The UK, together with the Eastern USA and Japan, is one of the most light-polluted areas on earth. Wherever you go in most parts of Britain, it is almost impossible, when darkness falls, to escape from the glare of artificial light and view the night sky as our ancestors saw it before the intrusion of electricity. However on the north coast of Sutherland, with man fully occupying only a minute fraction of the landscape, truly dark skies are readily accessible though even the tiniest village may seem to have acquired a surfeit of neon lights.
As a result, any clear night provides ample opportunities for star-gazing and contemplation of our place in the vastness of the universe. A truly dark sky multiplies the number of objects which can be viewed with the naked eye and, even more importantly for those with an interest in astro-photography, removes the fog of extraneous light which so readily degrades any picture and makes photographing the night sky from our towns and cities an almost impossible task.
All the wonders of the northern half of the celestial sphere are open to view from here and, in addition, our high latitude location makes the probability of sighting at least two of the more elusive of these so much greater. From late August through to early April, but with peaks around the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, opportunities exist to glimpse the Merry Dancers, as the Aurora Borealis – or ‘northern lights’ – are known, and as solar activity is likely to peak in 2014 this should, at least in theory, be the best year for observation within the next decade.
In summer, when the short nights make ordinary observation almost impossible, another far north phenomenon comes in to play with the advent of noctilucent, or night-shining, clouds. In the same part of the atmosphere as the aurora is generated, that is from sixty to eighty kilometres up, is a zone impregnated with meteoric dust, where unusual clouds form only visible at night and in high latitudes. These come in an ethereal, bluish-white colour, illuminated by the rays of the sun shining from over the horizon and untainted by the reds or pinks of sunset. They often appear for an hour or so on either side of real midnight and, with their crisper, more definite structure compared to ordinary clouds, once seen are never forgotten.