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Stargazing on the SnowRoads

Winter and its run-up, with its colder, crisp, dark nights which draw in earlier, is many a stargazer’s favourite season.

Astronomy enthusiast Robert Lenfert from Stonehaven, whose preferred star-spotting location is the Cairngorms, particularly Deeside, describes winter as “observing season” because the darkness gives us so much time to enjoy this magical pastime and to get familiar with the skies above us:

“The air is so much colder and less humid in winter. And that increases transparency. When you’re looking at the sky it’s like looking through the earth’s atmosphere as if you were looking through a stream or river; you want it to be settled and clear, which is more likely in winter.”

Some years are particularly exciting, playing host to certain ‘star shows’ such as the Orionid meteor shower. These showers are balls of ice and dust which, when released in a ‘shower’, look spectacular and light up the sky; basically, it’s nature’s answer to fireworks.

Pinwheel Galaxy by Robert Lenfert

Robert’s favourite spot is around the A939 at Crathie, any spot by Glen Muick and the SnowRoads between Braemar and Spittal of Glenshee. He will often head up there in his van or car and “stay up all night looking at the stars until I crash out”. “You’d be amazed how quickly time goes by,” he says.

The nearby Tomintoul and Glenlivet area of the Cairngorms National Park has been awarded the prestigious ‘International Dark Sky Status’, so is one of the best places in the whole of the UK to star gaze.

Stargazing at Glen Muick by Robert Lenfert

What should you look out for stargazing in the Cairngorms?

Other regular winter showers of meteors to look out for are “The Geminid”, and the “Quadrantids”.

Robert particularly loves spotting ‘nebula’ and other galaxies. Nebulas are clouds of ionised dust in space that produce a glow.  

The skies are so dark in the Cairngorms that, unlike most other places, you can see nebula just using binoculars. Brighter nebulae like Orion’s Nebula (given the reference M42) or even the Andromeda Galaxy (M33) show up easily under dark skies.

An obvious ‘spot’, especially for the amateur, is the Milky Way, which stretches from horizon to horizon and is a blurred band of light made out of clusters of stars. Watch a while and you’re bound to see a shooting star (just remember to make a wish upon it!). Once your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you’ll be able to see some structure within the Milky Way, such as the ‘Great Rift’, which is a band of dust obscuring the stars towards the centre of our galaxy.  

As Paul Haworth, amateur astronomer who captured the astronomical phenomenon of a meteor streaking across the sky, says, the Cairngorms’ northernly latitude and pristine skies make it a perfect place to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. This is when charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field to stunning, shimmering, coloured effect causing “dancing curtains of green, red and purple light towards the north”. 

As Paul explains, the winter sun is getting more active, which should mean aurorae will be seen more frequently. He recommends using a free app called AuroraWatch, that will tell you when a show of the northern lights is more likely, updated in real time.

The Aurora from Cairngorm Mountain by Gordon Mackie

What equipment do I need to stargaze in the Cairngorms?

You don’t need a huge telescope to witness these wonders (though as you do more stargazing, you may find yourself buying one!). A great way to start is to buy a pair of binoculars.  

The wonderful thing about using binoculars in the Cairngorms, where the skies are so dark, is that they behave like a much larger instrument in these ideal conditions; in urban areas, for example, the view might be six inches, but this rises to as much as 12 inches range in a dark sky. You can also easily use them to spot wildlife and landscapes, with no set up time.

“Because the skies are so dark here in the right spots, even binoculars show a tremendous amount of stars, nebulae and galaxies,” says Robert. “But even simple stargazing with the naked eye is still awe-inspiring. The skies in the Cairngorms are simply some of the best in the UK for stargazing.”

Of course, you can buy equipment to enhance your experience and what you can see, but this then involves carrying quite heavy equipment at times – he has a 20″ Dobsonian that weighs 75Kg which affords some “simply jaw-dropping views at times” but the carrying, especially to remote spots, can be back-breaking! Robert suggests an 8″ to 10″ Dobsonian is a portable and affordable (£275-£470) ‘starter telescope’ to take astronomy further.

Robert Lenfert's telescope at the ready


How can I make it even more of an adventure stargazing in the Cairngorms?

If you’re brave enough, and wrap up warm enough, then you could consider winter camping in a remote spot in the Cairngorms, as Robert relishes. One of his favourite spots is next to Loch Muick but, if the stars are shining brightly, don’t expect to get much shut eye!

Top Stargazing Tips:

~ Wear lots of layers and bring a hot flask
~ Don’t look at your phone as this will mess up your night vision
~ Use a red torch to preserve night vision
~ Download apps such as Skyview, Sky Safari and Stellarium or consider buying a magazine such as Astronomy Now or Sky at Night, which will tell you what to look out for each month
~ If you do use apps, then you can get a red filter app for your phone too which helps your night vision
~ Pick a crisp, clear night when the moon is not too bright 
~ Make sure you know where you’re heading in the dark and someone knows where you are