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Northern Lights and Dark Skies - why Argyll & the Isles is a stargazer's dream!

Northern Lights and Dark Skies - why Argyll & the Isles is a stargazer's dream!
Argyll is one of the best places in Scotland to watch the night sky. There’s very little light pollution making it an unbeatable place to enjoy the magnificence of the universe. Walk outside on a clear night anywhere in Argyll and the canopy of stars will take your breath away. If you get to a recognised Dark Skies area, such as the island of Coll, then the heavens can become, literally, the greatest show on earth. So if you’re dreaming of a star-studded show, head to Argyll for a celestial spectacle that you won’t forget in a hurry.

This time of the year is particularly good in Argyll for stargazing. Long winter nights can combine with an absence of cloud cover to create near perfect viewing conditions, revealing a mind boggling array of stars and excellent prospects of spotting moving objects such as satellites, meteors, meteor showers, comets and even meteorites – thousands of pieces of space rock do impact the Earth every year. While you’ll need a lot of luck to see a meteorite, you’re virtually guaranteed to spot a meteor, or shooting star, if you stare long enough at the night sky. You’ll also find that the moon is endlessly fascinating when observed through a telescope or pair of binoculars on a dark, cloudless night.

There are plenty of places in Argyll that would qualify unofficially as Dark Sky areas, but the island of Coll has been officially designated as such by the International Dark Sky Association. With its sparse population, no street lights and geographic isolation, Coll has some of the darkest skies in Europe. And that makes for truly spectacular star gazing. There are three official night sky viewing sites on Coll: one at Totronald RSPB Reserve, one at Cliad football pitch, which offers a large open space with few obstacles for a complete 360° view of the sky, and one overlooking Ariangour village. The reality is that, with no streetlights on the island (the nearest is 32km away), pretty much all of Coll is great for star gazing.

To immerse yourself in Coll’s incredible dark skies, why not take part in a star-gazing weekend on the island? Coll & The Cosmos is a collaboration between Coll Bunkhouse and Cosmos Planetarium using state-of-the-art technology to deliver an amazing stargazing learning experience in a fantastic location. As well as the fabulous dark skies of Coll, there’s a six-metre indoor planetarium which provides a 360° immersive multi-media theatre experience, ideal for taking a journey through the solar system and learning about a range of astronomical subjects. The next Coll & The Cosmos takes place on 18th and 19th March 2017.

On the Argyll mainland, the Kintyre peninsula is another superb place to take in the night skies. The west coast of his remote, sparsely area is shielded from the light pollution created in Glasgow and Ayrshire by the hills that run down the spine of the peninsula and further east by the isle of Arran. With its clear views over the Atlantic and host of accessible places – including for wheelchair users – Kintyre’s west coast has been designated a Milky Way area by the UK Dark Sky Discovery partnership. Milky Way class status means that the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye - something which is only possible in the darkness found in remote, rural areas such as Kintyre. If you fancy experiencing Kintyre’s dark skies, take a look at West Kintyre Stargazers. This amateur group organises stargazing events at the Argyll Hotel at Bellochantuy throughout the winter months. The hotel’s outdoor viewing area offers uninterrupted panoramic views of the night sky out over the western Atlantic.

Coll and Kintyre are Argyll’s better-known star-gazing locations, but you can admire the night sky right across the region. Simply pick a clear, cloudless night and turn your eyes to the sky. You may even be lucky enough to see the ultimate night-time illumination, the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. Autumn and winter is ‘aurora season’. You’ll need a cold, clear night with limited light pollution and increased solar activity. Staying up to the wee hours of the morning can help too. Websites such as AuroraWatch give alerts as to when there is a possibility of spotting the Aurora in the UK. These ‘dancing lights’ aren’t a common sight, but they’re truly spectacular when they do make an appearance.

So this winter, wrap up, pack a flask of something warm and head outside to experience Argyll’s incredible dark skies.

Header image: Northern Lights at Tighnabruaich by Shane Wasik of Basking Shark Scotland.
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Milky Way from Tighnabruaich by Paul PatersonKintyre Stars by Raymond HosieMilky Way at Dunaverty by Raymond Hosie
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