Caithness astronomers see North Ronaldsay’s dark skies – and sandy beaches

Written by Alex Wright

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day than Thursday 7 September to hold another North Ronaldsay Dark Skies event. The day started early when Gordon Mackie from the Caithness Astronomy Group flew in on the 8 am flight. He got straight to work explaining how to set up our two new Celestron Nexstar telescopes, bought with funding from Orkney Islands Council’s Culture Fund and the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme. These scopes are amazing, they automatically align with any star or planet you tell them.

We stopped for lunch then headed to Nouster Beach to meet three North Ronaldsay Primary School children who were accompanied by Louis Craigie and Mr Mappin, the supply teacher for the day, a few islanders, and an adorable puppy. Walking along the sands by the glistening sea, Gordon told us about the planets.

Gordon Mackie with the Solar System

We set the ‘sun’ (a round cork placemat) by the electricity cable warning sign and started pacing along the beach. We made our way to the edge of our Solar System which was at the other side of the bay. En route we paused to learn about the planets and consider their size – the Earth was only the size of a grain of sand. The children could not hold in their creativity and made the planets in the sand. It was a most enjoyable and educational hour.

Here’s a reminder of the order of the planets from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and here is a mnemonic to help remember the order: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles.

The Bird Observatory played host to a wonderful evening. Gordon gave a presentation on Stargazing under the Dark Skies of Northern Scotland. He covered a range of phenomena that we are fortunate enough to be able to see due to being far north and having little light pollution. We were all very impressed, both by Gordon’s extensive knowledge, but also in his ability to explain so nicely to a lay audience. So much was demystified, such as noctilucent or night shining clouds, STEVE and the tail of a comet.

One fact that was particularly useful was the explanation that our Dark Skies status refers to our low levels of unnecessary light and that our lighthouse is a very necessary light so does not count against us. Gordon ended the presentations with a lively round of questions from the audience and a round of applause from the twenty or so people in attendance. It was so very kind of Gordon to volunteer to come up to visit us and we count ourselves very lucky to have met him and learnt so much, it was a truly priceless visit. Although of course it wasn’t without cost, so many thanks go to Orkney International Science Festival, the OIC Culture Fund and the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme for their support both financially and in the planning of this fine event.

We have funding for more Dark Skies events over the winter and now we have a set of lovely telescopes we can use as well. We hope that the events will appeal both to North Ronaldsay residents and visitors and welcome any suggestions or help with the planning and delivery.

Picture: One of the new Celestron Nexstar telescopes

For more about North Ronaldsay’s dark skies, see:

Merry Dancers in the North Ronaldsay Sky, and Sailing into the Aurora, both by Christine Muir

About the author

Alex Wright

Alex Wright is an ecologist and mother of two daughters. She was born in Wales and has lived in all the nations of the UK, Canada, and France. Six years ago, she moved to North Ronaldsay with her partner, Jack. During their first winter on the island, the dark skies above piqued her interest in astronomy, leading to her involvement in the bid to gain International Dark Skies status for North Ronaldsay. She works as a Projects Officer for the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme and as a Housekeeper at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.