Scotland glimpses eclipse through the clouds with quiet reverence

THERE was no fuss. The Western Isles don't do fuss. Despite the fact that yesterday's annular solar eclipse comes round only once every 90 years, the Isle of Lewis was not in festival mood.

Four out of five island residents questioned said they were in their beds when the moon passed in front of the sun. It was all a contrast to the hype of a total eclipse in Cornwall four years ago. Then
commentators predicted the county might sink under the weight of millions of people there to see it.

Yesterday was very different. The astronomer Sir Patrick Moore and Queen guitarist Brian May led a small band of eclipse watchers who travelled to the north of Scotland, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, the Faroes and Reykjavik to see the event.

The handful who arrived in Lewis on Friday found no mention of it in the Stornoway Gazette other than a small advert by a local optician, Doig, whose stock of eclipse glasses imported from the US was already sold out.

Latecomers were concerned about watching safely, but in the event they were not needed. The best eye protection was offered by the misty morning light of the outer isles.

At dawn on Saturday, the skies above the white sands of Garry Beach, a popular choice on the east coast of the Lewis, were as soft and grey as a Hebridean sky following an overcast night.

Things did not look promising but a line of cars still gathered hopefully at Tolsta Head above the bay, looking out at the empty seas.

The sun was a hint of red behind the clouds. But miraculously, at 4.40am, a huge red dome became visible through the mist – silently being eaten away by a black shape. A strange and compelling sight, it was greeted with a single whoop of delight before the watchers went quiet.

Right on schedule, at 4.45am, the sun was covered by the black disc of the moon, only a ring of red light visible around it. The island sky was kind, dimming the light so it was safe to look. In fact it was completely invisible through the recommended safety glasses.

One of the best views was to be found on Durness beach in Sutherland, where 30 people had pitched tents on the cliffs above the beach.

As the sun broke through the clouds with the visible moon passing it, beach fires were doused to improve the image which was greeted with cheers from the handful of onlookers.

On Shetland, boat owners running early morning cruises for astronomers were rewarded with clear sight of the full eclipse through light cloud.

But the 500 enthusiasts who travelled the extra distance to Orkney were not so fortunate. Low and slow-moving cloud cover prevented them seeing it.

Lewis, after a brief moment of mild excitement, returned to its own sedate pace of life.

The Sunday Times
June 1st 2003