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Stars over Eoropie © John Gray

Stars over Eoropie © John Gray

Winter here in the Isle of Lewis has few upsides. Everything is dead or dormant on the croft. The drain clearing work done over the summer has done little to stop the land turning to a morass of wet bog and big puddle and the track precariously tramped to the loom shed and back has turned to mud. The animals bleat and beat a path to the fence-side every time I make an appearance pleading for another serving of supplementary feed in lieu of the  poor, ungrowing grass left on the ground. The novelty of wild weather wears thin after a while and even though the loom shed has a nice new wood-burning stove on the go, life is lived under many layers of thermal cotton, wool and waterproofs. Few folk are on the go save to make the journey from from door to their car and visitors are seldom seen in comparison to the summer months. But one upside is literally looking up.

The dark nights bring with them an insight into the wider worlds around us, the great expanse of black sky that dominates our  long nights exposed in a way that it never is in the city. Streetlights blink off in our village around midnight, leaving us in darkness save for the odd house with an unnecessarily bright, but doubtless reassuring, outside security light and the distant blink of the lighthouse just over the hill.  On clear nights the celestial ceiling above is pin-pricked with stars innumerable and the aurora borealis, or in gaelic Fir Chlis, is common, its green ribbons of charged particles meandering high above us like sky-bound strands of seaweed in unfathomable atmospheric currents. I have a brilliant little iPad app that reveals the location of constellations and stars, handily pointing out the more uncommon mythological figures pre-fixed in pointillism and pinpointing planets depending on the direction I’m facing. Ursa Major and Minor, Cassiopeia, Polaris, Taurus, Orion (and with it Rigel and Betelgeuse), Pleiades and others all on show, the Milky Way too, lying almost perpendicular to the horizon.

It’s all very humbling. And the glories of that huge expanse above my head isn’t even a fraction of what is out there. Earlier this week NASA/ESA released an image which captured the largest and sharpest image ever taken of the Andromeda galaxy using the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the biggest Hubble image ever released and shows over 100 million stars and thousands of star clusters embedded in a section of the galaxy’s pancake-shaped disc stretching across over 40 000 light-years. It’s too big to share here but a Google search will help you out if you want to investigate further. Meantime, here’s a video which shows a trillion star flythrough of just part of the Andromeda galaxy captured by their work. I have nothing cod-philosophical to say about any of it (for a change) save for the fact that the universe is a big and baffling place and our misplanned place in it is beautifully beyond insignificant. Which is more than a most comforting thought to think…