A night to remember
I'm finally getting around to writing about this, almost 3 months after the fact!
I always keep my eye on the aurora weather forecast, whether it's the 3 day short term forecast based on satellite data or the 28 day long term forecast based on known sunspots and the 28 day rotation of the sun. So, it was in early September when I was looking at the 28 days forecast, that I saw a really strong aurora was forecast from 27th September through 1st October.
I decided to book the week off work in anticipation, and closer to the time started looking for clear skies where I could go and wait for the show. I noticed that the day before the show was forecast (26th September), it looked like there would be a clear night on the north coast of Scotland. So, as I was off work anyway, I thought I'd head up there, camp out and get some starry night photos. In the back of my mind I also thought there might be a chance of aurora, and with moonrise not due until around 1am, there should be plenty of stars around.
So I had a look at Google Earth to see if I could find a decent spot with an unobstructed view north and hopefully some interesting landscape. I was primarily looking at beaches on the north coast, and settled on a small area that looked like it had some exposed rocks on the beach and wasn't too far from the road. If only the clouds stayed away, it looked like being a good start to my week off.
I set off reasonably early for the 2 hr drive to the north coast, and realised pretty quickly that I was going to have to kill some time to stop getting bored waiting for nightfall, so I paid a visit to Smoo Cave, and had a late lunch at the Smoo Cave hotel before heading the last few miles to where I had marked the coordinates of what looked like a layby on the road on my GPS. When I got there, there was already a car there and what looked like a couple of people having a walk around to marked boards and a faint trail. Turns out I had chosen by accident to camp out around the abandoned clearance village of Ceannabeinne and there was a signposted walk with information boards to explain what had happened during the clearances http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/sutherland/ceannabeinne.shtml It crossed my mind that I might be annoying someone by pitching a tent!
I spent some time having a walk around the area, looking for a good place to pitch my tent that wasn't too 'in your face' for anyone doing the Ceannabeinne walk. It really was a beautiful day, although there was a chilly breeze and there appeared to be more clouds than I would have liked. When I found a good pitch at the top of a section of cliff, I returned to the car and got my rucksack with tent, tripod and camera gear. The couple who I had seen earlier were back in their car by now and were watching me with bemused expressions. I can only guess what they were thinking, watching an idiot packed up for a grand expedition, when the Ceannabeinne walk was a short stroll of less than an hour to complete.....
Anyway, soon I had pitched the tent, had the camera out, and was off taking some photos! I took loads of the the beach, as I did think these may be the best shots I would get. The north coast beaches are spectacular, and I reckoned the photos would get some admiration. In reality though, hardly any of them were posted due to what transpired later!
Graham_Bradshaw I decided it would be sensible to see if I could find a safe way down the cliffs to the beach, as I'd hoped to take night sky shots later on with some of the rocks for foreground interest. Luckily, there seemed to be a reasonable way down, as long as care was taken, so I spent the next couple of hours exploring around my home for the night. It really is a beautiful place.
Reading the different information boards was also interesting and killed some time. There's only one building still standing from the abandoned town. It's the old schoolhouse and is now a holiday rental home. Given, that it looks like an everyday home, it's hard to believe that the abandoned stone outlines were once people homes of a similar standard......
Graham_Bradshaw As it got later, I had some dinner in the doorway of the tent with a cracking view over the beach and sea. I'm more and more conscious of just how old I'm starting to look, so although I quite often take selfies, I rarely post them :)
Before long, sunset came, and although I was hoping for a nice sunset, I was actually the wrong side of a hill for any real view. It wasn't too bad though, and I got the ND filters out and played with them a bit down on the beach
Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Now it was just time to wait on the stars coming out. I lay in the tent for a bit, hoping to get some sleep - no joy. I then decided to play with some wire wool for a bit. This was more fun, although maybe not the wisest thing to do on a cliff
Graham_Bradshaw and finally, as the stars came out slowly, I decided to head back down to the beach and get some 'blue hour photos'
Graham_Bradshaw As I took this photo, I was aware in the periphery of my vision to the left, that I could see a faint arc. I thought it was still too light for any aurora, but on a whim I thought I'd turn the camera that way and take some photos:
Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw and there it was. The aurora. A faint blueish arc stretching from west to east in the northern Skye. I was pretty excited, and started taking photos one after the other, moving to different positions as I was going. I was conscious that it could disappear at any time.
Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw It was pretty obvious that the aurora was dancing, and as it got darker, more stars came out and the band of light got even more intense. I kept looking around, expecting to see other people out on the cliffs taking photos, but there were none. I had this all to myself.
It really was shaping up to be a magical night, and the aurora didn't seem to be going anywhere. I started to slow down and think about How I wanted to compose shots. I thought incorporating myself and my headtorch into one would be nice
Graham_Bradshaw and I was also conscious of the Milky Way, which I wanted to feature too (who doesn't like stars?)
It actually got to the point, that I was running out of ideas for shots, but then remembered the cliffs, and thought I'd get back up there and take some photos overlooking the beach
Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw Needless to say, I couldn't really sleep for the excitement of seeing what the photos would look like (and posting to Facebook). I had a delivery of 2 tonnes of wood pellets arriving at the house at 10am the next morning, and the original plan had been to get up early and be back in time, but as I lay contemplating it, I decided that it would be better to just head off home and get a couple of hours of shuteye in bed, before the pellets arrived.
So, mind made up, I decided to get some last photos, including obligatory tent shots, before packing up and heading home.
Graham_Bradshaw Graham_Bradshaw The activity had died down to just a low arc on the horizon as I left. I got home around 4am in the morning after an absolutely amazing night. I suspect I'm unlikely to experience another night like it. I've some regrets about not hanging around for the moonrise, but given the shots I did get, count myself extremely lucky. Hopefully I'll get another opportunity during another aurora storm to revisit this spot and have another fantastic night. I hope you've enjoyed the photos!
P.S. As I said at the beginning, the strongest forecast was for 27th September through 1st October. I caught the lights again 2 days later at Portknockie:
Graham_Bradshaw and again, 28 days later at Tarbat Ness near Portmahomack :)
Excellent narrative accompanied by great shots. We visited Tarbat Ness earlier this year, we stayed in a bothy near the lighthouse, and I could just imagine your views. This has increased my excitement for my trip to Abisko in 4 days time. Thank you
Lovely photos, you see some stunning aurora photos on the Internet, but I really like the fact that you have added your story behind taking the photos, lucky you to have had such a wonderful experience, well done
Wonderful - wonderful - wonderful - breath taking
Really enjoyed your photos and your description of your experience, thanks so much for sharing your wonderful night with us :-)
Really good article and amazing pictures. It makes me think of my experience in March with another amazing display.
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