THERE’S got to be some advantages to short days and a surfeit of darkness, right? Taking full advantage of Scotland’s long winter nights feels a wee bit like the old adage, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
With this in mind, a trip to Dumfries and Galloway, home to the UK’s only Dark Sky Park, and several Dark Sky Discovery Sites, to uncover the wonders of the night sky seems like a bit of a no brainer.
Cairndale Hotel in Dumfries runs a special Dark Skies package for anyone who’s curious about the night sky. A two-night stay includes dinner, bed and breakfast at the hotel, where guests can make full use of the leisure club and pool. Our stay included lots of time with Matthew, the Dark Sky Ranger. The wonderful Matthew spends his summers in the Highlands and his winters in and around the Dark Sky Park leading tours and teaching people about the night sky.
Our first evening at Cairndale saw our small group of novice, but incredibly enthusiastic star gazers get to know each other while enjoying a gin tasting from the appropriately named Dark Arts Distillery, which is based in nearby Kirkcudbright. Their Sky Garden gin went down a treat and its star-studded bottle was perfectly pitched at our group of budding astronomers.
This was followed by a delicious three course dinner with Matthew as he explained a bit about our plans for the following evening. Which involved a night under the stars at nearby Caerlaverock Castle, followed by dinner in Cairndale’s outdoor dining domes.
Feeling thoroughly inspired by Matthew’s passion for astronomy, we headed to bed while checking every weather app currently available in the hope that one would predict clear skies the following evening. At this point, I have to admit, I didn’t fancy our chances!
The next morning dawned decidedly dreich and a hearty breakfast was enjoyed before we headed out into what turned from drizzle, into a downpour, followed by a hail shower thrown in for good measure. The chances of clear skies still felt incredibly slim indeed, but we didn’t let this stop us exploring the area. First on the agenda was a wild swim in the lovely Loch Arthur, swiftly followed by a warming cuppa and an awesome cheese scone in their café and a browse around the farm shop.
A wander around the many lovely independent shops in Kirkcudbright, and a visit to the Dark Arts Distillery to see their gin stills first hand followed, before some chill out time in the warmth of the pool and steam room back at Cairndale.
As darkness falls and we board a mini bus bound for Caerlaverock Castle the cloud cover remains stubbornly consistent over Dumfries, but looking south there seem to be some breaks and we allow ourselves a glimmer of hope that we might spot a star or two.
Arriving at the triangular castle we meet Matthew, the Dark Sky ranger, who through the hi-tech method of LED tea-lights placed on the ground in front of the castle guides us through light years of space travel to discover the planets in our solar system. And as if by some miracle, by the time we reach the sun, the skies overhead clear to reveal the milky way and a multitude of constellations.
We peer through telescopes and see Jupiter and four of its many moons, as Matthew tells tales of Greek and Roman mythology related to some of the constellations that we see above our heads. The evening flies by in a whirl of incredible information and gazing at stars and satellites. A quick cup of soup keeps us warm and tides us over until we need to drag ourselves away from the wonders of the universe and head back to Cairndale for dinner.
We’re dining in Cairndale’s domes and we’re all ready for our confit duck leg and caramelised apple terrine with sourdough as we take our seats and wrap ourselves in the blankets provided. Reminiscing on all that we’ve seen and learned took us through to our main course, a deliciously tender slow braised shoulder of lamb. Matthew joined us for this and we were able to further delve into his vast knowledge of the solar system while we tucked in. Rounding off dinner with a chocolate dome filled with lots of chocolatey and salted caramel treats seemed very apt. All that remained was to bid goodnight to the lovely staff who had braved the chill to bring us dinner in our dome and head to bed, to dream of space exploration, distant stars and planets and the mythology that surrounds them. Happy in the knowledge that we’ve experienced Mother Nature at her finest and the very best of Scotland in the winter.
For more information on a stay at Cairndale or on their Dark Skies packages visit: cairndalehotel.co.uk
Cairndale Hotel, English Street, Dumfries DG1 2DF
Tel: 01387 254111