North Ronaldsay’s winter skies can be spectacular. There can be days of winter greyness and then one night you step outside and see the whole night sky glittering out at you, with a mass of stars in the darkness, seeming so near.

It’s the lack of light pollution that dies it, letting the stars blaze from the sky. The winter weather can vary, as elsewhere, but when the clouds disperse, the starry sky is an unforgettable experience.

“With no warm glow from street lamps, or intervening hills to blot out the horizon, the island is like a ship floating between dark sea and bright sky, with the moon carving a path through the water. The wide sweep of the Milky Way is like an eternal spiral, with so many stars that they dazzle us.”

That’s how Christine Muir, who lives at Garso, puts it in her book Orkney Days. That love of the night sky has led the North Ronaldsay community to work hard to preserve its dark skies and encourage others to share them.

Orkney’s annual science festival has been bringing astronomers to the island for nearly thirty years, ranging from the late Prof. Archie Roy of the University of Glasgow to Dr Marek Kukula of the Royal Observatory Greenwich who took part in an Astronomy Weekend. The events bring back island expatriates and attract new visitors, and attendances often come close to the size of the population of the island.

Collaborative projects with the Science Festival and with the British Science Association have brought the island a telescope in the care of the Community Association. Other projects have included astronomy workshops and two night sky photography competitions.

For a number of years the island has been working on an application for international dark-skies status, and momentum is continuing to build. The island has been given much help in this by lighting engineer Jim Paterson who has successfully taken various other dark-sky places such as Moffat through the process. North Ronaldsay’s campaign has now been given backing by the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Prof. John C. Brown, who has agreed to become its patron.

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