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Highlands Astronomical Society

Perseids BBQ

Added on 12 August 2023

Where in Inverness on a Saturday night would you find somewhere that combines fine dining, a fireworks display, a meteor shower, fire-side ghost stories, with some of the best company that you could find right here on Earth? Yep, you guessed it, the Highlands Astronomical Society's 'Perseid barbeque'!

Casting the runes earlier in the week to try and predict the weather for Saturday night was a trying affair. Frequent checks on the weather sites showed nothing but clouds; occasionally attended by electric flashes, blue raindrops and with my record for organising outdoor events, which is effectively a 'jinx' (just look up 'jinx' in the dictionary and you will find my name) it did not look very promising, even up to the last minute. So we went ahead anyway and trusted to our luck instead, which proved to be the correct course as it turned out. Sure, it was a bit cloudy to begin with but we were busy getting the BBQ going, setting out chairs and cameras etc for when it got dark and generally beavering about with cooking food, making tea and all the delightful things that attend a late summer barbeque.

The warmth of the fire, the great billows of smoke that seek you out no matter where you hide, the aroma of pigs and cows roasting over charcoal, hissing and spitting amid the flames, Oh qui delicia! And softly, in the background, the music of Sibelius's violin concerto wraps around your heart and lifts up your soul. The sheer decadence of it was breathtaking! As if that was not enough to enhance the magic of the evening, far off toward Daviot, a wonderful display of fireworks was taking place. Perhaps a posh birthday or a wedding celebration, who knows, but the pale horizon was lit up with dazzling bursts of  red, green and silver globes, flaring in splendour then fading into the twilight; quite remarkable. Now you probably think I'm making all this up but - No - I simply relate to you the events as they happened without a hint of hyperbole or fiction.
The Observatory is like a modern version of the ancient standing stones where people would meet and watch the stars and just like us, cook their dinner on an open fire while telling strange tales long into the night. Thousands of years apart but little to separate us in habit, such a place is only less than a mile from where we stood: The mysterious Clava Stones; and as the last of our perfectly cooked food was eaten, the darkness was creeping around us and it was story time; ghost-story time.

Back when I used to work at PDG helicopters I had a couple of work-mates who, like me, were keen mountain bikers and we often cycled to work from Culloden where we then lived and sometimes at night we would cycle through the woods of Culloden forest by the light of the full moon. This is not something that you would want to do alone so we were always in company when we did this; nearly always all three of us but occasionally just two. Now in those days it was well known that I was a 'scaredy-cat' when it came to the dark and thrilling as it was to ride through the woods at night like highwaymen, I would always be wary of the surroundings lest some unearthly creature would leap from the dark and unseat my sanity. But the more you do these things, the more familiar you become with the strangeness and taking comfort from my companion, (as on the night I am going to describe, there were just the two of us) I felt more relaxed than usual and was actually revelling in my new found confidence. We had completed the section through the woods and passed through Balloch village. From here we crossed the road and ahead of us lay a long narrow path with trees on either side that leads to Allanfearn. This is an old road that is now disused and overgrown with bushes and trees creating a kind of tunnel of shrubbery and trees, hemmed in from the wide open fields to either side. The full moon shone brightly above and lit the path we were to take with that eerie yet serene silver that only  moonlight can provide. So off we set, chatting aimiably about nothing in particular all the while, when halfway down the path there appeared a bright, white figure! Amorphous yet clear to be seen. I can only describe it as the kind of ghost that you would see in a kids cartoon! Draped in white with two holes like soul-less eyes in its head. It glided out from the undergrowth to my right and only maybe twenty yards away, it paused in the middle of the road and looked directly at me for a moment before darting into the bushes on the left and disappearing in an instant! The horror I felt at this apparition was simply shocking! Stunned, I looked to my companion and, close to gibbering, said "Did you see that??". "See what?" was his absurd reply; how could he not have seen it ? !  But he had not seen it and continued to ask what the hell I was talking about. Thoroughly perplexed, I told him what I had seen and he said that my candour was such that he believed me but insisted that he had seen nothing. We hurried on back to my house with me in a state of bewilderment, babbling the whole time about the encounter. Once home, I relayed the entire episode to my wife, while she poured a large amount of whisky into a glass and put it in my trembling hand, patiently but incredulously listening to my unworldly tale. As I was in full flow of the narrative, I happened to glance round behind me and through the window to the garden something struck a chill through my heart like an icicle! The gate had opened and this same ghost was now advancing up the garden path toward the back door of the house!!! The door opened and the thing was in the kitchen! My heart was about to fail and a mist came over my eyes; how could this be possible! The door to the sitting room opened and as I was about to pass out entirely, the ghost removed its outer garb to reveal my other cycling 'mate'!!! Draped as he had been in a sheet with holes cut in it for eyes! The two of them had set up this complex stunt between them taking advantage of my cowardly fear of the dark and things that go bump. Their cunning and skill at pulling off this ruse is commendable I guess, and I still refer to them as 'mates', (well from time to time). So that was it, the most horrifying thing at the time yet, ironically, when later in life I probably did see a real ghost, that episode was of no matter at all; but that's another story for another time. We were just getting into the next ghost story from Kristina when we were interrupted .......

The clouds were peeling away, the stars were out and the first cries were heard as the Perseid meteors began to fall from the deep blue of the gin-clear sky. There were fourteen of us in all, young and old, and now we gathered outside the Observatory compound arrayed in deckchairs along the edge of the fence, our eyes on the constellations of Perseus, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and the great square of Pegasus. The stars were bright and myriad in the newly washed atmosphere above us and ever and again a bright streak would burn with green and red fire as another rock from the depths of space would end its journey in a thrilling and momentary flourish.



You know, so many people on this pleasant orb have never seen a shooting star but two new names were added to the list that have tonight. You will have to forgive me not remembering the names, but here was a Dad who had driven up from the south of England with his two daughters just to see the Perseid meteors; he was welcomed to join us for the event and the girls were not disappointed, they got to see their first meteors. What a truly wonderful thing. As well as all the Perseid meteors that fell, one astonishing, bright green meteor came up from the South and contrary to the direction of the stream of the shower. This was what is known as a 'sporadic meteor'. One that just comes from who knows where and is not associated with any particular comet or debris stream. More wonderfully, Eric Walker captured its passing with his camera! As the witching time came the meteors increased in number and there was no-one who did not see several if not many in the following hour until one am. We had a wee telescope set up by the gate and when the thin clouds allowed we had a look at the rings of Saturn, Jupiter, and the four Galilean moons strung out in a line on either side of the great globe. There is only one way to describe seeing the rings of Saturn for the first time and that is "WOW", and sure enough that exclamation could be heard several times from the dark corner of the fence where the telescope sat. A very satisfying sound to the seasoned astronomers who delight in hearing it. Another feature that we have not had before at meteor showers was a radio-telescope link that Eric had set up in the 'warm-room'. On a screen you could see the radio spikes as the meteors entered the atmosphere and hear the sound they made! Awesome.

By one in the morning the air was turning colder and a damp chill could be felt. Thin but persistent clouds were forming too and it was time to go home. It had been an unqualified success despite the dire warnings from the weather gurus and every moment of the time we spent together under the stars had been precious and special. If you wanted a 'model' of what an amateur astronomy club should be, here it was tonight. A group of friends gathered together for the love of discovery and spectacle in the night sky. Thank you so much to everyone who came to the barbie tonight and now that we know we can successfully pull off an event like this, we can set our plans for the next one. Maybe the up-coming autumn equinox, Halloween ??  but open to ideas. Wishing you all clear and bright skies for your telescopes until we meet again.




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