Midwinter astronomy festival for Orkney

Orkney had a midwinter astronomy festival in December 2011. Talks and stargazing took place across the mainland from Birsay to Deerness, and in Stronsay and Sanday as well.

The idea for the Festival emerged from a package of astronomy activities organised by Orkney International Science Festival to mark its 21st year. This began in the spring with talks and workshops by astronomer Steve Owens from Glasgow, as part of National Science and Engineering Week, with British Science Association support. Then came a highly successful astronomy weekend in North Ronaldsay during the Science Festival in September 2011, funded by the Year of Scotland’s Islands.

The success of the spring events led to an award from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for a return visit by Steve Owens, to deliver talks and workshops to communities and schools. The STFC funding includes the provision of a telescope for six Orkney schools, along with talks for pupils and workshops for staff. The funding also covers time to assist the tourism sector in developing astronomy-related activities.

 ‘We were delighted in getting this funding for Orkney,’ says Science Festival director Howie Firth, ‘and when we drew up the timetable for Steve’s visits, we realised that we had the nucleus of something even more – it had the potential to be a pilot-scale midwinter astronomy festival.

‘It’s been a longstanding aim in Orkney to develop winter tourism, and astronomy has a lot going for it. There are parts of Orkney with really dark skies, and much interest has developed over time through the work of John Vetterlein, with the information in his Sky Notes in The Orcadian and his observations of the aurora.

‘So we felt that this was an opportunity to make a contribution in support, and we’ve had a great response.

‘Through funding assistance from Orkney Islands Council we’ve been able to bring up a further speaker, lighting engineer Jim Paterson. It was he who drew up the lighting plan that enabled Galloway Forest Park to become the first part of the UK to be awarded international dark sky status. He will be giving a public talk as well as meeting key people and organisations.

‘The Council funding has also enabled us to do some innovative marketing. We wanted to put in place something with a long life, so that it could continue to spread the word about Orkney’s winter skies in the months ahead, particularly to the many astronomy clubs and societies across the UK, and so we’ve produced an e-magazine, tailored for iPad and smartphone as well as for general web access. It is available online through the Science Festival website www.oisf.org, for everyone to read themselves or forward to their friends. The software for the new magazine was developed without charge by a Forres-based company, Open Brolly, as part of a collaboration.

‘With anything to do with the night sky in Orkney, weather and sky conditions are of course very unpredictable, but Steve Owens has a lot of experience in developing visitor events in areas with dark sky status, and putting in place fallbacks for various eventualities.

‘A very welcome bonus has come from Glasgow University, who have made available funding for Prof. Martin Hendry to give the closing talk of the programme on the evening of Wednesday 21 December. This will be on a very topical subject, the possibility of faster-than-light neutrinos. He will also visit the mainland secondary schools.

‘It’s particularly good that the timing of these events coincides with the moves to form a new Orkney Astronomy Society, and we’ll be making space available at every opportunity to highlight it and encourage people to join.

‘Overall, this is very much a pilot, to try out ideas, and if it works, then I hope that a group of organisations will be able to take the idea further. Our role really is to help new ideas to get off the ground, and to ensure that a good structure is then in place for the future, for others to develop to the full.’