It might have come to your attention that darkness falls quite early at this time of year. In Scotland, daylight in summer stretches well into the night and the darkness is brief with light very early morning. Because we can’t have it all, in contrast, winter days can feel quite short with a limited supply of daylight and longer winter nights. So what to do with all this darkness time when you come to visit in winter and early Spring?
Aside from cosying up in front of a warm fire with a wee dram, which we won’t dispute is a nice way to spend an evening, you might want to give stargazing a shot. Winter nights, often crisp and clear, can offer the most amazing spectacle for those not adverse to spending some time with their heads up to the sky. There has been a lot of talk of skies and space lately with the first British astronaut in space since 1991, Tim Speake, arriving on the International Space Station, just before Christmas 2015, so it’s time to take a closer look.
You will probably know that stargazing is affected by light pollution (from street and house lighting) but we are fortunate in Scotland to boast a number of Dark Skye Discovery sites as well as two Dark Sky reserves. Dark Sky reserves are designated by an international body as perfect areas to watch the stars at night thanks to very little light pollution. The Isle of Coll, in the Inner Hebrides, not far from us at Loch Melfort, is a Dark Sky island and reserve, with next to no light pollution and plenty of information on the island to help visitors make the most of this special site. Worth adding to your list of things to experience if you fancy some Hebridean island hopping.
If taking the boat over isn’t your thing, closer to the hotel, you might find that a walk along the coast or inland into less populated areas (or our grounds even) is enough to take you to a great viewpoint for the night sky. It is worth checking the weather forecast before you head off and there are a number of websites and apps available to make sure the weather is right for stargazing. When out and about, don’t forget some warm clothing. Oh, and a torch! You don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark trying to find the right spot.
So what will you see? If you find identifying stars difficult, yøu might want to use one of the many stargazing apps available for smart phones which name the stars according to your location. There are also plenty of simple charts and practical guides for amateur stargazers out there. The most recognisable stars and formations you will come across, facing North, will be the Plough (which looks more like a saucepan than a plough to be fair), further along Polaris, and finally the W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia. Looking towards the South, you will probably recognise Orion’s belt and looking further right, you may notice a small cluster of stars known as the Seven Sisters, and further to the right again, Pegasus.
The stargazing devotees amongst us may benefit from a telescope which is always helpful to get a closer look at the moon and stars but specialist equipment isn’t necessary to appreciate the beauty up ahead. It is also worth remembering that a decent camera with a good lens will do a good job at capturing the heavenly views. If you are a photography enthusiast, then a tripod (for stability), long exposure and optionally a fisheye lens can enhance your starry night pictures.
Now, if luck is on your side, you may find yourself visiting at the right time to spot an aurora borealis or the Northern Lights. This is an absolutely awe-inspiring sight, with the sky illuminated with greens, pinks and golds (depending on the type and arc of the aurora) and at times literally dancing in front of you. The coast is a great place to observe the Northern Lights and it can be quite an emotional and intense experience to stare at the wonders of nature on such a grand scale.
So, all in all, winter nights might not be such a drag, with plenty to do inside and out. So come and experience it for yourself and, most of all, enjoy.