Dark skies could light up tourist trail to Outer Hebrides

They already draw visitors from around the world thanks to their unspoiled landscapes, deserted sandy beaches, prehistoric sites and dramatic sunsets.

A still from the dark skies festival trailer. Picture: John Macdonald

Now the Outer Hebrides are to be promoted as one of the UK’s best places for a break in the depths of winter thanks to the darkness of the region’s skies. Special astronomy and stargazing events are to be staged across the islands each February as part of a drive to attract more visitors to the islands outwith the peak tourism season.

Led by the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival will feature guest appearances from some of the UK’s leading scientists and astronomy experts.

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Theatre, live music, film screenings and visual art events are planned, along with outdoor talks and activities, for the first event.

Potential visitors will be urged to visit some of the most remote corners and “end-of-the-road” destinations in the islands to get the best views of the night sky, including possible sightings of the Northern Lights, the Milky Way and the Orion Nebula.

Key locations include Gallan Head and the Callanish Standing Stones on the west side of Lewis, and Ness, the northernmost part of the Outer Hebrides.

A key selling point will be the Outer Hebrides’ claim to offer the darkest skies anywhere in the UK, based on data gathered by event partner Stornoway Astronomical Society.

Elly Fletcher, chief executive of An Lanntair, said: “The initial thinking about the festival came from conversations we were having locally about how incredible the skies are in those dark winter months.

“There is already an active group of islanders who go out and about to take photographs. We saw a real opportunity to try to bring more visitors to the islands. February is very quiet here, but it’s also the optimum time for dark skies and the best opportunity to see astronomical sights.

“We’re hoping the festival will appeal to people who might be coming anyway for a break, as well as others who are looking for a different event in the winter, a bit of adventure and the chance to explore a new part of the UK.

“The festival will be very relevant to local people too and there will be enough in it for people who have absolutely no idea about the stars at night, but there will be very specialist talks and opportunities to meet with some of the biggest scientists in the UK.”

Rob McKinnon, chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, said: “We are seeing longer and longer seasons each year. The way people holiday is changing. They are taking more short breaks and want a variety of different experiences. A number of loyal visitors specifically come when it is quieter to enjoy the tranquillity.

“Our visitors always talk about the sense of space on the islands and the scale of the landscape – big moors, big seas and big skies.

“The festival is not exclusively for tourists, though. Almost uniquely in the islands, Stornoway is a fair-size town and An Lanntair puts on year round activities for residents. This is seeing if we can combine those with an event that would appeal to visitors as well as islanders.”

Fletcher admitted the winter weather in the islands could provide potential challenging for would-be visitors to the event, but pointed out the majority of events would be staged indoors.

She added: “The astronomical society will be organising stargazing events out and about throughout the landscape. They will be very much be weather dependent, but are hoping to set up some kind of alert system, either via an app or on the official website.

“It’s really quite different in the islands at that time of year than it is during the summer-time. Lots of people who have previously come here have maybe not been in the winter, but would love to do so.

“You may to put several coats on and wrap up well, but that will all be part of it.

“The ferries in February are probably not as reliable as the flights to the islands. They can be quite wild, but that can also be part of the experience of coming here.

“The beauty of that time of year is you are a lot less likely to have trouble with the ferries being full.”

The Outer Hebrides is the latest part of Scotland to try to position itself as a “dark sky destination.”

The Galloway Forest Park, which covers around 300 square miles, is one of only four “Dark Sky Parks in the western world.

VisitScotland says the country will placed to capitalise on having some of the largest expanses of dark sky anywhere in Europe, Its official website states: “One of the most magnificent sights in all of nature is the night sky peppered with stars, distant planets and streaking meteors.”