residents work so hard to keep light pollution to a minimum and you can stargaze from just about anywhere on the Island.
The Isle of Coll makes up one of the Inner Hebridean islands on the west coast of Scotland and due to it’s Northern location the best time to stargaze it outside of May, June and July as there is not enough darkness during these months to fully appreciate the night sky.
When to go Stargazing?
The best time to get out and start stargazing is what's known as ‘True night’ which is an hour after sunset. ‘Blue hour’ is just before this where some stars are visible through a vibrant blue sky which is still partially lit up by the sun. Around a new moon the stars are at their brightest and it is best to avoid a full moon as they can have almost the same effect as streetlights on our ability to see the stars. Check the weather forecast before you go as rain and clouds will obstruct your view. Details about the moon and the weather can both be easily checked by using a free app such as ‘Clear Outside’.
Once you have reached your dark sky destination your eyes can take up to 10 minutes getting fully adjusted to the dark. It’s best to avoid artificial light like phone screens or torches. Red light torches are a great way to still have light without impacting on your view. Apps that are made for stargazing will often have a red light setting to stop your eyes from having to readjust.
We are lucky enough in Scotland to have dark skies where we can see thousands of stars and the Milky Way with no telescope needed. However, if you do want to get up close and personal with our night sky then binoculars or a telescope are needed. Binoculars are recommended over telescopes as they cover a wider frame of view and are a less complicated piece of kit.
If you are interested in knowing more about what you are looking at a sky map or a planisphere is useful. Apps like NASA and ‘Night Sky’ have sky maps and can show you in real time what you are seeing.
You can even get to know our night sky before you even step outside with Stellarium, a free planetarium for your computer, which shows the night sky above you in 3D for you to explore just like you would see it through a telescope.
Excessive use of artificial lighting has caused a shift in the balance of our environment and the clear transformation between day and night has been blurred. Cities glow at night damaging our ecosystem, our wildlife’s health and causing a huge excess in energy consumption. According to the IDSA 83% of people live under a light polluted sky unable to see the stars.
In modern day cities the night sky might show you about 100 stars but in reality there are thousands which we just can't see due to artificial lighting.
The International Dark Skies association are on a mission to protect our night skies. They encourage communities to use more far sky friendly lighting and there are numerous ways we can help their cause. You can learn more about this here.
If we’ve sparked your interest in Scotland’s dark skies and you’d like to read more about photographing the dark skies then check out our article on Stargazing Photography Tipswith Scottish photographer and mountain Guide Tristan Cameron Harper for some of his top tips on Stargazing photography.
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