The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival: mixing culture with stargazing

St Celment's Church, Rodel, Harris by Mark Stokes, part of the Dark Skies Festival Exhibition at An Lanntair, which opens on 8 February
St Celment's Church, Rodel, Harris by Mark Stokes, part of the Dark Skies Festival Exhibition at An Lanntair, which opens on 8 February
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The first event of its kind in Scotland, the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival combines stargazing and science talks with film screenings, theatre performances and live music. By Andrew Eaton-Lewis

One night in 1994, an earthquake caused a city-wide power cut in Los Angeles at 4:30am. Woken from their sleep, LA residents went outside to find out what had happened. What they saw in the sky alarmed some people so much that they phoned the emergency services. Others called the Griffith Observatory. All wanted to know the same thing: what was that “giant silvery cloud” above the city? It was, it turned out, the Milky Way. It was the first time they’d ever seen it.

This story often comes up in conversations about light pollution. Los Angeles was among the first cities to introduce tower lights back in the 1880s; the glow in its sky can now be seen from an aeroplane over 200 miles away. And much of the world has followed in the city’s footsteps – it’s been estimated that around 80 per cent of places in Europe and America now never experience a truly dark sky.

In lots of ways, this has transformed the way we look at the world. As a species we used to fear the darkness. Now, increasingly, we fear the psychological impact of too much light and noise, and look for ways to escape it. One result of this is the very modern phenomenon of dark sky tourism, which is where I come in.

For the past few months I’ve been putting together the programme for the first ever Hebridean Dark Skies Festival, led by An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Running from 8-21 February, it’s the first festival of its kind in Scotland, and promises a mix of theatre, live music, film screenings, night-time walks, stargazing and science talks. Guests range from well known TV science presenters like Chris Lintott (from The Sky at Night) and Heather Couper (who has worked with the BBC, Channel 4 and others for decades now) to singer-songwriters Emma Pollock and Rachel Sermanni (in a Hebridean version of acclaimed multi-media project Whatever Gets You Through The Night) and children’s storyteller Andy Cannon (with his 2018 CATS award-winning show Space Ape). The festival’s film programme spans the whole 20th century, from 1925 silent movie Wunder Der Schöpfung (with a live score by Herschel 36 and an introduction by Scotland’s Astronomer Royal) to new Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, via a Valentine’s Day screening of Starman, a 1980s alien romance with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. The ambition is that, as well as adding a new element to An Lanntair’s year-round arts programme, the festival will lure more winter visitors to the Outer Hebrides.

It’s not a new idea for festivals to combine science and arts events; Edinburgh International Science Festival has been successfully doing it for a while now. What gives the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival its unique selling point, though, is that Lewis has both a leading arts centre, in a town big enough to give it a year-round audience, and some of the darkest skies in the UK, thanks to the sparsely populated moors and mountains that make up much of the rest of the island.

I was lured to Lewis two years ago, and recently moved to Gallan Head, a small village built on the site of a former RAF radar station at the most north-westerly point in Britain. On a clear night, the stars are breathtaking – you can see the Orion Nebula, over 1,500 light years away, the Milky Way Galaxy, and one of the Milky Way’s companion galaxies the Great Andromeda Galaxy. A few months ago we saw a moonbow – a phenomenon I’d never even heard of before I moved here (when I shared this story during a recent Good Morning Scotland interview they thought I was making it up). Gallan Head Community Trust, which has now bought the site from the Ministry of Defence, has ambitious plans to build an observatory on the cliff tops here.

Those plans are supported by one of the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival’s special guests, John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, a regular visitor to the island. “I cycled in Lewis when I was a student and did planetarium shows in the 1990s,” he recalls. “I’ve always liked Lewis; I have some good friends there.” Brown is doing three events at the festival. His night-time talk at Gallan Head has already sold out, but on 8 February you can see him introduce the festival’s Opening Gala: Wunder Der Schöpfung, an extraordinary silent film from 1925 which attempts to tell the entire history of the universe in 90 minutes. The screening at An Lanntair will feature a live score performed by Glasgow duo Herschel 36 (one of whom, Stu Brown, is also John Brown’s son), originally commissioned by the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival.

“It’s an astonishing film,” says Brown senior, “a piece of movie industry history and a great insight into an era – the same era as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The animation content makes it worth seeing by itself – to think they had no computers and that it was all done with models and time lapse.” He’s also a fan of Herschel 36’s score, which, he says, “brings fun, dynamism and mood in a much better way than the original sound for the film, which was a recording of pretty heavy, dull classical music and was quite heavy going.”

Brown’s third appearance at the festival will be an ‘Ask the Astronomer’ session on 9 February, part of a whole day of free science events at An Lanntair, including a history of Hebridean connections to the development of rocket technology and space travel – a theme also taken up by that night’s film screening, The Rocket Post, introduced by its BAFTA-winning star Shauna Macdonald, another regular visitor to Lewis. “It’s still my favourite holiday destination of choice,” says the Edinburgh-based actress. “I remember Gary Lewis, during the filming of The Rocket Post, said that you could get drunk on the air here. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant but I now understand just how gloriously intoxicating it is.”

Hopefully others will agree. And if you can’t make it this year, the festival’s Outer Hebrides LEADER funding means there’s already a second one scheduled for 2020. Watch the skies.

The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival runs from 8-21 February. The full festival programme can be found at www.lanntair.com/darkskies