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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie August 2007

August’s meeting showed a good attendance, with many people coming along to hear the mysteries of the ancient Clava Cairns, catch up with fellow HAS members, take part in the prize raffle, or simply hear what the Society has been up to in the last month. There were several new faces present, and they, along with all the regular members, enjoyed hearing the notices read out by temporary Secretary, Pauline Macrae:

  • Lost Keys. A set of keys was left behind at the last meeting? Anyone missing them? Please get in touch if so.
  • Poster Girl. Trina’s astronomy poster is now on display in the museum in Inverness. It was great when she brought it in to the Equipment Night, but now it’s finished it’s even better and well worth a visit!
  • Imaging In The USA. Fancy going to a conference on astronomical imaging? In Philadelphia, USA? Great! It’s on from Friday September 28th through Sunday September 30th. If you’d like to find out more just visit the website here. This should be a learning experience for experienced and novice astrophotographers, but not exactly local…
  • Secretary Required. Pat Williams will be stepping down as Secretary in April of next year. If you would like to take on this role please let anyone on the Committee know. You would be eased gently into the job, starting off as a part-time Committee member and being gradually shown the ropes. In the meantime, while Pat is away, Pauline is our temporary Secretary.
  • Galaxians! Do you have a computer and some spare time? Well here’s something that will combine the two. Go to and find out how to help classify galaxies that are regularly found by astronomers who have no time to do so themselves! There are only a million or so that require sorting (so far) but it’s fun! Go on, do some cosmic tidying.
  • Money For Nothing. We have recently received our very first payment from Google-Ads, for £56.98! This is the advertising service that we have set up on our website. Each time a visitor (genuinely) clicks on one of the advertisement links there, we receive a cash credit. Once that reaches a certain level, we receive a cheque. Easy eh?
  • Volunteers Sought. Would anyone be able to help at a Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (STEM) event, taking place on Wednesday 29th August in Aviemore? (No times as yet). This event is aimed at S1 to S4 school children. The organisers are looking for an interesting hands on activity relating to their specialist area and be able to link that to future careers, and where possible be topical to today’s world. Any ideas you have would be most welcome even if you were unable to help.
  • We are making a list… And unlike poor Private Pike, we do want our names to be known on this one! It’s the list of names of members who have contributed to the New Observatory funds, and who will therefore have their name on the plaque that will go on the observatory when it’s completed. If you have paid for this, please contact Pauline to make sure your name is on the list. If you haven’t paid, but would like to be added to the list, please contact Pauline or Pat Escott and have £25 to hand! A cheap price for (relative) immortality.
  • Herstmonceux. There will be an astronomy festival taking at the Herstmonceux Science Centre in Sussex, from Friday 7th to Sunday 9th September. The events planned include lectures, tours around the telescopes, visits to the Space Geodesy Facility and Radio Shack, access to the hands-on science events, observing sessions and a family activity fun-day. The Sky at Night team will also be present, and camping facilities are available. For more information, visit the website here. If you intend to go, please let Pauline know.
  • Perseids 2007. The Perseid meteor shower looks promising this year, as the Moon will be new, so will not interfere, although the same cannot be said about the weather! We’ll just have to take our chances with that. The peak for this year’s shower is in the early hours of the 13th August, but the Society will have observing events at the Culloden car park starting at 9pm on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th.
  • Open Day 2007. Our next Open Day event takes place on Saturday 8th September in the Eastgate shopping centre in Inverness. We will need volunteers to help man the stand and explain what we do to members of the public. If you have a telescope you can bring along and display, even better. Even if you can only come along for a couple of hours it will still be a great help. We will be there from 9am until 6pm, and there will be a public observing session in the evening at the Culloden car park, if it is still available.
  • Highland Games. Thanks go out to all the volunteers who helped at the Highland Games in July. The stand got a lot of interest, both from visitors and locals, and the whole event was very enjoyable. We even had decent weather!
  • Seeing Stars. The latest Seeing Stars article is by Rhona Fraser, and it’s all about the Summer Triangle. It is now available to view online at our website. Just click here.
  • Observatory Update… Only a brief update this month, but full of good news. We now have planning permission for the observatory, and the building warrant was returned with only a few changes required. Rob Nuttall is working on them even now, so many thanks to him. Also, the old observatory has been bought by Simon Urry, and will be rebuilt in his garden on the Black Isle. We are glad that it will continue to see use, and that one of our members will be the new owner.
  • Special Day! It was announced that Wednesday 8th August was a very special birthday for our recently retired Chairwoman, Pauline Macrae! To celebrate this landmark occasion, chocolate cake was acquired and many of the members signed a special birthday card. The cake didn’t survive the evening, but we hope the card did. Needless to say, Pauline did go a nice pink colour in front of everyone, so the effort was completely worthwhile!

The Main Event
'Watchers Of The Dawn’ by Dougie Scott

Dougie Scott is a silversmith in Tain, and has had a deep and intense interest in Celtic art, standing stones and Cairns for many years for about 35 years. During that time he has produced CDs about the subject, and has spent the last 3 years producing the DVD, which he used in his talk to the Society.

Basically, Dougie’s presentation was a run-through of the Clava Cairns section of his DVD. The Clava Cairns are situated about a mile away from the Culloden Moor, so are very local. They are thought to have been built around 4000 years ago, in the late Neolithic period, and were largely rediscovered when they were excavated in the 19th century.

The Cairns are round and low in form, with long narrow entrance passages that would have required one to crawl along to gain entrance when they were completely intact. The position and orientation of the entrance passageways, and indeed several other features, appears to be the main justification for the inclusion of Dougie’s topic under the umbrella of ‘astronomy’, although he himself pointed out at the beginning of the presentation that what he has discovered is really much more astrology-related.

