Dark skies over Galloway

“Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself.”

I woke up this morning to the news that Galloway Forest Park in the southwest of Scotland is the first in the British Isles to be granted the status of Dark Sky Park. The award, announced by the International Dark Sky Association, is given to sites considered ideal for stargazing, and which are managed with that intention.

This is an excellent initiative. The tendency these days is to illuminate every square centimetre of public space in cities, towns and villages, and light pollution is creeping into the most deeply rural areas of the Britain Isles. In many places it is now impossible to see more than the usual planets, and a handful of brighter stars. You certainly cannot resolve distant star clusters and other galaxies with the naked eye.

In these security obsessed times, ubiquitous street and building lighting is seen by many as a good thing. More public outreach and education is therefore needed, and I applaud the International Dark Sky Association in its efforts.

I am a creature of the dark, and also a keen astronomer (formerly professional). During my four and a half decades of existence I have lived in large cities, and also the middle of nowhere. Familiar with the night skies of the southern as well as northern hemispheres, I’ve enjoyed some of the most wonderful telescope and binocular-less sky gazing sessions, and challenge anyone to express disinterest in the universe beyond their immediate surroundings and holiday destinations.

On reading the news today, I recalled my more memorable dark sky encounters in the British Isles. The Northern Isles spring readily to mind, but my strongest memory is of Eryri national park in Wales, where at midsummer in 1990 I went on a climbing and running tour of Gwynedd’s principal mountain peaks, starting at dawn from the car park at Pen-y-Pas. The preceding night was warm, and the air crystal clear, so I set up my bivvy bag in the open. I then spent several hours looking up, and caught only a couple of hours of sleep before scrambling up Crib Goch at first light.

We think of the universe as vast if not infinite in scope, but on that night at Pen-y-Pas, the light from planets, stars, star clusters and galaxies was so intense, and seemingly near in origin. It was a spiritual encounter of the most naturalistic kind, in which one experiences together both intimacy and distance, and also the connectedness of it all.

It was also an experience that makes me want to take out street lights with an air rifle.