Welcome the Dark

22 February 2021
The Milky Way.

The inspiration for Big Bang Week, comes from the pristine skies of Galloway’s Dark Sky Park on the doorstep of Scotland’s Book Town. Freelance ranger Elizabeth Tindal explains.

The big bang was the start of the universe as we know it. It came from a single point and expanded outwards. Big Bang Week 2021 (3-6 March) is similarly expansive, starting at Wigtown and spreading outwards, via the internet, to interested parties across the planet. 

We are blessed that Wigtown is situated amid world class natural and cultural heritage. The UNESCO designated Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere surrounds us, and we are especially lucky that our Biosphere has a very special place at its heart, the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park.

The Galloway Dark Sky Park was designated by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2009. It was the first Dark Sky Park in Britain and also Europe and the fourth on Earth, which makes it pretty special. It is a gold tier Dark Sky Park meaning that Wigtown is right beside one of the darkest places on Earth and boasts some pretty dark skies itself. From there you can see across our universe - just the right place to host a space themed week.

If you get a chance to look at a satellite image of Britain at night, the area around Wigtown and the Dark Sky Park looks like it doesn’t exist because there are so few lights compared with everywhere else. Very people live in the park’s 300 square miles, and it’s vital that the surrounding population centres, such as Wigtown, create as little light pollution as possible to protect that special darkness. It is saying something when most of the light pollution in the Dark Sky Park comes from the moon.

Looking back on my first Wigtown Book Festival Stargazing Experience as a Biosphere Dark Sky Ranger it was an amazingly clear night. People kept arriving and asking if they could get tickets to join in. Eventually around 50 people walked with me down the street and out of town to Wigtown Harbour.

It was a great route, you could stop and look at a variety of light pollution on the way, and a few stars too. Humans like to light up the darkness and there was light spilling from people’s windows and lights outside houses in addition to the streetlights old and new. These all gave a great opportunity to talk about keeping our darkness by closing curtains and having lights that were triggered when you came home rather than being on all the time.

The old streetlights spilled light upwards and we could only see a few stars near them. The new LED lights faced downwards only lighting what was needed maintaining the darkness above them. Looking out over Wigtown Bay we could see the distant lights of Creetown and Carsluith plus, if we stood in the right places, the main stars making up constellations. The last streetlight was especially interesting drawing in lots of moths plus bats which were feeding on them.

Light pollution doesn’t just affect our view of the stars it affects the animals that live around us often very negatively. With Wigtown’s lights behind us standing down at the harbour the main stars in each constellation were joined by thousands more creating a brilliant opportunity to share star science and stories. Our eyes had got used to the dark and we had become at home there, coming back the lights in Wigtown seemed to be glaring and alien.

We and the animals around us need darkness to keep our body clocks on track and that is part of the reason that our Dark Sky Park was created to help maintain the dark for animals and birds, even plants that are affected by our need for light. Maintaining the darkness within and around the Park has changed our night-time landscape. 

The following year I led another Stargazing Experience on the same route, it was different, the lights had been changed! There were no more old-style lights to show as a bad example. Dumfries and Galloway Council working with the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park have been working to put in LED lighting across Dumfries and Galloway. Not only is it good in reducing light pollution it is more efficient to run and better for our body clocks too. What stands out in my mind though is that looking over from the opposite side of Wigtown Bay at night it was as though Wigtown had almost disappeared compared with the year before. 

Darkness and stars have always intrigued people. Dark skies are never quite the same, the sky changing from hour to hour at night as the Earth rotates and from season to season as the Earth’s tilt brings more or less darkness creating a change in the constellations that can be seen. The moon changes during a month and with it the tides.

Once the planets were classed with comets as ‘wanderers’, strange stars that did not follow that pattern of the other stars. Now we know so much more we have landed a probe on a comet - even if it bounced - sampled their tails and investigated our solar system’s planets.

In February, we landed a new rover, Perseverance, on Mars. It is designed to look for signs of life and bring samples back to be studied on Earth. We even have two Voyager spacecraft which after 40 years have made it outside our solar system. Onboard are greetings from the people of Earth examples of our culture, photos and music all on a golden record.

When I go out into our Dark Sky Park, these are some of the things I think and talk about. One of the best conversations I had while stargazing was with a 10year old boy. He kept starting with the phrase: “I know this is a stupid question but….”. What was outside the universe? Did aliens exist? He ventured into the realm of theology and more.

There is nothing stupid about these questions, and there is something about being out in the dark under the stars, staring at the universe that makes us ask questions. IIt makes us question our very place in the universe. I like to think here are lots of other stars surrounded by planets out there, where other people exist. I’m sure they are looking back and asking the same kinds of questions. Possibly they know more of the answers than we do, maybe less.

Just like the big bang creating an expanding universe, our Dark Sky Park and events like the Big Bang Week from Wigtown create an expanding circle of discussion and learning about darkness, stars and space. By looking at these outside influences we can learn more about ourselves.

In traditional stargazing style, I wish you clear skies.

Elizabeth Tindal is a freelance ranger and Biosphere Dark Sky Ranger working in Galloway. Big Bang Week 2021 takes place from 3-6 March 2021.  Tickets free, online. (www.wigtownbookfestival.com/programme)

Filed in: Big Bang