Stargazing options on the west coast
The dark skies of rural Scotland gift us with some of the best star gazing opportunities in the UK. The west coast - with its limited light pollution and longer Autumn and Winter nights - offers some dream locations for budding star gazers.
The Dark Skies of Coll
Where better to start this exploration of the west coast's best star gazing opportunities than with the wonderful Isle of Coll. Around 6 miles west of Mull, in the Atlantic, the Isle of Coll is a tiny island known for its warm welcome. In summer, it basks in some of the longest hours of sunshine in the UK. In winter, the long dark starry nights helped it gain Scotland's first, and the world's twenty-second 'Dark Sky Island' status. That's a huge achievement for a small island community.
Coll is around 20 miles from the nearest streetlight which means that almost anywhere on the island will offer you memorable views of the stars above. Added to that, the island is not mountainous, so there's no peaks and valleys which attract pockets of clouds, so the chances are the night-time skies will be clear. There are three specific locations allocated on the island for night sky viewing - RSPB Totronald, Cliad football pitch and Arinagour - however, given its unique geography, the whole island offers excellent sky gazing opportunities.
Although winter presents more sky gazing opportunities, the best time for seeing the Milky Way on the Isle of Coll is usually during April and May, and then August and September. Coll's a particularly good location to see this given its more southerly position in the Hebrides.
In addition to Coll's official 'Dark Sky Island' status, the Isle of Skye offers a number of official 'Dark Sky locations' - a nationwide network of places that provide great stargazing views, usually nominated by local groups as the best star gazing spot.
Skye's 'Dark Sky locations' stretch from Armadale, Kinloch forest and Kylerhea towards the south of the island to Waternish in the north - with little to no light pollution and huge coastal skies which stretch for miles before you.
A festival for dark skies on the Outer Hebrides
Year round, the Outer Hebrides is a spectacular place to visit. The locations best known for their long summer days offer spectacular winter nights - with little to no light pollution and uninterrupted views of the expansive sky from the beaches of Lewis and Harris in particular. Tolsta and Hushinish beaches are notable star gazing sites, along with the atmospheric Callanish Stones.
Each year, the Isle of Lewis on the Outer Hebrides hosts the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival at An Lanntair and across the island. From 5 - 18 February 2021 the island will host a celebration of dark skies through an ambitious programme of music, film, visual art, theatre, talks and star gazing opportunities. Read more about what's instore this year here.
Your stargazing essentials
If you're new to stargazing, and you're planning to soak up the spectacular starry skies of the west coast of Scotland, here are some of our stargazing essentials:
The stars are most visible on clear nights and clear skies mean things will feel cold. Don't underestimate the chill you might feel especially if you're stood still for a period. Layer up in your warm winter woollies and perhaps bring a chair and a hot drink so you can sip and sit in comfort.
Give your eyes time to adjust to the dark. Whether you've used a torch or the headlights of a vehicle, or you've just left the indoors your eyes will need a little time to adapt to the change in light. It's amazing how many more stars you'll see once you're 30 minutes into the session.
Once adjusted, you can see so much without any equipment. However, if you bring a pair of binoculars, you'll be able to enjoy even more detail.
If you can, perhaps do a little preparation by downloading an app to your 'phone - if there's a signal, it might help you identify what you are looking at, or you can check what might be visible before you go.
Enjoy your evening among the stars - in this part of the world, they offer the star gazer a special brand of peace and tranquillity.