Stargazing on Tiree is tumbling into infinity

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Since I waved a sad farewell to my mid-twenties, that innate ability of all youthful people to stay up past 11pm has left me.

Now, I’m generally sporting pyjamas by 8pm. At the latest. If you require me to be fully dressed beyond that point, you’ll need to come up with something quite compelling.

It was with a sigh of resignation that, on a Monday night, I changed back out of my pyjamas and into more respectable attire. The sofa looked so comfortable. The kettle – just ready to boil for a bedtime mug of herbal tea – called wordlessly from the kitchen. I clicked off the light and closed my front door.

The roads were quiet, and the sea was silver as I drove past Traigh Thodhrasdail. In my headlights, the shining eyes of brown hares raced over ditches and under rylock fencing. The fish-white bellies of snipe flashed at the periphery of the beams.

It was all very serene and absorbing – so, slamming on the brakes to avoid a large hedgehog felt abrupt in more than just the obvious sense. I dimmed the lights and stepped out of the car to move him. After all, other drivers would be traveling along this road tonight.

The hedgehog didn’t lodge any major objections to being airlifted from the tarmac and placed safely into nearby pasture. Usually, these little animals tense up – but this one just dangled and snuffled, with my fingers lightly pressed against its warm tummy. Out of harm’s way, it trundled off into the gloom.

When I arrived at the agreed spot, there were already several cars. Red headlamps bobbed as people extended tripods, focused cameras, and swivelled telescopes.

This was the inaugural outing of our Tiree Dark Skies group, at the recently listed Dark Sky Discovery Site on Balevullin Bay. We were here to watch
the Lyrid meteor shower (several anxious minutes were spent debating the correct pronunciation of this).

The evening was the brainchild of my colleague Louise – who has kindly taken over the hiring-out of our Tiree Ranger Service telescope – in response to my majestic lack of astronomical knowledge.

Flasks of tea were passed about, picnic blankets were spread and hushed conversation overtook the group.

Identifying stars is challenging enough but at least it’s less socially awkward than trying to identify friends and neighbours when you can’t see their faces. This peculiar fact added to the sense of camaraderie, as we clustered together like strange penguins in the dark.

Tiree is blessed with beautiful skies: light pollution levels are low here. On a good clear night, the Milky Way blasts its way through the heavens like a slow-motion glitter cannon.

It isn’t just visible – it looms.

You can stand on your stoop, pulling your dressing gown closer about you, and feel the dazzling light of eternities illuminating your upturned face.

Sometimes, behind the thatch of my roof, yellowish-green columns of aurora shift in a strange titanic silence.

I couldn’t give you the name of five stars. I know almost nothing of the constellations, or the rich soup of folklore and mythology that surrounds them. But it doesn’t matter. Don’t let it put you off.

As we watched for the strike-light of meteors overhead, we were united by something older and more elemental. That teetering moment of vertiginous awe belongs to all of us.

You don’t need to know anything about our cosmos to lift your gaze, and find yourself tumbling into infinity.