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A star event on Lewis: The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival

Who's Steve by Casey McIntyre

On Friday 8 February, The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival begins on the Isle of Lewis.

Running until Thursday 21 February, many events take place at An Lanntair, with everything from stargazing, talks and workshops by leading scientists, to film screenings, live music, theatre, family events, and much more happening over two weeks.

We caught up with Andrew Eaton-Lewis to find out more about the event.

An Lanntair is one of our Regularly Funded Organisations 2018-21.

How did The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival come about?

The idea has been coming together for a while now. An Lanntair wanted to bring something new and exciting to its winter programme, Stornoway Astronomical Society wanted to do more astronomy events, and organisations like Outer Hebrides Tourism were keen to attract more visitors to Lewis outside of the summer season. We just needed a compelling idea to bring all those interests together, and now we have one. And, thanks to a successful bid for Outer Hebrides LEADER funding, we have enough money to do something quite ambitious.

There's something quite magical about the darkness, especially once you leave Stornoway. That's certainly been my experience, and is something we want to celebrate and share- Andrew Eaton-Lewis, An Lanntair

The scope of the festival is huge, from workshops with scientists to live music and theatre. How do you go about programming such a diverse event?

With this being our first festival we were keen to reach out to as broad an audience as possible. We wanted to create something that people of any age could enjoy, something that is equally appealing to visitors and to people who live in the Hebrides year round, and something that appeals both to people with a strong interest in astronomy and to people who know very little about it.

Hebridean Dark Skies Festival Trailer from an lanntair on Vimeo.

In a sense, then, we’re trying to tick lots of boxes, but I also think it's an exciting idea to put such different events into one programme, to combine outdoor walks, science and astronomy events, speakers like Chris Lintott from The Sky at Night and Heather Couper (one of the UK's most enduringly successful TV presenters on astronomy) with high quality arts events like Space Ape by Andy Cannon - which won the CATS Award for Best Production for young people last year - and Whatever Gets You Through The Night, an evening of music and film with Emma Pollock, Rachel Sermanni, Ceitlin LR Smith and the Sea Atlas that grew out of an award-winning multi-arts project that first premiered at The Arches in Glasgow.

Also, combining all these different elements has allowed us to create various thematic connections across the programme. For example John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, is introducing a screening of the amazing silent film Wunder Der Schöpfung with a live score by Herschel 36 (one of whom is his son) but he’s also doing his own science talk out at Gallan Head. Emma Pollock, as well as doing Whatever Gets You Through The Night, is doing a conversation event with an artist and dark skies researcher from Glasgow called Natalie Marr – her song, Dark Skies, also features in our festival trailer. And we’re combining a screening of the film The Rocket Post, introduced by its star Shauna Macdonald, with a talk by Chris Macleod from Lews Castle College about Hebridean connections to the history of space travel – one of which is the story of the Rocket Post.

I’m not sure there's been a festival quite like this before. Edinburgh International Science Festival is perhaps the most obvious comparison given that it has an arts programme as part of it, but ours is quite different because of the possibilities created by the location. Such a diverse programme also means that even if the weather is against us and you don't get to do much stargazing, there are still plenty of things to do - we've even got an indoor planetarium!

In what ways does the environment and culture of Lewis inspire the programme?

In lots of ways Lewis is the perfect place for a festival like this. It has Stornoway, a town with a population big enough to sustain a year-round arts programme at An Lanntair, but it also has these sparsely populated areas where there is almost no light pollution and the skies are incredible. For this first festival we’re doing four events outside of Stornoway – two at Gallan Head and two at Callanish Visitor Centre.

Tickets for these have sold very quickly, which suggests to us that we should definitely do more next year. And I was very conscious of wanting to add a distinctly Hebridean flavour to Whatever Gets You Through The Night – we’ve got a brilliant Lewis band called the Sea Atlas performing, and we’re thrilled that the Lewis singer Ceitlin L R Smith has agreed to select and perform a series of night-time Gaelic songs throughout the evening, drawing on her in-depth knowledge as a Gaelic graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, winner of the Traditional Gold Medal at the Royal National Mòd and a Danny Kyle award winner. Ceitlin has performed all over the world as an ambassador for Gaelic song and we can’t wait to hear what she comes up with.

How does this festival embrace and involve the local community?

Stornoway Astronomical Society and Lews Castle College UHI are both festival partners and will be taking part in a day of free events on the festival’s opening weekend. We’ve also got a strong school and pre-school programme – the planetarium will be doing two days of schools screenings following its day of public screenings, Andy Cannon will be taking Space Ape to two primary schools across the island, and our education team are doing three days of pre-school space-themed events in English and Gaelic.

Gallan Head Community Trust has been an important partner too, and I’m keen to expand on that next year by doing more community-focused events outside of Stornoway. With the events at An Lanntair itself we’ve tried to make the programme as accessible as possible – there’s a whole day of free events on the opening weekend, and we’ve kept ticket prices for everything else as low as we possibly can so people can afford to go to more than one thing. So far it seems to be working. We’ve got a packed two weeks but most events are selling pretty well, with a few sold out already.

Tell us about the photography exhibition and competition: was it hard to choose a winner from such stunning entries?

Very hard! And the amount of interest in the photography competition has been wonderful, not just locally but nationwide. It’s been covered by the BBC, STV, the Scotsman, the Herald, the Press and Journal and the National, among others, and our shortlisted entries have been shared hundreds of times on social media.

We’re exhibiting ten of the best photos at An Lanntair throughout the festival and I suspect it’s going to be one of the most popular things in the programme. We’re especially pleased with our winning photo, by Casey McIntyre from Berneray, which looks fantastic on the cover of the festival programme. We definitely want to do the competition again next year.

Is this likely to be a recurring event?

Thanks to our LEADER funding we already know we can put on a festival in 2020. After that the challenge is to make it sustainable. But the scale of the interest in this first event definitely suggests there’s an appetite for it and we’d be keen for it to happen every year.

What would you like visitors to take away from the experience?

I’d like them to feel that the Hebrides are an extraordinary place to visit in winter as well as summer, and to come again next year! There’s a perception that winters on Lewis can be long and difficult because of the darkness and the often wild weather.

There's some truth to this, but it's also incredibly beautiful. And there's something quite magical about the darkness, especially once you leave Stornoway. That's certainly been my experience, and is something we want to celebrate and share.

Images: Who's Steve by Casey McIntyre; Nigel Henbest; Ceitlin LR Smith; Andy Canon's Space Ape

This article was published on 05 Feb 2019