The night sky is now firmly established as one of Wigtownshire’s top tourism attractions. In Issue 5 we met the Dark Sky Rangers mapping the stars for visitors.

INVISIBLE during the day but truly spectacular at night – the stars are one of Wigtownshire’s  top tourist attractions. Being one of Scotland’s darkest corners, the area offers stargazers the chance to look deeper into the galaxy than anywhere else in the country. With bright city lights a few hours drive away, the night sky is allowed to shine.

The Galloway Forest was named as the world’s first ‘dark sky park’ outside the USA in 2009.  Now tourists from all over the world visit Wigtownshire to get the best views of distant stars, bringing £500,000 every winter to the local economy.

Nearly one million people gaze up from the Galloway Forest every year – the dark sky status has been  a major influence in the number increasing by 100,000 over the last ten years.

Dark Sky Ranger Nick Robertson does not claim to be an astronomy enthusiast, just someone who appreciates the night sky.

He said: “I have had friends come and visit and say ‘you’ve got an awful lot more stars in Scotland’. Of course, we’ve got no more than anywhere else, it’s just you can actually see them.”

Nick, who lives near Auchenmalg, organises trips around Wigtownshire pointing out the sights of the night sky.

Stepping out into the dark, you can instantly see countless stars.  However, a few minutes later, once your eyes have adapted, layer upon layer of more specs of light are revealed.

“People talk about astronomers like they are the train-spotters of the sky,” Nick said.  “They tick off stars and planets they have seen, like hillwalkers tick off climbing munros.

“What I try to do is help people to get out there and experience the dark sky, however they want to enjoy it. I like to give people a go at exploring the moon, let them find the Sea of Tranquility, where man first walked on the moon. Knowing that people have been there really brings it home to them.”

Stepping out in a town at night is dark. Walking through the country is darker. Nick takes people to where it is really dark.

With his 4×4, the ranger guides people through Galloway Forest to  parts furthest from man-made light.  Once there the views are breathtaking.

“We can sit with the 4×4 lights on because people need to see what they are doing,” he said. “But then I tell them I’m going to switch them off.  Sit back in your chairs, close your eyes for a few minutes, and see what you can see when you open them. It’s absolutely breath-taking.”

Elizabeth Tindal, who lives in Creetown, grew up watching Dr Who and Star Trek.  From an early age, the Dark Sky Ranger was fascinated about the possibility of life on other worlds.

On a clear night in Wigtownshire, it is possible to see the outer reaches of the galaxy the Milky Way, something less than two per cent of the population will ever see.

Elizabeth said: “Generally, the further north you go the better chance you have of a darker sky, because of the way the earth tilts.  We are not that far north here but in Scotland we do have spectacular dark skies.

“There are some fantastic nights for star watching. In October there was a superb display of the Northern Lights. These days, you can have alerts set up to say when the conditions are going to be right for it. There were a lot of people getting excited.”

Street lights in Wigtownshire are in the process of being changed from bright yellow bulbs to LEDs.

Instead of shining light in all directions they only illuminate what is below them, as well as being cheaper to run.

The Forestry Commission has been instrumental in ensuring modern technology is used to preserve the night sky views.

Keith Muir, Head of Tourism at the Galloway Forest, said: “The forest park is now very strict about our lighting and ensure that if we do fit new lights they conform to our own lighting policies.

“We have helped influence the region’s thinking on lighting and it is now considered a significant project worth protecting.

“As a direct result, there are now planning controls in place to do just that with both South and East Ayrshire councils following shortly.

“We have put our money where it counts and ensured our latest flagship centre at Kirroughtree is the first in the UK built as a dark sky friendly building.

“The park has changed and importantly we are helping to change how others think and work.”

First published: November 2015

Picture: Stephen Jolly Photography