North Ronaldsay Celebrates Dark Sky Status

Well they did it. Congratulations to the community of North Ronaldsay who, on the 3rd of September 2021 , have received international recognition from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA).

The island, far from sources of light pollution, is renowned for the darkness of its winter skies. The IDA has designated it as an International Dark Sky Community, one of just over 30 worldwide. The list ranges from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Fulda in Germany, and includes two communities in Scotland – the island of Coll and the town of Moffat.

The announcement was made by the IDA during an Orkney International Science Festival online event featuring Scotland’s new Astronomer Royal, Prof. Catherine Heymans, and the IDA’s Director of Conservation, Ashley Wilson.

The IDA’s Executive Director, Ruskin Hartley, said today:

“We are proud to recognize and celebrate the efforts of this community that spent a decade raising awareness and encouraging residents to embrace their connection with the night sky.

“By making this commitment, North Ronaldsay will embellish their economy, preserve important seabird habitat, and ensure the stars and cosmic wonders are shared by all who visit the Dark Sky Island.”

North Ronaldsay, Orkney’s northernmost island, has the UK’s tallest land-based lighthouse, and also unique seaweed-eating sheep, confined to the shore by the 13-mile long drystone sheep dyke. Its position on the bird migration routes brings visitors to its bird observatory. The island is accessed by thrice-daily 15-minute flights from Kirkwall, and also by a weekly winter shipping service, twice weekly in summer.

Image credit B Bell

After a period of population decline, numbers have started to grow again and are now above 60, and the school has reopened.

The island is known for the strength of the weather and tidal currents around it, which in the past caused many shipwrecks.

“But in the autumn and winter months,” writes North Ronaldsay artist Ian Scott, “the island takes on another role, for then the night skies can be seen in all their majesty. On a clear, frosty night the stars shine and sparkle with even greater intensity in the blue/black velvety dome of the sky, with the constellations and planets making their rounds or the Milky Way tracing its great path across the heavens.

“And then, when the conditions are right, the Merry Dancers (the Aurora Borealis) can dominate the northern skies; sometimes a luminous, white changing curtain of light and at other times shimmering and dancing across the northern sky in beautiful colours of red and green.”

North Ronaldsay’s recognition is the outcome of a long process of assessment and community activity. The foundations were laid by the late Kathleen Scott of North Ronaldsay Community Association, who coordinated visits by astronomer Steve Owens and lighting engineer Jim Paterson for surveys of the island’s skies and outdoor lighting. She organised numerous astronomy activities in the island, including talks, night sky photography competitions, and a weekend astronomy conference.

The North Ronaldsay Trust continued her work and took the application forward, and gathered further support from many people across Orkney and beyond. The former Astronomer Royal for Scotland, the late Prof. John C. Brown, agreed to become patron of the proposal.

His successor, Prof, Catherine Heymans, was present for the announcement of the outcome, during a lunchtime event online in this year’s Orkney International Science Festival.

The chair of North Ronaldsay Trust, John Oliver Scott, said today:

“This is exciting news, something that the island has been working towards for a number of years. North Ronaldsay benefits from big skies and no light pollution or atmospheric pollution, which gives heart-stopping views of the moon, constellations and planets and of course the aurora borealis.

“We hope that Dark Sky status will increase visitor numbers over our dark winter months. There is a range of accommodation available for dark sky enthusiasts and a warm welcome awaits you.”

North Ronaldsay Sheep, Photo By Jane Cooper

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