Anyone familiar with the Scottish weather might be surprised to hear that Scotland has some of the best “dark skies” in Europe: the clouds and mist frequently clear away at night to leave a spectacular sight of star-studded brilliance against inky black skies.
(Picture Credit: www.cpre.org.uk)
My bookgroup recently read Peter Hill’s wonderful evocative memoir of the early 1970’s, Stargazing (the winner of the Saltire Society First Book award in 2004). Hill describes how, aged 19, he was given a summer job as a relief lighthouse keeper and spent many a “Rembrandt” (as he called them) – the watch at the dead of night between 2 and 6 a.m. – staring mesmorised at the stars, listening to and telling stories, and latterly indeed writing his own first (unpublished) novel in green exercise books. Living to a strict routine, with two other disparate companions, he writes
“And in between I would be up in the light chamber writing my novel, dreaming of the future, staring at the night sky and understanding why the ancients played join-the-dots with the constellations. Sometimes I would invent my own, leaning on the rail in a half-dream-like state, kept awake by the spray and the cold wind.”
He encapsulates a moment in time, a generation – Watergate, the grant system in British universities, pubs that closed at 10 – but above all, he chronicles the passing of an entire profession: the lighthouse keepers, who even then were keenly aware of the imminent threat of automation.
But, back to the dark skies. At Christmas I was in the West of Scotland (one of the nicely “Quink blue black” spots on the map above – which also reminds me of school!) and, night after night, we marvelled at the spectacular show of stars. No one had anything useful like a telescope, but even with the naked eye the sky was so clear (and cold) you could see an amazing amount of detail, as well as myriads of stars not visible anywhere close to our light-polluted cities. The Milky Way was splashed across the centre, a great trail of stars drifting across the sky like a veil. As for constellations, and individual stars, we did our best, but our collective knowledge could only produce a handful – Orion, the Plough, the North Star, Venus … hmm a little homework required here.
So, last Saturday I was delighted to read an article by Jennie Erdal which entirely echoed my own experience at Christmas – except she was canoeing “on a flat, calm sea underneath a starry sky in the north-west Highlands”. How amazing! What’s more, she sums it up in a nutshell when she writes: “it is hard not to feel an atavistic pull towards it [the night sky], a connection with an older, more essential world”.
She reminded me about 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy. And what’s more, yesterday – 13 January – marked precisely the start of the 400th anniversary year since Galileo invented the telescope (see the presentation on the website about all the other scientists caught up in this close race).
“399 years ago to the day, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei had completed improvements to his astronomical telescope, and turned this instrument to the heavens. He observed the distant planet Jupiter, then an enigmatic and mysterious body. Galileo discovered three faint dots either side of this world; what could they be?”
Later he worked out that these were Jupiter’s own moons, now known as the Galilean Satellites – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – in honour of their discoverer. I’m sure that he too felt that thrill which Jenny talks about – an atavistic pull, a connection to an older, more essential world.