SHETLAND, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides are in line for a tourism boost as stargazers flock north for a rare chance to see a total solar eclipse.
The once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse will be visible in Scotland around 9:30am on 20 March, when the moon will completely block the sun, offering a great view of its corona.
The celestial event will be more complete in the north of the UK, with the percentage of the uncovered varying from around 84 per cent in London to around 94 per cent in Glasgow and Aberdeen.
However, astronomers predict that Shetland and the Outer Hebrides will see up to 98 per cent of the sun obscured by the moon, with Skye and Orkney at around 97 per cent. And Faroe Islanders will witness a total solar eclipse that will last around 2 minutes and 12 seconds.
The next solar eclipse will be in America in 2017, and the next total eclipse anywhere near the UK will be in 2081 in central Europe, and finally in Britain in 2090.
A number of special cruises have been organised to take holidaymakers north into the path of the eclipse, which will be total above the Faroe Islands. Many of these ships are set to call in to port in the Highlands and Islands, bringing a timely out-of-season bonus.
Barbara Foulkes, Visit Scotland island manager for Orkney, said the cruise liners will generate “millions of pounds” for the local economy.
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She added: “In the summer, when cruise ship arrivals are at their peak, we can see up to several hundred people a day accessing our information centre to find out more about making the most of their time on Orkney.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming passengers on their way to see the eclipse, when they will discover that the outstanding natural beauty of Orkney truly is out of this world.”
Ina Fordham, chair of Tourism Hebrides, feels more needs to be done to publicise this “once in a lifetime” event.
He said: “This solar eclipse is a welcome boon at the start of the tourist season.
“At present it really is an unsung gem and a bit under the radar so we need to do more to capitalise on it.
“This solar eclipse won’t just appeal to stargazers but everyone will find it quite striking. The last time there was such an eclipse in Cornwall, the tourist industry there made a killing and we should be striving to do the same.”
A total eclipse occurred back in 1999 and the only part of mainland Britain to witness totality – the full blacking out of the sun by the moon – was Cornwall in south-west England.
More than a million people gathered in Cornwall and Devon for the event, with cloudy skies greatly reducing the effect for many.
It’s not just the north of Scotland that is hoping to cash in on the eclipse either, the Selkirk Arms Hotel in Kirkcudbright, near the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, is also offering a special eclipse package.
Owner Douglas McDavid said: “We offer stargazing weekends throughout the year, and we’re very excited about the eclipse.
“We’ve been organising this for six or seven months and there are only a few places left.”
International Dark-sky Association member Steve Owens, from Glasgow, has offered some helpful tips for amateur stargazers hoping to catch a glimpse of the eclipse. He said: “Don’t view the eclipse with the naked eye as it can cause permanent damage to your sight and even blindness.
“The safest way to view it is with a pair of eclipse glasses which you can buy quite cheaply.”