The DVD ran for about twenty minutes or so, and in it Dougie is seen to explore the various Cairns and point out the different ‘cup marked’ stones that are situated around the exterior of the Cairns. Other stones on the insides have marks on them too, and these oval indentations suggest that possibly stone balls or other objects have been twisted against the stone face, resulting in the circular or rounded ‘cup’ impressions. It is thought that this may have been done as part of rituals that were enacted to pacify Bronze Age deities.

The main (or only) note of astronomical importance is the way in which the Cairns and their surrounding stones are aligned with respect to the positions of various solar and lunar events. Sunrise, Sunset, Moonrise and Moonset all seem to have been very important to the people that erected these monuments, as the precision with which various stones, passages or markings are aligned with different positions for midwinter Sunrise, midwinter Sunset, etc., are quite amazing. Especially when you consider that the average life expectancy might have been only thirty years or less, and that one of the cycles that the builders seem to have worked to is the great lunar cycle (or Metonic cycle), which is about nineteen years long.

As to why the Cairns were built in the first place, Dougie could only speculate. Survival was the main priority in the Bronze Age, and it was a very hard thing to achieve. Everything depended on the land; harvests and livestock were crucial. Dougie suggested that the rituals performed in the Cairns may have been done to ensure that the next harvest came in well, or that the cattle survived, or they could have been carried out to ensure any number of good events might come to pass, or bad ones were prevented. There is nothing recorded about why they were built or what they were really used for. Speculation is all there is for sites that are this old, as nothing is recorded that will give away their true purpose. After the DVD section had run through, Dougie answered some questions from the members, although again, the answers were mostly that nobody knows the answers. The astronomical purpose seems apparent enough to us now, but as to why they were built, we simply don’t know for sure. They could even have been used for different purposes by subsequent societies through the ages. Still, the Cairns are remarkable structures, and the way in which they are aligned to certain celestial events is truly amazing.

Some of the members went up with Douglas to see the Clava Cairns for themselves after the tea break and braved the impending gloom, cold and cloud. The content of the DVD was very well produced, and Dougie’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject was quite apparent. We thank him for sharing his Cairn-lore with us.

Highland Skies – August 2007

August can be an excellent month for preparation as well as for actual observing. We have some darkness again, and we can begin to make out the old familiar asterisms and constellations against the Prussian blue of the summer sky. The Summer Triangle is high in the southern sky, and consequently the constellations that contain its corner-stars; Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila are too.

Within the boundaries of the triangle we have objects of differing levels of difficulty to find. The easiest is the Coat hanger asterism (also known as Brocchi’s Cluster or Collinder 399). Easily visible in binoculars or a low power eyepiece, the asterism shows a neatly defined coat hanger shape, comprising ten stars of 5th to 7th magnitude. Chancing upon this object while sweeping the sky with binoculars or a telescope is a real joy, and one of the first indicators that real stellar observing can be started again.

Of a similar difficulty level (i.e. quite easy) is Gamma Delphinus, the double star that marks the nose of the Dolphin. The two components are a 4th magnitude orange supergiant and a 5th magnitude yellow-white main sequence star. They are easy to divide, having a wide separation. Can you see the different colours? People have amazingly different colour perception sensitivities when observing double stars, as was demonstrated one night last year at the Culloden observatory when we spent a whole night comparing observations of a large handful of classic (and not so classic) doubles.

Now, if you can track those easy (but beautiful) objects down using your constellation guidebook, star chart or planisphere, then maybe you’re ready for a slightly harder challenge. The Dumbbell Nebula is a fascinating planetary nebula, visible in even small telescopes. Although it resides in the constellation Vulpecula (the fox) I find it easiest to use one of the stars of Sagitta (the arrow) to find it. The nebula sits about 3.5 degrees north of Gamma Sagittae, the point of the arrow. From there I follow a trail of four equally bright, evenly spaced stars northwards until the nebula appears in the finderscope or eyepiece. But can you find it against the not-completely-dark August sky? That’s the challenge…

The advantages of August as a month of preparation are numerous. It is generally warm in the evening, and the dusky conditions that are a curse for hunting down deep sky objects can be a blessing for those wanting to test their telescopic set-ups. Having possibly not used a telescope in several months, it’s better to try it out again in comfortable, warm conditions with a little ambient light, rather than jumping straight in at the deep end on a frosty pitch black winters night! If something’s not working right, or a vital screw has emigrated it’s better to find out now when it will cause relatively little distress than on the night you intended to observe the Horsehead Nebula in –10’C.

If you have new equipment to try out there are plenty of objects to use as test-targets, whether you’re examining the edge performance in your latest wide-field eyepiece or testing the accuracy of your new Turbo Gti Voice Activated GoTo system with go-faster stripes! You could even start a little earlier than usual, in the bright gloaming period, and explore a long-lost and rediscovered book of star charts, or your favourite manual of observing techniques.

All of the objects mentioned above can be found listed in any beginner’s astronomy book, or on the Internet. So enjoy the slowly darkening nights of August, as you sweep off the dust and cobwebs from your telescopes and then sweep the sky in the Summer Triangle.

Next Time.

Next meeting will take place on Tuesday 4th September, and will feature Bill Leslie giving a talk entitled, ‘The Total Eclipse Of 1919 And The Creation Of Einstein, The Celebrity’. The start time is 7.30pm and the meeting will include the usual tea break and breakout groups.

In the meantime, the observing season will be well under way as the nights continue to draw in, so please remember to post a message on the message board if you have anything to report or ask. An online version of this newsletter will be posted shortly on the Online News page.

Until September 4th, Clear Skies!

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